"In the Navy we are generalists, as opposed to specialists, and that's the way a liberal arts college prepares you. And like a liberal arts college, the Navy believes that an officer should develop the leadership capabilities which will allow you to deal with any contingency."
A Wabash education has ignited the careers of captains of industry, leaders of medical teams, and commanders of respect in the courtroom. But is a liberal arts education-and the Wabash experience-wise preparation for this most demanding vocation of ship's captain?
Ask U.S. Navy Commander Ron Thomas '76 and he'll tell you that a liberal arts education, and especially the Gentleman's Rule that is the sole directive governing behavior at Wabash College, is "the better path" to leadership.
Thomas took command of the U.S.S. Anchorage in ceremonies held August 22, 1997 in San Diego. The oldest "landing ship dock" in the U.S. fleet, the Anchorage has a crew of 369 and carries an air-cushioned landing craft with a contingent of 337 U.S. Marines. The ship is currently deployed in the Persian Gulf, where it controlled the largest offload of amphibious ships in history during Operation Desert Storm.
Command of the Anchorage is "a rare opportunity, and I thank God for it," Thomas says. He's similarly grateful for his four years at Wabash.
"When you consider the United States Navy's philosophy for its officers, a liberal arts education is a better path than most," says the former Wabash history major who served as an ensign, first lieutenant, main propulsion assistant [naval engineer], engineering instructor, and executive officer before taking command of the Anchorage. "In the Navy we are generalists, as opposed to specialists, and that's the way a liberal arts college prepares you. And like a liberal arts college, the Navy believes that an officer should develop the leadership capabilities which will allow you to deal with any contingency."
But it's the application of the Gentleman's Rule at Wabash that Thomas credits most with his development as a leader.
"If I had to say there was one thing that Wabash gave to me that my contemporaries didn't get from whatever school they went to, it would be that rule," Thomas says. "It has to do with leadership-it forces you to operate based on your own personal character as opposed to a set of rules. A person has to look at that one rule-carry yourself as a gentleman at all times-and ask 'what does that mean?' To me it means that your own personal integrity is worth far more than a whole bunch of rules. It's your own personal integrity that's going to make the difference in your life, not your ability to follow a set of rules based upon the errors of those who came before you."
Questions regarding personal integrity in the military have been in the news lately. Such lapses leave the military focusing even more carefully on integrity.
"That's really what the military wants," Thomas says. "Parents need to be able to say 'We're going to send our sons and daughters to you and put their lives in your hands, but we want you to be an upright man.' And how do we define that? You have to define that yourself. It can't be based on rules that evolved because other people made mistakes that we want to avoid."
Another value promoted at Wabash is the necessity for a man to live a "balanced life," a dictum that can be difficult when officers are away from home for six months at a time. Thomas describes keeping strong the ties between himself, his wife, Cleopatra, and his two sons, seven-year-old Matthew and four-year-old Marc, as a "great joy and a great challenge."
"It's a challenge, just like anything that tests your mettle," Thomas says. "You have to make the most of your time together. There's no greater joy you can get at the end of a hard day than to have the boys run out before you can even get the seatbelt unbuckled and want to be close to you. And you can imagine what that's like when you've been gone for six months!
"There's sacrifice, but there's joy as well," Thomas adds. "During my last deployment, I sent Matthew a video of myself reading The Little Engine that Could. It's still one of his favorite stories. And he made it his brother's favorite story.
"You do these things to try to keep your family together, and you pray and keep your faith strong."
Ask Thomas to state the most important quality a man can bring to the position of a commander, and he'll say "integrity" and define it for you.
"A genuine concern for the crew and the ship and what it contributes to the nation's defense," he says. "These things you can't fake. There are 330 guys looking at your every move. They're taking their cue from you. If you don't genuinely care about the men, about the ship, about the mission, they'll be able to tell.
"You can survive without that," the commander of the U.S.S. Anchorage concludes. "But you don't want to survive it-you want to do well. It's the best job the Navy could give me, and I believe I'm the best man for the job."