When you’re the secretary of the Navy, you might expect top billing when a new building is added to the Naval Academy.
But you have to look high on a wall of white and gold in the new Naval Academy alumni center to find Carlos Del Toro’s name inscribed. He’s there with his wife, under the Class of 1983. He’s not even the first graduate listed.
That modest spot reflects the former Navy commander’s $12,500 contribution toward the construction of the $36 million Fluegel Alumni Center opening Friday in Annapolis. Del Toro is invited, but so are the 1,300 other graduates who donated the same amount — known as “plank owners,” a Navy term dating to the commissioning of ships with wooden decks — along with major donors and dignitaries.
Leaders of the Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation hope the opening of the center — a 65,000-square-foot building on 3 acres just outside the Yard — proves to be a watershed moment for both financial support of the academy and services to graduates.
It will provide space for conferences, reunions and professional development, as well as the benefits any organization would get from working in the same building. Hopefully, it will convince more of the 69,000 members to take active roles in the association.
“There comes a time somewhere between five and 10 years, it starts really with their five-year class reunion, that people start to come back,” said Jeff Webb, CEO of the twin nonprofits. “Now, a lot of people don’t come back at all. For years until a reunion, or maybe sadly, a funeral. But they’ll come back sometime between the five- and 10-year point typically, and then it builds from there.”
What graduates want from the association depends on which ones are talking.
Webb, a former Navy SEAL who graduated in 1995, said alumni want more support for class reunions, state chapters and shared interest groups that focus on everything from running to LGBTQ issues.
“They want us to help them plan their reunions so that they don’t have to figure it out on their own,” he said. “They want us to help them run good events, especially now here in this new facility. They want us to show up out of town. When the football team travels, they want us to be there. They want us to be proactive and get to them whether they ask for us or not.”
A vast alumni network is one advantage of graduating from Annapolis. Newly minted Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants have access to a family of sorts through the services, a ready-made connection to about a third of the officer corps.
In civilian life, though, that family is less well-defined. There is a sense inside the Fluegel Center, named for lead donor and 1961 graduate Frederick K. Fluegel and his wife, Donna, that relocating the 100-member staff and its programs from a warren of spaces spread over five buildings will help maximize the value of the network.
“This is something that West Point does really, really well,” said Donald Kennedy, a 1992 graduate and the association’s senior director of events and facilities. “They have an entrepreneur conference they do that taps into the young, intellectual capital — the young folks that have gotten out of the service and they’ve gone on to transition well. They’re leading companies, starting companies. These are the types of alumni services that I think we’ll be able to significantly improve in this facility.”
Other alumni want to influence the direction of the Naval Academy.
Graduates almost uniformly say they care about the academy and the midshipmen who follow them, and many vocal, older graduates seem to lean right politically. In the tradition of alumni of every institution, some view things in Annapolis as going to hell shortly after they left.
Webb, who became CEO of both nonprofits in 2022, said the organization follows the military culture that promotes trust in the command. He said the association has no influence over academy programs or policies, as alumni might expect for their donations at other colleges and universities.
And the alumni are generous, donating $30 million to $40 million a year to the academy through the association and foundation. The money supports low-profile sports, academic programs and professorships, classroom enhancements, educational travel for mids, public outreach and more.
“At least they’re gonna get heard,” Webb said. “They may not get their way. Nobody gets their way all the time. We don’t get to call the shots at the Naval Academy. People want to be heard and we’re here to help with that.”
Some graduates don’t see that as enough and have set up separate organizations, with many attacking diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] programs.
John Cauthen, a 2002 graduate, belongs to the Calvert Task Group, an independent alumni association formed in 2021 to “influence debate and effect change to the present course of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Navy, and our nation.” In op-eds and opinion pieces, he has argued that DEI programs put race, gender and other “immutable characteristics” above merit.
“I think like any other American we can voice our opinion and … try to change some of these creeping issues so they don’t find their way into the institution in ways that, frankly, we believe are harmful,” Cauthen said.
That same critique played out in July when the superintendents of Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy defended the initiatives before a congressional subcommittee created by Republican leaders.
“A variety of backgrounds among our faculty, staff, and most importantly the brigade creates an educational experience enhanced by differing perspectives and life experiences to sharpen critical thinking skills and prepare midshipmen to lead in diverse environments,” Vice Adm. Sean Buck testified just weeks before he retired at the end of his tour as superintendent.
If the alumni association doesn’t use its clout to affect academy policy, it did use it to win approval for the Fluegel Center. Built on Navy-owned land just outside the gates — once the site of academy stables — it required congressional approval for leasing military assets for nonmilitary purposes.
Getting that 50-year agreement through Washington took lobbying by retired Adm. Robert J. Natter, class of 1967. After leaving the Navy, he formed a consulting firm based on his work with congressional committees while in uniform. He was the only major donor to take an active role in pushing the project to completion.
“Unstoppable force,” Webb said of Natter. “Former board chair of our alumni association, current foundation board member. Vietnam Silver Star recipient. He has just been an unstoppable force.”
The result of all that fundraising, planning and lobbying is a building flowing with light from tall, expansive windows. Its wide views look across College Creek to the main academy Yard, St. John’s College and the State House dome. The largest ground-level meeting space can accommodate more than 300 people, and sweeping outdoor areas can host events in less formal settings. Not all have to be tied to the academy.
The main entrance lobby is dazzling white stone and brass leading to a grand staircase surrounded by windows that echo the academy’s Memorial Hall and tie the interior to the creek beyond. Displays tell the story of academy grads, from images of gray-haired eminences to portraits of young men and women still in the midst of their careers.
“The entire vision was to bring visitors, alumni, board and office employees into a space that highlighted the history and honor of the Naval Academy, and to remind all of the significance of the space, area and purpose the alumni association serves,” said Ben Scarbro, an Annapolis native who worked as senior designer for the architecture firm Perkins Eastman.
At the top of the staircase — if there is any doubt left about that — hang words from the War of 1812 familiar to every Navy veteran and intended to send a clear message about the future.
“Don’t give up the ship.”