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Stosz prepares to leave Coast Guard Academy for the next step in her career

New London — At 15, Sandy Stosz spent her summer working on a tobacco farm owned by Consolidated Cigar Corp. in the western Massachusetts stretch of the Connecticut River Valley.

She made about $1.45 an hour, a 25-cent raise from her previous summer job working on a cucumber farm.

"I hate smoking," said Stosz, 55, now a rear admiral preparing to complete her tour as the first female superintendent of a U.S. service academy. "I've never even tried a cigarette in my entire life."

Stosz was one of the few girls who got to tie the tobacco leaves together. When the lath was filled with 25 pairs of leaves she'd tie it off and "sling it under" — and one of the Puerto Rican women who traveled north each summer to work on the farm would take it from her.

The leaves would then go to a group of Puerto Rican men who were standing in big barns where the leaves would hang to dry.

"It gave me empowerment because I wasn't a very confident young girl but I found I could succeed through hard work, and the harder you worked, people noticed you and then you got better jobs, which gave better money," Stosz said. "It probably shaped me to be able to perform in this job here."

That job, of course, is superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

On Monday, Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz's time as the leader of the smallest of the five federal service academies will come to an end. During a change-of-command ceremony she will be relieved of her duties by Rear Adm. James Rendon, who served as assistant superintendent at the academy from 2010 to 2012. But that won't be the end of her Coast Guard career.

At what is the retirement point for most academy superintendents, Stosz will be the first in nearly 30 years to be promoted to vice admiral and become a deputy commandant of the Coast Guard.

It is a rank, and a role, that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate, and if she is confirmed will earn her a third star.

In Washington, Stosz will take on the role of deputy commandant for mission support, a job that puts 17,000 people in her chain of command. The core responsibilities are human resources, engineering, logistics, delivery and acquisitions.

Stosz stands tall and exudes confidence when walking into a room, often with a smile and, when she laughs, she throws her whole head back. It's rare, if not impossible, to see her slouching. Usually sporting her hair in a low bun, she speaks with a southern twang of the Maryland kind, not the Memphis kind.

Born in Ellicott City, Md., as the only girl with three brothers, Stosz grew up watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies and playing football. In the summers they would spend time at their paternal grandparents' farm in Massachusetts.

"I was treated just like the boys," she said. "I think that really did shape me, because every time there was something to do, a hike or an activity or a TV show, it was going to be what the three boys wanted."

Stosz was in her junior year of high school in 1976 when U.S. service academies first admitted women. The Baltimore Sun did a feature article on the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

"A neighbor walked it over to my mom, knowing I was a tomboy, and said, 'Sandy might be interested in this.' So I read it all and it sounded very exciting," Stosz recalled, noting that Naval Academy became her first choice for college.

U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland nominated her for the Naval Academy. Her guidance counselor suggested she also apply to the Coast Guard Academy, which after looking at the literature, Stosz and the counselor decided was "a small Navy."

She heard back from the Coast Guard Academy quickly, and after sending in her $200 deposit she "never looked back."

A member of the third class of women to enroll at the academy, Stosz came to the campus in June 1978.

"A lot of me liked it, but I think all of us looking back, as I read my journals, there's many days I didn't like it," she said.

While she excelled in the military and athletic aspects of cadet life, Stosz, a government major who graduated in 1982 with a 2.67 GPA, said she struggled academically.

Her classmate, retired Coast Guard Reserve Capt. Maureen Steinhouse, tells it differently.

"Sandy was a model cadet," Steinhouse said by email. She was "likeable, responsible, friendly and successful in all aspects of cadet life."

Stosz's middling academic standing led her to a first assignment that most of her classmates viewed as less than desirable. Post-graduation assignments were based on class rank at the time, and cadets would place a card with their rank into the slots on a bulletin board that displayed all of the open billets.

"If you had number one, you could put it in any boat slot any time you wanted, and if someone else was in there you'd take their number out and stick it in the tray in the bottom," Stosz said. "So I found myself in the tray every day."

An icebreaker, the Glacier, which was set to travel to Antarctica, was still open.

"Nobody had their name in the Glacier because it was rumored that it was going to be decommissioned when it got back ... But I took a chance on it," Stosz said. "Nobody bumped me."

It was a match, and within a month of reporting to the Glacier, Stosz was a deck watch officer sailing to Antarctica.

"I was probably happier than the number one person because I had this dream billet that just fell my way through chance and circumstance, so I learned to trust chance and circumstance instead of fighting it," she said.

"It was my best job ever in the Coast Guard," Stosz said, explaining that people expect a lot out of an ensign but also know the person is new.

"You can walk both worlds between the enlisted and the officers because you're learning, so they expect you to spend a lot of time talking with the chiefs and your division petty officers, yet you've got officers you're reporting up to," Stosz added.

Many of the roles Stosz has had in the Coast Guard have been people-centric, and in some case she's asked for it to be that way.

When the time came for her to choose a captain command, the logical path, Stosz explained, would have been to go back to sea on one of the Coast Guard's national security cutters. She is a surface operations officer with 12 years at sea.

Instead she asked for the Coast Guard's recruit training center in Cape May, N.J., where she served as commanding officer from May 2007 until May 2008.

"I thought that what I liked about being at sea was the adventure, going to Antarctica, the sunsets and sunrises, but it wasn't. It was the young people," Stosz said. "When young people first come on board they're really uncertain. ... They carry themselves differently and they salute the wrong end. ... Then two weeks later, they're hauling on a line or they're doing something with some kind of confidence and there's a spring in their step."

Married to Bob Volpe, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander, Stosz has no children, but she often refers to the Corps of Cadets as her children.

"She is very supportive of all the cadets, and I really think she sees us as her 900 children that she wants to see succeed," Ensign Elyse Bobczynski, a member of the Class of 2015, said by email.

Bobczynski first "really met" Stosz when she was "a lowly third-class cadet." It was her turn to be on duty outside the admiral's office, not considered the best assignment by cadets since "no one really wants to be where all the gold is, if you know what I mean," Bobczynski said.

A little into Bobczynski's watch, Stosz came out, as she often did with cadets, and started talking to her. She asked her name, where she was from, what she was majoring in.

"It was nice for her to come out and really get to know the cadets she was Superintendent of because so many don't take the time," Bobczynski said in her email. "She came out, despite her busy schedule and wanted to get know me!"

While her job onboard the Glacier was her favorite, her job at the academy has been the most rewarding, Stosz said.

As an example, she told the story of Aviation Survival Technician Derrian Duryea, a cadet under Stosz's command. Duryea "was excellent in every domain except academics," Stosz said. Academy officials ultimately had to disenroll Duryea during his second year.

"We hated to do it because he was such a great young man but he couldn't graduate from here," Stosz said.

Academy officials worked with and ultimately convinced the Coast Guard's program office in Washington to allow Duryea to go to boot camp and become an enlisted member. He graduated in the top of his class from boot camp and went on to rescue swimmer school, which Stosz said is "the toughest school by a long shot that we have in the Coast Guard."

The culimination of her pride, Stosz said, was to give the speech at Duryea's graduation from rescue swimmer school and graduate him as the top rescue swimmer in his class.

"Seeing young people, young Americans who are passionate to serve their country, enabling them to optimize all their God-given talents in the service to their country, is what makes me most satisfied about this job, looking back on my four years," she said.

Stosz has been very present as the superintendent, said Ensign Justin Sherman, a member of the Class of 2015.

When she joined the cadets on the Barque Eagle, the academy's training sailing ship, Sherman explained, Stosz "would do the cadet-led workouts with us, she'd be out on deck during sail stations, interacted with us during drills and trainings."

She was also a frequent guest in classrooms. Retired Coast Guard Capt. Glenn Sulmasy, who, until recently, headed the humanities department, recalled a time when Stosz visited a multivariable calculus class.

"I remember her saying 'I honestly have no idea what they were writing on the board,'" Sulmasy said.

"Her genuine humility," he added, "is what makes her distinct from other leaders."

Stosz has enhanced the national prominence of the academy, according to Sulmasy, who said that Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the academy twice while she was superintendent.

He added that Stosz testified before Congress in honor of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education, and was featured in a CNN story about being the first female leader of a U.S. service academy.

Locally, Stosz has helped to create the strongest relationship that has ever existed between the academy and the city of New London, according to Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.

Finizio referred to New London being on the cusp of being designated a National Coast Guard City; the planned construction of the National Coast Guard Museum downtown; and the branding of the academy as being identified with New London the way Annapolis signifies the Naval Academy.

That is all happening because Stosz "made it a priority to see the academy as part of the broader New London community," the mayor said.

But you'll never hear Stosz mention any of those achievements. As Sulmasy put it, she preferred the title of 40th superintendent to that of the first female superintendent. She was equally as humble when talking about her next assignment.

"I'm always honored to be asked to continue service. I had no expectation of it as I was publicly saying I thought I was going to be retiring from here," she said. "But it is based on service need, so if the commandant wants me to serve another job, I'm happy to do that."

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

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