At the U.S. Naval Academy, timeless traditions thread from one class to the next, reminding midshipmen that we are all citizens of history. And that applies to both men and women — even though, for 131 years, the academy was one of the largest fraternities in the world.
When Congress mandated that women be admitted to all service academies in 1976, things did not go smoothly in Annapolis. As Sharon Hanley showed up for induction that year, her platoon leader told her: “I don't want women in my school and it will be my mission for the next year to make sure you are gone before I graduate.”
‘No girls on Herndon’
He wasn’t the only male midshipman who felt that way. Upperclassmen sold T-shirts that warned women not to participate in a hallowed academy tradition: Each year, 20-foot-tall Herndon Monument is greased, and freshman plebes must cooperate to climb to the top of the obelisk.
Despite the T-shirts, Sharon Hanley slithered up Herndon Monument. “I was pretty high up and I felt a tug on my ankle. I looked down and there was this guy. He yanked me off, and as I fell, I heard him say, ‘No girls on Herndon.’ ”
Anytime another female classmate clawed her way up, Sharon added, “They pulled us down!”
Why such resistance? The new law let women attend the Naval Academy, but barred them from serving on ships or planes during combat. (One of the last barriers, keeping females off submarines, didn't fall until this past spring.)
Back in ’76, some argued, if women weren't allowed to fight, they shouldn't be at the academy. “Women cannot serve as combat officers,” one upperclassman pointed out, “so I think it’s a waste of a lot of money.”
His comment came two days after America’s Bicentennial, celebrating 200 years of freedom. But sometimes what’s supposed to hold us back only spurs us on: In 1980, Sharon Hanley became one of the first women to graduate from the academy.
All in the family
Today Sharon Hanley is Sharon Hanley Disher, and her children Alison and Brett, twin sister and brother, are about to make history in the same place exactly 30 years later. Their dad, Tim Disher, is an Annapolis graduate, too. The Disher family is the first in American history to send every member to the Naval Academy.
Considering what Sharon went through with the class of 1980, I wondered: “What did you tell Alison before she headed off?”
“Things are much better,” Sharon replied. “But it’s still very difficult.”
But don’t worry about Alison: In this beefcake world, she is no patty melt. She’s barely 5 feet tall, but she plays rugby.
Back in ’76, Sharon was a cheerleader at the academy. The faculty insisted that Navy women replace coeds from other colleges who traditionally made up the squad. “These gals had long hair and jewelry and nails and makeup,” Sharon said with a grin, “and [men] could date them!”
In contrast, their replacements, the academy women, were booed by their own classmates. “They even threw cans of soda at us,” Sharon recalled with a shrug.
Video: Remembering Vietnam’s fallen Today her daughter, Alison, is a company commander. “One of my proudest moments,” Sharon said, holding back tears. “What we [women] did is worth it.”
“Mom went through a lot of challenges, and she had to go through them by herself,” Alison said. Male midshipmen outnumbered the women 50 to one. Alison, in contrast, “had a huge support system,” starting with her brother Brett. The two went through boot camp together.
“My sister kicked some serious butt at the Naval Academy these last four years,” Brett said. This from a man who becomes a Marine lieutenant after graduation this week.
Video: Mother runs to honor soldier son Alison wanted to fly helicopters, but “they told me I was too short.” So instead she leads men who tower over her. “One time I found the tallest plebe and snuck up on him,” Alison recalled with a giggle. “When he turned around, it was like, ‘No one's here!’ ”
The youngest Disher
The Class of 2010 started with a record number of women — nearly 20 percent of the academy. Meanwhile, the freshman class includes the last of Sharon’s kids.
“I’m waiting on you, Mr. Disher.” A female officer directs Matthew to an open door. “Free haircuts right this way, especially you, Mr. Disher!”
Everyone expected Matthew to go to Annapolis, but he waited a month before telling his family that he would. It was his way of deflecting pressure. All the Disher kids survived the tightrope of expectation, but “it’s a lot to deal with growing up,” Matthew admitted.
Video: A final farewell, a new beginning A lot indeed. His dad was a submariner; his grandfather was a Navy pilot; his mom led a construction battalion. “It’s a very dangerous world out there,” Sharon said, hugging her kids, “and what they’ve done is really a noble thing.”
Nobody reaches the top in this world because they are born tall or fast; many hands can push us down or pull us up. Sharon wept as she watched the twins begin their climb up Herndon Monument. “That’s my daughter! And look, she’s very close to the top!”
Afterward, Alison told her mom, “There were boys who said, ‘Ally, give me your hand. Get up here!’ ” They pulled her up.
“For me,” Sharon said, “that story just speaks volumes.”
If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, contact: U.S. Naval Academy Public Affairs
121 Blake Road
Annapolis, MD 21402
Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints