The Herndon Monument Climb
USNA Class of 1963

By James Cheevers, Senior Curator, USNA Museum--January 17, 2008

What has love got to do with it? The Plebe Recognition Ceremony or Herndon Monument Climb at the U.S. Naval Academy had its origins in the fact that plebes or freshmen were not permitted to date or fraternize with women.

Among the locations inside the academy grounds where midshipmen could meet women on a Sunday afternoon was a walkway in the central part of the yard which became known as "Love Lane," later also called "Lover's Lane." The walk was most likely established in new landscaping created after the return of the Naval Academy to Annapolis from its Civil War sojourn in Newport, Rhode Island. The lane was provisioned with benches and led past the Herndon Monument, which had been erected in June 1860, and later the bandstand. Midshipmen were prohibited from walking on "Love Lane" during their plebe year.

Following the graduation of the last section of the class of 1907 in the new armory, later Dahlgren Hall, on June 6, 1907, the plebes, class of 1910, after sitting "through the graduation with ennui ... finally swooped out to swarm around the Herndon Monument, cheering everyone and everything" on what they called "the day we rated youngsters." They had become third classmen or sophomores, also known as youngsters, and they were now permitted to walk on "Love Lane." The "swoop out" became an annual ritual snake dance called "tain't no mo' plebes." In their Lucky Bag yearbook the class of 1911 history states: "Impatiently we waited for the word 'dismissed,' and then what a race for the heretofore forbidden precincts of the Lane! How we sang and capered round the monument! The memory of that bright day is still with us, and perhaps none but our own graduation day can eclipse it."

The ritual snake dance with the wearing of uniform jackets and hats reversed can be traced through pictures, captions, and class histories in the Lucky Bag yearbooks from 1907 onward, learning the nuances in uniform changes, the number of participants, and the eventual increased attention given to the Herndon Monument itself. Finally in 1940, the plebes of the class of 1943 actually began climbing up the monument. The original objective was to have a member of the class perch himself on the very top of the obelisk. It appears in pictorial evidence that the tradition of placing an officer's white hat on the top to show that they had conquered plebe year became the practice beginning in 1947. The further refinement of replacing a plebe "dixie cup" hat placed on top beforehand by the upper classmen with a naval officer's white cover does not come along until 1962.

The first evidence that the shaft of the gray, granite, obelisk-shaped monument was greased to make the climb more difficult appears in the Lucky Bag yearbook of the class of 1952. Their climb took place following the graduation ceremony held on June 3, 1949. Grease was not used again until 1953, when a fairly heavy coat was applied. The gooey residue eventually led to a change in the participants' uniform for the occasion with dress whites replaced by work whites and then yielding to shorts and tee-shirts in more recent times. In 1962, the class of 1965 as plebes dealt with a heavy coat of cosmoline grease by throwing a cargo net over the top to achieve their goal of the hat exchange. In 1969 and 1970 record climbs were set in time because the monument was either lightly greased or not greased at all.

Although it was thought for years that the first recorded time for the Herndon Monument climb had been kept in 1962, it has been discovered that the Navy Times newspaper published in June 1960 the time for Midshipman John M. Truesdell's, NA '63, conquest at 12 minutes. The fastest times have been one minute, thirty seconds in 1969 by the class of 1972, and one minute, fifty seconds in 1973 by the class of 1976. The longest time was recorded in 1995, when the upper classmen played dirty pool and fastened the plebe "dixie cup" hat to the top with the strongest glues and tapes they could find. It took the class of 1998, four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds to accomplish their goal.

At some point in the annual tradition, and probably after greasing added to the difficulty of the challenge, it began being said that the midshipman who got the hat on top would become the first admiral in his class. None have achieved flag rank as of yet. But, in 1973, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, who usually observes the ritual from the steps of the chapel, decided to provide a gesture towards this lore. On June 1, 1973, Vice Admiral William P. Mack presented for the first time, and it is now part of the tradition, a set of admiral's shoulder boards to then Midshipman 3/C Lawrence J. O'Donnell. Upon graduation Mr. O'Donnell selected the Marine Corps negating his chances of ever becoming an admiral.

From the completion of Dahlgren Hall in 1903 until 1957, graduation ceremonies were held in the armory except for a few held outdoors at the seaward end of the hall in Thompson Stadium. It was therefore a short distance to Love Lane and the Herndon Monument and the ritual of "tain't no more plebes" remained the last event of June Week. From 1957 to 1965 graduation exercises were held in the new field house, later Halsey Field House. The Herndon Monument climb continued to follow graduation. But, in 1966, when graduation was moved to the distant new Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, the Plebe Recognition Ceremony was made among the first events of June Week. It was held at 4 p.m. on the Friday afternoon preceding graduation the following Wednesday morning. Instead of the armory or field house and a snake dance, the plebes assembled in Tecumseh Court and at the roar of a cannon signal ran en masse to the Herndon Monument. In more recent years the cannon continued to fire every ten minutes to track the time it takes for the climb.

After 1979, June Week, no longer falling in June, became known as Commissioning Week. Beginning in 1986, the Herndon climb was moved to 2 p.m., and it was later on the Monday afternoon preceding Friday morning graduation exercises. In 2004, the monument climb was moved to 9 a.m. on Thursday preceding Commissioning Week. The reason for this dramatic change in the schedule was to free up hotel space in Annapolis for first class families during Commissioning Week itself.

The Plebe Recognition Ceremony, begun because plebes were denied Love Lane and originally called "tain't no mo' plebes," is a tradition which is practiced only at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has no equivalency at the other service academies. It draws thousands of spectators each year. It will no doubt continue to evolve in the years ahead as rituals do and continue to cap the arduous plebe year for as long as the Herndon Monument can bear it.

Last updated:
January 18, 2008
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