I Knew Admiral Rickover and He Knew Me
BONITA, CA – Last Friday, one regular golfer noted he had an Admiral Rickover story.
When I mentioned last week’s column and the midshipmen who broke his engagement only to be rejected by Rickover, my golfer exclaimed, “I knew that guy. He was my roommate at the Academy.”
The two stories were similar but took different twists at the end. When Rickover noticed the roommate’s grades had slipped, the midshipman confided his fiancé had moved to Annapolis for his senior year, a distraction, but his focus would be on nuclear power if accepted. Then Rickover used the ploy he had used with my story.
“Call you fiancé and cancel the engagement,” Rickover demanded. Doing as told, the midshipman called his fiancé with Rickover listening, he announced, “Honey, I just wanted to tell you I’m going to be an Naval aviator, not a nuclear submariner.”
Then there were two moments when I was A&M’s nuclear power advisor and in Rickover’s gun sight.
Texas A&M was renowned for it’s nuclear engineering program, and one NROTC cadet was a brilliant nuclear engineer. He held a 4.0 grade point average when I counseled him in preparation for the Navy’s Nuclear Power program acceptance process.
“Midshipman (name not included intentionally), I am sure you will get to the final interview with Admiral Rickover,” I commenced, “But I can find no commonality in Rickover’s interviewing techniques to tell you what you should say or do.”
“However,” I continued, “The one consistent thing I’ve found in all of the post-interview comments I’ve read is this: If you make a statement or respond to a question from the admiral, do not recant. When interviewees go back on a previous comment to the admiral, they are not accepted in the program.”
Concluding, I cautioned, “So I advise you to stick to your guns, no matter how hard the admiral tries to dissuade you.”
The young man went to Washington, D.C. and flew through the preliminary process. He entered Rickover’s lair in the late morning. When he refused to budge on a statement, Rickover sent him to the “waiting room,” a small room with a chair and a light bulb where he waited for several hours before being summoned again.
Again Rickover pressed him to recant his position. The midshipman refused. He went back to the room for a couple of more hours. The process was repeated into the late evening before Rickover directed him to stay over and see him again the next morning. After another round of refusing to budge and more time in the “waiting room,” the admiral finally asked the midshipman if he had been coached and by whom.”
The midshipman told the admiral “Lieutenant Commander Jewell” in the NROTC unit had given him some suggestions about how to respond in the interview. He was dismissed. Rickover picked up his phone and called the president of Texas A&M. The Admiral demanded his Navy staff, a.k.a. me, should not counsel midshipmen when they were to interview. Then he called the NROTC Unit Commanding Officer, my direct boss, Colonel Ivins. The next morning the colonel called me in and told me what transpired.
“And you know, Jim, Admiral Rickover called in the middle of supper,” he griped, “I swallowed my taco whole, nearly choked.”
The midshipman? He never made it to submarines. The nukes considered him so valuable after he was commissioned, they sent him straight to the research arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He never wore a uniform, but did very well.
Another prize midshipman was the regimental commander of the Cadet Corps, probably the first Navy cadet to hold the position. He also was brilliant and loved the Aggie Corps. I gave him the same direction, but it did not prove a factor.
Upon his return, he noted the interview went well until Rickover asked him what was entailed in being the regimental commander. The cadet told Rickover he was responsible for leadership of the 3,000 strong corps. Rickover mumbled something to the effect that was his job.
That evening, the TAMU president and Col. Ivins received their second calls from the admiral. “What the heck do you think you’re doing down there,” he screamed at the president, “You teach them nuclear engineering. I’ll take care of the leadership.”
The colonel got off a bit lighter this time. He didn’t swallow his taco.