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Leaders in Blue and Gold: Notable Graduates of the US Naval Academy

For nearly 180 years, the US Naval Academy (USNA) has been a bedrock of Annapolis, with Navy traditions embedded into our city’s culture. Home to over 4,000 midshipmen who spend four years maintaining a rigorous course of study and disciplined training, the Academy requires the utmost dedication, producing graduates who go on to influential roles in every walk of American life. Only 11% of USNA applicants gain acceptance, making it one of the most competitive institutions in the country, and every plebe (member of the first-year class) must get a recommendation from a member of Congress. Due to the high standard of just getting admitted, let alone the demanding curriculum and regimented lifestyle required while enrolled, the USNA naturally attracts a high level of excellence that carries over into graduates’ future endeavors, whether it be politics, sports, space exploration, or rising to the highest roles in the military. The stunning 338-acre US Naval Academy campus is just a short stroll from our bed and breakfast in Annapolis, perfect for exploring the historic stomping grounds of so many distinguished graduates.

naval academy signage

Politics – From Serving Our Country to Serving in Office

With their all-encompassing commitment to national service, it’s no surprise that many US Naval Academy midshipmen go on to careers in the political realm. 31 graduates have served in Congress, and one USNA graduate, Jimmy Carter, holds the unique distinction of reaching the highest office of President. Carter is one of 5 USNA graduates who became state governors after their time at the Academy, serving as governor of his home state, Georgia, before winning the presidential election in 1976 – three decades after graduating from the Academy. Naval students choose specialties while enrolled, and in Carter’s case, he studied at the Submarine School, seeing its vital importance during the WWII battles that coincided with his time at the Academy in the mid-1940s. 

John McCain, who served over three decades as a US senator, is one of the most well-known graduates of the US Naval Academy. His class of 1958 enlisted just as the United States became more involved in the Vietnam War, and he was a prisoner of war for over five years during that conflict, demonstrating his immense bravery during his decorated service as a US Navy pilot. McCain’s Navy roots run as deep as any family ever – beginning with John McCain Sr, his grandfather and the patriarch, who served during World War II and helped advance aircraft carrier operations in the Pacific theater, which played a vital role in the US victory. His son, John McCain Jr, also attended the USNA and served over three decades, including WWII and later, during Vietnam, when he was the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command during the harrowing period while his son was a POW. The younger McCain also has a brother who attended the Academy, and two of his sons followed in their father’s footsteps, continuing one of the most illustrious family traditions of service in US Navy history. We were honored to have the entire John McCain family stay with us at the Annapolis Inn when they were in town to commemorate the graduation of the Senator’s son from the USNA in 2009.

Ross Perot, another decorated graduate of the USNA and notable figure in American politics, shared a complex relationship with John McCain. Their early connection and camaraderie stemmed from Perot’s vocal support for American POWs during the Vietnam War, but in later years, tension arose when Perot ran for President in 1992. McCain saw Perot’s independent candidacy as a threat to the Republicans’ chance of election, and indeed, the Democratic ticket prevailed that year. However, Perot’s vice-presidential pick, Admiral James Stockdale – a USNA graduate in the class of 1947, fellow POW with McCain in the “Hanoi Hilton,” and the highest-ranking naval officer during the seven years he served at the military prison – had a lasting and lifelong influence on the younger McCain, revered for his honor, bravery, and perseverance. Although McCain and Perot disagreed about the ‘92 election, the mutual admiration and respect between Perot, McCain, and Stockdale never ceased, a bond forged by their shared Naval service and formative years at the USNA. 

Rising to the Elite Ranks of Military Service and Professional Sports

All US Naval Academy graduates become “ensigns” on graduation day, commissioned to serve at least five years in the Navy or the Marines. One of the most important aspects of commissioning week in Annapolis, when over 1,000 midshipmen graduate every May, is when they get sworn into active service after receiving their diplomas. Naturally, some USNA graduates pursue military careers even after their five mandatory enlisted years, ascending the military ranks. William Halsey Jr, who graduated from the USNA in the early 1900s, became a hero of WWII Pacific operations and was one of only four Academy graduates to attain the highly-esteemed rank of 5-star fleet admiral. In recent years, Amy McGrath, who graduated from the USNA in 1997, became the first woman to fly the F/A-18 – the same jet that the Blue Angels fly during their awe-inspiring commissioning week demonstration in the skies over Annapolis – in a combat mission. Eight USNA graduates have served as the Secretary of the Navy, while thirty have risen to the highest-ranking Navy role of Chief of Naval Operations. 

All midshipmen must participate in a sport during their four years at the US Naval Academy, providing the mental and physical training to become world-class athletes. The Navy football team has a storied legacy, producing players like quarterback Roger Staubach, who attended the USNA in the early 1960s and won the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation. After serving in Vietnam, he would become one of the most legendary quarterbacks in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls and entering the Hall of Fame. Watching the annual Navy vs Army football game, affectionately called “America’s Game,” is a beloved ritual every December. Another midshipman, David Robinson, who graduated from the USNA in 1987, dominated on the basketball court while playing for the Navy in the Patriot League and earned the 1st overall pick in the NBA draft. He went on to have a remarkable 14-year career as an NBA pro while also playing on three Olympic teams and gaining Hall of Fame status, called “the Admiral” by his teammates – a playful nod to his former days as a student at the US Naval Academy. 

astronaut in outer space

Astronauts – Training at the Naval Academy, Flying into Space

In addition to earthly pursuits, midshipmen have made their mark in the cosmos, with an astonishing 55 USNA graduates becoming astronauts. Alan Shepard, a member of the USNA class of 1945, was an early trailblazer, becoming the first American in space during his NASA flight in 1961. A decade later, in 1971, Shepard became the oldest person to step foot on the moon. Scott Carpenter, a fellow USNA graduate and member of NASA’s esteemed first astronaut class (known as the Mercury Seven), became the second American to orbit Earth.

naval academy, mccool photo

William, ‘Willie’ C. McCool first graduated from USNA in 1983 with an MS in Computer Science and again from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1992 with an MS in aeronautical engineering. In 1996, NASA selected him for two years of training and evaluation before qualifying for flight assignment as a pilot. McCool’s first spaceflight was as the pilot of Space Shuttle Columbia on the STS-107 mission that launched on January 16, 2003. Tragically, he perished on February 1, 2003, when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. To commemorate his achievements at UNSA and NASA, the US Naval Academy constructed a monument on their grounds, less than ten minutes from Annapolis Inn. His widow, Lani McCool, frequently stayed with us at the Annapolis Inn over a five-year period throughout the monument’s construction. 

Another USNA graduate, Charles Bolden, became an astronaut in 1981 after serving decades as a military fighter pilot. Many flight-minded USNA alums go through the challenging Naval Test Pilot School, a select echelon that makes them ideal candidates to become NASA pilots.

All midshipmen also graduate with a Bachelor of Science, and aeronautical engineering is one of the top majors for students with their sights set on space. US Naval Academy graduates will undoubtedly play a part in future space missions, maintaining a long-established connection between the USNA and NASA.  

Stay with us in Annapolis and tour the US Naval Academy, home to our country’s best, brightest, and boldest midshipmen!