“Nice Shirt,” my grandfather said as I walked into his home.
I smiled. I had chosen my outfit carefully–jeans and a worn blue t-shirt with a picture of the SSN-23 USS Jimmy Carter.
A few weeks prior, Secretary Del Toro visited my grandfather, President Jimmy Carter, to tell him that the Naval Academy was naming a building in his honor. I was visiting my grandfather to inform him that I was accepting that honor on his behalf.
I told my grandfather I would talk about his time at Annapolis and his love for the Navy in my speech accepting the naming of Carter Hall. He was humbled at the honor and offered me two pieces of advice. I was instructed to do a good job, and to ensure the Naval Academy did not rename Rickover Hall. I assured him I would do so.
Jimmy Carter’s love for the Navy started as a schoolboy in Plains, Georgia. As a child, he hardly ever left the farm. His sense of adventure came almost entirely from his favorite uncle Tom Gordy, a lieutenant in the Navy. Tom adopted Jimmy as a pen pal and sent him letters from exotic locations like Australia, Japan, China, and the Philippines. On December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan captured the island of Guam and Uncle Tom Gordy. From that moment forward, entrance into the Naval Academy became my grandfather’s singular goal.
Jimmy Carter entered the Academy through the ROTC program at Georgia Tech. He entered as the class of ’47, but because of the war, he and his class graduated in 1946. His first assignment was on the USS Wyoming and USS Mississippi, which were testbeds for the Navy’s new advanced systems of radar, communications, LORAN, fire control, and new weapon systems. Straight out of Annapolis, Jimmy Carter served as the Electronics Officer, overseeing the latest technologies for the United States Armed Forces. He was on the cutting edge, and he was hooked.
Jimmy Carter found that the Navy was making its most exciting advances in the submarine force. His first submarine was the USS Pomfret, which made him fall in love with submarines. Itching to return to the cutting edge, Carter was accepted as the Engineering Officer on the Navy’s first snorkel-design submarine, the K-1. He was aboard the K-1 when he learned that Admiral Rickover was attempting to build a nuclear Navy. His interview for that position proved to be such a profound, foundational moment in my grandfather’s life that he wrote about the interview in the first book and the last book that he ever wrote. My grandfather thought the interview was going poorly, and after two hours, Rickover asked, “Did you do your best?” Carter started to say, “Yes, sir.” But he remembered who this was, and he recalled several of the many times at the Academy when he could have learned more about our allies, enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. He finally gulped and said, “No, sir. I didn’t always do my best.” Admiral Rickover stared at him for a long time, turned his chair around to end the interview, and asked one final question. “Why not?”
Jimmy Carter held that question close to his heart throughout his career in the Navy, as Governor, during his Presidency, and throughout his post-Presidency. The Navy taught my grandfather the importance of discipline, leadership, command, responsibility, and service. But above all, the Navy taught my grandfather to always deliver his best.
After I visited Annapolis, I went to Plains to report back to my grandfather. While Secretary Del Toro told my grandfather that he was to be honored with a building at the Academy, I had the privilege of informing him that his building was formerly Maury Hall. His eyes widened, and he exclaimed, “Maury Hall! That’s a good one!” He told me he knew every room in that building, and he was so overwhelmed that he had tears in his eyes as he quietly contemplated my story of the ceremony. Finally, he told me he knew what Carter Hall would mean to every midshipman that came through the Academy.
I will be forever grateful to Secretary Del Toro and Superintendent Buck for providing me the opportunity to accept Carter Hall on behalf of my grandfather Jimmy Carter. I hope every midshipman who comes through Carter Hall will remember the legacy of President Carter and will always strive to do their best.
Josh Carter is the fourth grandchild of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. He is the host of the Unchanging Principles Podcast. His remarks on this story and his speech from the dedication of Carter Hall is available at www.unchangingprinciples.com.