January 2 was a day of mixed emotions for the author.
Entering the U.S. Naval Academy grounds in Annapolis, Md., my visit had a twofold purpose — one of sadness; the other, joy.
Sixteen years earlier, on January 2, 2000, my father passed away. In 1970, he had reached the pinnacle of success for a naval officer, selected over 33 senior flag officers, to become Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) — the Navy’s highest military position. At 49, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. was then — and still remains today — the youngest man ever to so serve.
He lies buried at the USNA cemetery — a gravesite easily found near the cemetery’s highest point by its large black granite headstone. From there, a soul — living or dead — gets a magnificent view of the Severn River.
Visiting my father’s grave on this special day brought back the sadness of having lost my life’s hero.
Although much time has passed, the pain still remains—but, then, so too does the great pride of having had him as a father for 51 years of my life.
That pride will be shared with others as the U.S. Navy commissions its first-of-class stealth destroyer, the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), in Baltimore, later this year. Most distinct in capability, the ship fittingly bears the name of a man naval historians credit with having been a most distinct leader.
I will not dwell on my father’s storied leadership here other than to comment, among his many talents recognized by naval historians is that he was a visionary.
Ironically, it was his visionary experience in 1974 that provided the second purpose for my visit that day.
Before my father retired in 1974, a dear friend, Vice Admiral Emmett H. Tidd, brought his son, Kurt, to meet my father. Kurt had just been sworn in as a first year midshipman (plebe) at the USNA. A proud father, Emmett wanted to have two of his favorite naval personages meet each other.
Upon being introduced, my father looked the young plebe in the eye and said, “Kurt, I hereby appoint you my numerical replacement in the 21st century!”
While the comment may have been made in jest, Kurt may well have taken it as a subliminal command. The three men never forgot what was said. And, as Kurt continued to rise up through the Navy’s ranks, I remember my father sharing the story with us.
Sadly, my dad would not live long enough to see Kurt pin on his first star of flag rank.
But, on January 2, 2016, Kurt — whose career had taken him from plebe to Vice Admiral — returned to the USNA to receive his fourth star. I proudly attended the ceremony to witness my father’s 42-year-old vision come true.
Now an admiral, Kurt takes over U.S. Southern Command in Miami on Thursday.
When I first learned about Kurt’s selection for admiral, I sent him a congratulatory email, reminding him of my father’s “numerical replacement” comment.
Kurt responded, tongue-in-cheek, perhaps he had failed to fulfill my father’s command, having not been selected as CNO.
I assured him, with only nine four-star admirals authorized for the U.S. Navy, he was well within the margin of error.
That day’s story does not end here, however.
A most unique photograph was taken after Kurt’s promotion — focusing on three distinguished men. While Kurt was the only one in uniform, the other two were also Navy flag officers. While that is not particularly unusual, what made it so was all three flag officers were members of the same family.
In the photograph, Kurt and his older brother, Mark, who had retired in 2014 as a Rear Admiral and Chief of Chaplains, flanked their proud father, Emmett, 93, who had retired in 1976 as a Vice Admiral.
The Tidd family’s collective service to country spans more than a century, tallying nine stars of their combined flag ranks — a remarkable accomplishment for one family.
Stars, undoubtedly, are a part of the Tidd family’s DNA.
As Kurt takes over today at U.S. Southern Command, I wonder whether observing the ceremony too with great pride but invisible to all will be the man who foresaw this day so long ago. If so, he will have the best seat in the house!
Lt. Col. James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer and author. He currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father — Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.