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New London - It's been nearly 50 years since Merle J. Smith Jr. arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as only the second African-American cadet in the institution's history.
Four years later in 1966, Smith became the first black to graduate. He still credits his father, Merle Smith Sr., a colonel in the U.S. Army, for instilling in him the mindset and courage to confront the challenges blacks faced in that era advancing through mostly white organizations.
"He taught me to go forward and if you see something you want to do, go and do it," Smith, 67, of Mystic, recalled Sunday. "He had faced adversity far beyond anything I experienced, and yet he was successful."
That achievement will be formally commemorated for future generations of cadets with the Merle J. Smith Pioneer Award, one of four new annual awards for the academy community announced Sunday during a ceremony at The Crocker House in downtown New London.
The brunch event was part of Eclipse Week, an academy tradition dating back to the early 1970s in which black and other minority alumni visit campus to meet with cadets and offer guidance.
For this inaugural year, each award's namesake was honored before an audience of about 150 cadets, officers, family members, employees and friends of the academy.
Antonio Farias, the academy's chief diversity officer, noted how the Coast Guard today is a far more diverse place than it was in the early 1960s when Smith started as a fourth year.
Minorities now make up 22 percent of the approximately 1,030 cadets. And the school recently ramped up its minority recruitment effort, and a full 34 percent of the class of 2015 are of minority backgrounds, he said.
"This is the most diverse class, and this is by far the strongest class academically that we've ever had by whatever measure," Farias said.
In a dramatic lead up to Smith's introduction, several black cadets and alumni, including Jeanine Menze, the first female African-American Coast Guard pilot, took turns rising to their feet and proclaiming, "I am, because you were first."
Javis L. Wright Jr. is considered the academy's first African-American cadet, entering in the mid-1950s. However, he left the school in 1957 because of health problems.
Smith served 13 years active duty in the Coast Guard after his graduation, including more than 80 missions directing a patrol boat in Vietnam.
He then attended law school, and spent 16 years on the legal staff at Electric Boat while teaching law classes part-time at the academy. He retired from EB in 1995 as its chief counsel. He later returned to the academy to teach, continuing there until last May.
In accepting the honor, Smith told the audience he is inspired by the stories of so many talented cadets and alumni.
"To see the people who have made so much as far as their success, that makes it all worthwhile," Smith said. "I'd like to think that sometimes they feel that I helped."
Other honorees included Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown, a 1978 graduate and the Coast Guard's Pacific Area Commander, who was given the Genesis Award. As a cadet, Brown founded the Genesis Club as a campus support network for cadets of color. The multicultural organization is now called the Genesis Council.
JoAnn P. Miller, a retired civil rights officer for the academy known by some on campus as "Mama Miller" for her kindheartedness, was honored with the Community Award. Frances Neal, a food service worker who comforts homesick cadets, received the Humanitarian Award.
Brown, who is based in California, couldn't make the trip to New London because of the scheduled commissioning of a new Coast Guard cutter. So he sent his appreciation through a video message, and shared some thoughts about society's progress.
"It's clear that we're getting close to the day when we can retire the term 'underrepresented' and replace it with terms like valued and appreciated by all," he said.
The ceremony was organized by the Genesis Council and the academy's Office of Inclusion and Diversity. Eclipse Week is sponsored by Lockheed Martin.