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Farragut upholds tradition of exploring minds, space

Only the U.S. Naval Academy has had more men walk on the moon than the school located in St. Petersburg.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's a snapshot that bridges past and present: a female cadet at the Admiral Farragut Academy museum viewing memorabilia honoring male alumni. A 145-year-old sword. The uniform of an astronaut who walked on the moon.

Once an institution dominated by men, Farragut's cadets possess a diversity of gender and nationality. "The school reflects society," said Cmdr. Roy Wheeler, the academy's alumni director.

Today virtually all of AFA's cadets attend college after graduation. Last year, 48 graduates received ROTC scholarships for academy appointments. "I think (Adm. Farragut) would be pleased with the way we've maintained his good name," Wheeler said.

In 1944, officials from AFA's New Jersey campus purchased the Jungle Country Club Hotel and its 225 acres at 501 Park St. N for $300,000.

Named after David G. Farragut, the Navy's first four-star admiral, the academy opened here on Jan. 12, 1945. Adm. S.S. Robison oversaw 135 cadets, 106 the overflow from the New Jersey school.

A garage evolved into a chapel and gymnasium. Desks and books replaced golf clubs at the pro shop. Hotel rooms became offices and living quarters.

"The rooms were spectacular -- carpeted floors, hotel beds," said George J. Michel Jr., Class of '49. "But it was a very strong military environment."

Reveille at 6:30 a.m. roused cadets before a pre-breakfast inspection. "White gloves and stuff," recalled William West ('48).

While eating, the new cadets or plebes supported a knife between their chest and the table and another between their back and their chair.

Classes, fourth through 12th grade, followed. "When teachers entered the room, you stood up, came to attention and shut up," said West, who is 71.

If not working off demerits, cadets focused on sports after school. "A lot of running double time (for demerits)," said Michel, 69. After dinner, cadets studied until 9:30 p.m.

Taps sounded at 10 p.m., ending a day of "absolutely no social life," Michel recalled. "It was a no-nonsense week." AFA's first graduating class numbered 10.

A new classroom structure and a $75,000 science building adorned the campus by 1958. That same decade, lightning nearly decapitated the northern tower. There were no injuries.

In the early 1960s, local Kristie Helinger attended an AFA dance while in high school. "Very formal, rigid and proper," she said. "You couldn't dance close."

In 1961, cadets Frank Varona and Juan Artega joined the Bay of Pigs invasion to Cuba. Varona was among 1,000 fighters seized and later released for a 500-tractor ransom.

A gymnasium rose in 1962, but other than a 16-classroom building in 1966, growth and enrollment suffered during the Vietnam War.

Once welcome on city streets, cadets had to retreat from anti-war sentiment. "They were getting into too many fights," former director of admissions, Michael Moriarty, once revealed.

Honor returned in 1972 when AFA alumnus Charles Duke boarded Apollo 16 and later walked the moon. "At Admiral Farragut Academy, I fell in love with flying," said Duke ('53).

Alan Shepard Jr. (AFA New Jersey '41), the first American astronaut in space, also set foot on the lunar surface in 1971.

"The only school that's had more men walk the moon is Annapolis," noted Wheeler, who is 42.

The 6,000-square-foot William G. Parrott Memorial Library rose in 1974. Two years later, the frugal Adm. Richard G. Wheeler became AFA's headmaster and ensured the school's survival.

"Stingy would be the word," said Adm. Wheeler, Cmdr. Wheeler's father, who instituted programs such as in-house maintenance to conserve funds. "We had to be astute with our money."

In 1977, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich became the first woman to address an AFA commencement. The academy's first four female cadets enrolled in 1990.

The Jungle Hotel was named a historic landmark and the on-campus Al Wagner Museum was established by 1992. The New Jersey campus, which opened in 1933, closed in 1994.

Today 35 instructors guide 364 cadets, 79 of whom are female, at the non-profit school. "Enrollment is at its highest," said Adm. Wheeler, now AFA's board chairman.

Last year, Farragut acknowledged organizational problems within its lower school (K-2) program when nine students withdrew from the school. "With any new program, you are going to have things that need to be worked out," Cmdr. Wheeler said. "Overall, the parents are happy today."

He predicted that many future male and female graduates will be honored in the school's four-room museum: "Whatever field of endeavors there might be, we could be displaying anything."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at Hartzel@gate.net

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