The U.S. Naval Academy made history last month when Midshipman Kevin Hillery became the first paraplegic to graduate. At the May 29 graduation, he commemorated the landmark occasion with a wheelie off the stage, to the thrill of his 1,098 classmates and an awestruck audience. Among those in the crowd that morning was 10-year old Charlie, a rising fifth grader at Calvert School in Baltimore, who, along with his grandparents and cousin, was watching a relative graduate. For Charlie, seeing the Blue Angels fly over Naval Stadium, participating in the famous hat toss, and witnessing Hillery’s wheelie were thrills he would never forget. Little did he know how intertwined the memories would become.
Hillery’s naval career was nearly thwarted in April 2011 when a tree fell on him during a freak storm while he was mountain biking in a race in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains. His three best friends and Naval Academy classmates, also on the trail, constructed a makeshift shelter out of their bikes and blankets until help could arrive.
Thanks to their bravery and foresight, Hillery survived and pinned his sights on graduating with his classmates this May. His journey to recovery and to graduation was arduous, but Hillery persisted. His father, Frank Hillery, noted that only under extreme stress or duress does one get to witness another’s true spirit, something the experience afforded him with his son.
Every year, the midshipmen look forward to the Naval Academy graduation rite of tossing the distinguished uniform hat, known as a cover. Dating back to 1912, the cover toss symbolizes the graduates’ transition to their next rank as they bid farewell to the classes below them. The tradition has evolved over time, but today children in the audience are invited to the field to collect the covers, often lined with small sums of money.
That morning, Charlie and his 11-year-old cousin stormed Navy field with hundreds of other children, grabbing covers and unearthing the treasures hidden inside. Charlie scored six in all, yielding 55 dollars and an 1812 coin, which he tucked away to share with his fourth grade class. On his head, he placed the hat of Midshipman Kevin Hillery.
For all but one of the graduates, the hats were discarded with the promise of trading up for new ones in their next roles in the Navy. For Hillery, the cover was his last. As a paraplegic, Hillery is considered a medical retiree by the Navy. He will not realize his lifelong dream of becoming a Navy Seal but rather will look forward to civil service, he hopes, as a lawyer. The cover has special significance because it represented his four years in the Naval Academy and the degree he had to fight especially hard to obtain. Due to his changed status, Hillery and his family had to petition the Navy to allow him to graduate. He did not get the okay until a few months before graduation.
Because of his circumstances, Charlie and his dad considered whether Kevin might want his cover back. Before going to sleep that night, Charlie gave the hat to his dad who “promised to keep it safe” while they weighed the decision.
The discussion continued as Charlie returned to school the next day and shared his story with his Calvert classmates. The fourth graders considered the fate of Kevin’s cover: to keep it or to return it. They held a secret vote, laying their heads on their desks and weighing those very questions. In the end, they determined to give Kevin back his cover.
Charlie’s dad telephoned Hillery’s father and together they devised a plan.
The call, for Frank Hillery, was “a miracle…fate” and he called the overture an “unbelievably thoughtful gesture.” His one request was that Charlie present the hat, since he had been the one to find it.
Charlie and his dad flew to Concord, Massachusetts, a town close to the Hillery’s home outside Boston, with a box Charlie and his mom had decorated the night before. Nestled in tissue was Kevin Hillery’s cover. The following morning, Charlie composed a note to Hillery congratulating him on his graduation and wishing him luck with law school. He added, “you chose a great team with the Navy. If you move to Maryland, I invite you to choose a new favorite football team.” In an effort to convert the Patriots fan, Charlie included a few choice Ravens trading cards in the box.
Whether or not Hillery changes teams as he looks forward to law school in Washington, D.C., the meeting was incredibly meaningful for both families, especially the dads. As thanks for what Kevin called Charlie’s “selfless and thoughtful” act, he gave him a cover his cousin had collected at graduation in his own search for Kevin’s hat.
Post-graduation, Hillery is cramming for the LSAT and applying to D.C. law schools. A friend of Hillery’s recently released an online image depicting Hillery wheeling toward the podium to collect his degree. The caption reads, “Perseverance.” His journey to his May graduation was indeed won by incredible perseverance and the support and determination of friends and family.
Earlier this month, Charlie celebrated his own graduation from Calvert’s Lower School to its Middle School. Like the Naval Academy, Calvert has traditions drawn from its founding. Among these, are the guiding principles known as the four pillars: honor, respect, compassion and responsibility. At the school’s final assembly, Charlie received the Four Pillars Award, an honor bestowed on him by his peers.
Charlie’s own journey to Boston to meet Hillery and return his cover signifies those very characteristics for which he has been recognized. For a 10-year-old boy, a naval midshipman, and their families, however, Charlie and Kevin’s entwining stories are a reminder of the power of the human spirit.