The call was utterly unexpected. It came as Chuck Larson was winding down a glorious career -- easily one of the most impressive of his generation of military men -- and preparing to settle into the quiet civilian life he had long promised his wife, tired of the travel, the whirl of official events.

But then came the call: Would the admiral return to public service? To a leadership role in a struggling organization, a visible and demanding post that would delay his retirement at least four years?

Adm. Charles R. Larson mulled the offer for weeks but ultimately said yes. Yes, he would sign on as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, a job he had held once before and a job considered well beneath the talents of a four-star like himself -- yet one with no guarantees of success.

That was 1994. But it was a strikingly similar crossroads to the one Larson faced this year when at 65 and firmly retired he was enlisted to join gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) as her running mate.

Many who had watched his career were stunned. Larson had bitterly resented the media glare directed at his handling of a spate of student arrests and misconduct cases in his second tour at the Naval Academy. And he seemed deeply wounded by the political whiplash that followed. Why would he plunge into the far scrappier fishbowl of Maryland electoral politics?

Larson tends to answer that question with bland phrases about "public service and the opportunity to make a difference" that do little to sway detractors who believe he is driven by an inflated ego or an unending thirst for power.

Yet those who know Larson well see a more profound truth between the lines of the platitudes. For this straight-arrow son of the Plains, they say, it's not merely a willingness to serve -- it's more like a compulsion to accept any challenge thrown his way.

"When someone says, 'Will you serve?' it's difficult for him to say, 'No, I will not serve,' " said his wife, Sally Larson. "It's hard for him not to answer that call."

She calls him her "Boy Scout," and it's easy to see why. At 6-feet-2, with high Nordic cheekbones, Larson has the room-dominating confidence of a four-star admiral but also a buoyant Midwestern tone and a vaguely earnest manner of blinking behind his wire-framed glasses. It was that command presence, and the effect his military career could have on moderate and conservative voters, that made Larson an attractive choice for Townsend's running mate.

In the early summer, with polls showing the Democrat leading comfortably, it made sense to bring in a former Republican who could appeal to swing voters. But as the race has drawn to a dead heat, Townsend has focused instead on her liberal base, and polls show few voters are swayed by her choice for lieutenant governor.

The poll results do not bother Larson. "I think I've made some good inroads and some good impressions in important places," he said. "I have a lot of friends who wouldn't have supported this ticket who are now, and they haven't been polled."

At the Naval Academy, the South Dakota native quickly established himself as a stellar student, elected class president by his peers and appointed brigade commander, the highest-ranking midshipman office, by the administration.

"He kind of stood out from the rest of the group," said Frank Gamboa, another member of the class of 1958. "He had a certain leadership charisma. You knew he was destined for good things and high rank."

Larson's scrupulous conduct put him in sharp contrast to his close friend and cohort John McCain, now the senior Republican senator from Arizona but then a notorious carouser who graduated near the bottom of the class.

Larson, in comparison, "was not what you'd call colorful," Gamboa said. "He was a very sober, responsible guy." Yet friends also remember him as great source of fun -- the owner of a fast and sporty Austin-Healy convertible.

After graduation, he won a coveted slot to fly Skyraider planes from aircraft carriers. Yet he maintained a surprisingly modest demeanor, his wife recalled. Sally, an admiral's daughter whom Larson met in Jacksonville in 1960, knew nothing of his reputation until her midshipman brother expressed shock that she was dating "the Chuck Larson."

Larson flew until the Skyraiders were phased out in 1963, then made a rare request to transfer to the new class of nuclear submarines. He quickly moved up the career ladder, and served a tour as President Richard M. Nixon's naval aide, toting the black bag containing the codes for launching nuclear missiles. Meanwhile, he and Sally raised three daughters -- Sigrid, Erica and Kirsten.

In 1973, he was assigned command of the USS Halibut, an intelligence-gathering submarine whose dangerous missions included planting a tap on a Soviet communications line on the ocean floor.

"I did some special things, some things that had never been done before," he said. "It gave me some pride to go out there on the frontier of technology, totally on your own making good decisions." In 1979, at age 43, he became the second-youngest admiral in U.S. history.

His crowning assignment came when he was awarded a fourth star and named commander in chief of U.S. Pacific forces, a job overseeing all U.S. military branches over more than half the globe -- "one of the last real kingdoms in the world," a friend noted.

In that role, Larson was the first U.S. military officer to visit China after Tiananmen Square and a key advocate for restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

After his tour in the Pacific, he was called back to help the academy recover from a devastating cheating scandal. Larson was credited with restoring discipline and instituting an ethics curriculum.

But new trouble blossomed when several midshipman were arrested on charges that included drug use, car theft and sexual assault. The cases drew national news coverage and questions about the soundness of the academy.

Larson often appeared frustrated or irate over the attention given to the burgeoning scandals, and some believed his reaction may have exacerbated the scrutiny. He restricted media access to campus and yanked classroom duties away from a professor who had written an essay in The Washington Post that was critical of the academy. Later, Larson was criticized for not notifying Navy investigators when Texas police began investigating one midshipman in a murder case.

A panel he convened to assess the academy a year later largely gave the place a clean bill of health but criticized the administration for reacting to crises in a "defensive" manner that left the outside world unduly suspicious.

Those close to Larson say he was crushed by the idea that his integrity would be questioned. "He'd been the golden boy for so long, I think it really did bother him," said Franz Wiedemann, a '58 classmate.

Larson remains defiant when asked about lessons from that crucible of media and politics: "I learned about loyalty up and loyalty down. If you're going to put people in a position of power, you have to have faith in them."

After his retirement in 1998, Larson was tapped to lead a panel evaluating funding and governance of Maryland's public universities and was appointed to the state's Board of Regents. By many accounts, he was a key player in the behind-the-scenes effort to dissuade Gov. Parris N. Glendening from seeking the chancellorship of the university system. Larson will not confirm that, though he acknowledges he covertly recruited William E. Kirwan, who was then the president of Ohio State University, to take the job.

Larson has said he expected his job in a Townsend administration to be chairman of the regents and was surprised to be offered the role of lieutenant governor.

Ultimately, he decided to go for it. "I can have an impact," he said, and still not give up his private life entirely.

"I can still go to the farmer's market. I can still go get bagels at the Giant on weekends," he said. "I've had my time in command. I don't mind being the No. 2."

Adm. Charles R. Larson talks with Joyce Savage during a campaign stop at the Nook & Monk restaurant in Leonardtown.