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Groton — Members of the U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 1959 gathered in Groton, in Annapolis and in front of computers across the country Wednesday to celebrate the launching of a book about their careers and to honor the officer who inspired them.
Tears came to retired Rear Adm. Doug Volgenau's eyes as his classmates presented him with the first copy of the book, "Sea Stories from The Color Company," at his home in Groton Long Point.
As a young midshipman, Volgenau was the 8th Company commander, and he led the group as they competed and won the title of Color Company for being the best in the brigade. The book is a collection of short life accounts written by 37 members of the company.
Fredrick Yeatts, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the member of the class who collected the stories and published the book, said as he gave Volgenau the first copy that he was doing so on behalf of the company "in grateful appreciation for your superb leadership at the Naval Academy, in the Navy, and most of all for your inspiration and your continued friendship with each of us."
Volgenau, 75, was diagnosed in March 2012 with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that is often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. He communicates by typing on a tablet computer, which sometimes mispronounces his words. His wife, Sue, spoke on his behalf Wednesday.
When Volgenau decided his company should "make a run for the colors" in the fall of 1958, the 8th was ranked nearly last among the 24 companies. But it comprised an "unusual group of midshipmen and future leaders," Sue Volgenau read from the speech her husband had prepared.
"Most of us originated from modest beginnings with a work ethic that helped us achieve our goals. Many accomplished significant things in their lives. All served their country with courage, honor and integrity," she read.
The commandant of midshipmen at the academy, Capt. William D. Byrne Jr., watched the presentation Wednesday with a group that had assembled at the academy in Annapolis, Md. Fifteen members of the class and the president of the Alumni Association also participated from Annapolis.
Byrne said he could not thank them enough for the example they set for the classes that followed. A copy of the book will be kept at the academy's library to give future midshipmen a glimpse of what their careers could be like.
Yeatts asked his classmates to write about their careers last year after he read a piece Jim Collins, a retired Navy captain from the class, wrote about his career in the submarine force for his high school alumni publication in South Pasadena, Calif. Collins now lives in Mystic.
Yeatts, of Bedford, Mass., said some of the officers were reluctant to write about themselves, but Volgenau's support for the project convinced them to participate.
Volgenau wrote the introduction to the 567-page book, as well as his own story from his 32-year career. He commanded the USS Billfish in Groton, Submarine Squadron Ten when it was at State Pier in New London, and the Naval Underwater Systems Center, which included laboratories in New London and Newport, R.I.
Collins, Richard Madden, who served in the Marine Corps, and Jim Murphy, who served in the Navy, also gathered in Groton. Retired Rear Adm. John B. Padgett III, president of the Naval Submarine League, said he attended to represent his organization and to pay tribute to Volgenau, a good friend.
The presentation was webcast so classmates who could not travel to Groton or Annapolis could watch as well.
After, Volgenau, using his tablet, said the event was "wonderful." He said he was emotional, in part, because "it is difficult when you can't express your feelings" and also because he "deeply appreciated" the copy of the book he received.
"You saw today a group of dedicated, hard-working Americans from our generation," he wrote. "They are generous, thoughtful and patriotic."