Museum Exhibit Highlights Ring Tradition

By Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, USNR and James W. Cheevers

The U.S. Naval Academy Museum recently borrowed one of the binnacles used for the Ring Dance for display as an extended exhibit. The concept was proposed by General Carlton Fulford ’66, USMC (Ret.), and quickly adopted by the Museum. Located on the first deck next to the ring exhibit, the binnacle will be on display permanently except for the week of Ring Dance. Water from the Seven Seas will not be in the binnacle while on display. However, the binnacle will be made available for reunions for Alumni to re-dip their rings by scheduling a special visit through the Alumni Association.

The first known exhibition of all the class rings was assembled in 1935 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Naval Academy. Then-Lieutenant Wade DeWeese, USN, of the Class of 1920 was curator of the Museum and organized the exhibition. He had to borrow and return many of the rings from living alumni. As a result, however, Tiffany and Company and Bailey, Banks and Biddle Company, both of whom had produced many of the rings in the past, agreed to donate replica rings for each class as they had the archived molds on hand.

By the time the new USNA Museum building opened in 1939, it was possible to re-establish an exhibition of the class rings. The policy was also devised that the Museum would include a manufacturer’s sample or replica ring to begin and the first ring offered of a deceased member of the class would replace the replica to honor the alumnus and represent their class.

Eventually, the Museum and the Alumni Association accumulated enough additional rings for each class to make a second ring exhibit in historic Ogle Hall. Currently, the manufacturers provide two marked sample rings for the Museum and for the Alumni Association.

The Museum is missing class rings for 1873, 1877 and 1880; it has been said that these classes did not have rings. However, an 1873 ring is known to exist and is privately owned. The Class of 1873 only had 34 graduates so the rings are scarce. The Class of 1877 only had 45 graduates and the Class of 1880 only had 79. It was previously thought that 1875 had no ring, but one was found and donated in 2009. Same for 1879; one was donated in 1972.

Nine of the 10 classes between 1873 and 1882 graduated both cadet midshipmen and cadet engineers. In at least the classes of 1873 and 1878 the midshipmen and the engineers had different ring designs. Although all the graduates in 1883 and 1884 were graduated as naval cadets, the midshipmen and the engineers each had different ring designs for those years, too. The Museum has specimens of these rings.

There have been a few class rings given to honorary members of the class. Admiral David Dixon Porter was the first person so honored by the Class of 1869. The artist-illustrator Howard Chandler Christy was made an honorary member of the Class of 1921 and received a class ring.

All the individual class rings in the Museum’s exhibit have stories to tell of the individual to whom they belonged. Ring owners died in action, others from disease and some in horrible accidents. However, many had long and successful careers.

Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, USNR, is the director and James W. Cheevers is the senior curator of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Thanks to Greg Overbeck ’69, Museum volunteer, who has spent considerable time in researching and writing short biographies of each original owner. These biographies will soon be digitized and available to those visiting the Class Ring exhibit in the Museum.

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1869
The Naval Academy establishes a ring program.

1899
The Naval Academy coat of arms, or crest, was adopted by the Navy Department on 25 January. It was designed by Park Benjamin, of the Class of 1867.

1900
The Naval Academy begins to make miniature class rings for mothers and girlfriends. Many miniature rings have served as engagement rings over the years.

1906
Naval Academy rings began featuring the USNA crest on one side of the ring and the respective class crest on the opposite.

1925
The Ring Dance was made an annual event to replace the tradition of jumping off the seawall to christen a ring. In 1924, a midshipman died when he dove off the wall and hit his head on rocks.

1941
A binnacle was used for the first time to support the dish with water from the Seven Seas. However, what water was used at the beginning of the dance is unknown. There is evidence from 1937 to support water from the Seven Seas was used to baptize the rings. A compass remained as part of the presentation and, at some point, the compass was removed and the binnacle was used as a well for the water.

1960
CAPT Edward L. Beach Jr. ’39, USN, collected water from the Seven Seas during the first circumnavigation of the world aboard Triton. Now, waters from the Seven Seas are collected by alumni and friends throughout the world to add to the binnacle.

1978
Naval Academy rings were manufactured to include a ring made for a woman as women became a part of the Brigade of Midshipmen.

 

Source: Membership and Services, Shipmate 2016

 

© 2012 United States Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation