Ramrod straight naval officers turned misty-eyed and flushed today as the casket of the man they called a rising star was lowered into soil of the Annapolis Naval Academy Cemetery.
The sudden death Monday of Navy Commodore Leslie Nelson Palmer, 47, second in command at the U.S. Naval Academy here, shook admirals and plebes who remembered him for the way he walked the line between meticulous professionalism and a friendly interest in even the newest students.
"Les" Palmer, the academy's commandant of midshipmen who died of a heart attack, was "very much a gentleman . . . there was nothing false about him" said Rear Adm. Charles R. Larson, the Naval Academy superintendent.
"He brought renewed discipline and a new spark to things . . . and he brought new class to the place," explained Lt. Sue Jordon, a protocol officer for the superintendent.
To Capt. Roger Erickson, who had known Palmer for 29 years, "He would look you in the eye and you knew you could trust him."
With a reputation for an unwavering adherence to military professionalism, Palmer also was known by this year's plebes, or freshmen, as the commandant who gave them an extra hour of late-night recreation time after Navy defeated the University of South Carolina's football team.
"It happens in a millennium that we can stay out until 1 in the morning," said David Rogers. "He knew what we were up to at all times. And he knew a lot of things you have to regard with a wink."
National security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, with tears in his eyes, tried to speak of his ex-roommate from the academy and personal friend after the burial service. "He was an inspirational leader," McFarlane said before his voice broke off and he quickly walked away.
Palmer, said midshipmen at the memorial service, was someone they aspired to imitate. "He's the kind of guy they are trying to develop us into -- a national leader," said Mike Klooster, a senior from Arizona and one of about 150 midshipmen who attended the funeral.
Palmer's career took him on sea tours in Lebanese and Vietnamese waters in the 1950s and 1960s and to the offices of a secretary of the Navy and chief naval aide to then-vice president Spiro Agnew. His decorations included four Legions of Merit, the Navy Meritorious Service Medal and two awards of the Navy Commendation Medal with combat "v" device.
While his colleagues saw Palmer as a man who had succeeded in his military career, students looked at him as a personal role model. In voices barely audible over the more than 1,000 mourners who walked in the honor procession from the academy's chapel to the green cemetery hill overlooking Chesapeake Bay, several midshipmen gave their impressions of the man who was their dean of students less than a year.
They were impressed that Palmer often ate meals with them and showed up in classes. He knew the varsity players by their first names and gave pep talks in the locker room. At 6 a.m. he ran with the plebes during the first and most strenuous week at school.
"I was really shocked" by his death, said Anthony Wells, a junior from Wheaton. "I think the whole brigade really liked him. He wasn't like a commanding officer."
Without exception, midshipmen said Palmer's support for athletics, which makes up the majority of a midshipman's recreational time, was his most important morale-boosting tool. (He once used a helicopter to get to two same-day games on time.)
Ironically, it was after a long jog and 80 sit-ups that he collapsed from a heart attack in his garage