By HEATHER MONGILIOCAPITAL GAZETTE |SEP 16, 2020 AT 6:00 AM
Plebe year was difficult for retired Rear Adm. James McNeal. It was for everyone in the class of 1986.
Now, the only thing standing in the way of the end of plebe year was a grey obelisk. The Herndon Monument.
“I immediately jumped into the mix,” McNeal said.
He was at the base, back to the monument, helping the other members of his class up the obelisk. The goal: removing the “Dixie cup.”
“I was drenched like I had just jumped into a swimming pool of sweat,” McNeal said.[
It’s been more than 35 years since McNeal completed the Herndon Climb, but he and Scott Tomasheski have revisited McNeal’s climb as well as the history of the Herndon Climb for their book, “The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition.”
While McNeal was the one to complete the Herndon Climb, the book idea was Tomasheski’s.
“There has never been a book about it,” Tomasheski said.
He first heard about the climb from ESPN best plays, with the episode ranking the Herndon Climb as the no. 6 play. Tomasheski emailed McNeal to see if he had heard of the climb, and McNeal responded that it was the second proudest moment of his life — commissioning was the first.
After doing a bit more research, Tomasheski thought it would make a good book and reached out to McNeal to partner on it. McNeal responded quickly, saying it would be a good idea.
McNeal did the interviews, while Tomasheski did the writing.
People wanted to talk, McNeal said. They had 100% cooperation from the people they reached out to about the Herndon Climb, including those they found through social media sites such as LinkedIn.
This included interviews with women, who detailed how the Herndon Climb was not the same achievement as it was for their male counterparts. McNeal and Tomasheski listened to stories about how women would be pulled off of the monument by their male classmates.
“But I saw it,” McNeal said. “I was a witness to it, and I did nothing to stop it. So I’m not, I wasn’t shocked…I knew that was the case. Now, I didn’t pull anybody down. But I also didn’t stop anybody from doing it either.”
McNeal’s wife is also a graduate of the Naval Academy, and while she is not an emotional person, McNeal said, she was moved by the chapter on the Herndon Climb and the female midshipmen.
There was never any reconciliation for how poorly they were treated, McNeal said. The book might provide that in a way by publicly acknowledging it.
The men are looking forward to a time when a female midshipman is the one to grab the cap off of the Herndon Monument.
The authors also spoke with the family of Kristen Dickmann, a Naval Academy midshipman who died in 2008. That year, her “Dixie cup” was placed on the Herndon Monument. The cover placed on the monument, to signal the completion, also belonged to Dickmann.
Tomasheski’s favorite chapter is the 12th one, which details the most recent climb in 2019.
2019 United States Naval Academy Herndon Climb
Plebes pose for a picture prior to the start of the “climb.” (Joshua McKerrow / The Capital)1 / 23
They attended the climb that year, interviewing everyone from the superintendent of the Naval Academy to the youngsters greasing the obelisk. It’s an exciting event to watch, and Tomasheski said he thinks they were able to capture the lively environment in the chapter.
Beyond specific tales of the Herndon Climb, the book details the history of the annual event. The earliest reference was in 1904, Tomasheski said, but it was not always a climb.
It first started as a part of the academy that plebes were not allowed to be around. After graduation, the plebes, now technically 3rd class midshipmen, would dance around it.
Each year, the plebes would do something more to make it their own, with the climb starting before the 1940s.
In the 1940s, the upperclassmen began to grease the monument, making it harder for the plebes to climb it, Tomasheski said. The tradition has not changed since the 1960s.
The book also contains Herndon’s history, including the heroic rescue of women and children that led to a monument in his honor. Herndon died in that same shipwreck.
This year, there was no Herndon Climb due to the coronavirus pandemic that has effected the Naval Academy. Instead, the book might fill the hole for those who look forward to the annual event each year.
Tomasheski and McNeal said they look forward to when the class of 2023 does get to do a Herndon Climb so that they can officially complete their plebe year, even if they are considered youngsters now.
Of course, the cancellation of Naval Academy events also affected the two authors as they planned to hold in-person signings of the book at reunions and football games.
“It’s hard to do word of mouth when everyone is wearing a mask,” McNeal said.
Heather Mongilio is the Report For America corps member with the Capital Gazette, where she covers military affairs. Mongilio previously reported at The Frederick News-Post and the Carroll County Times. She earned a master’s degree in science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree from American University