If you need to find Jim Cheevers, he’ll probably be sitting at his computer with his back facing the door. Surrounded by his books and stacks of paper. Never too far from his phone.
He’ll always responds with: “Naval Academy Museum, Mr. Cheevers.”
On this day, a Friday, he’s logging information about a donated pair of Army-Navy football game tickets from 1914. Both teams had winning seasons, Cheevers said, but neither went to a bowl game that year. That’s because bowl games hadn’t been created yet, of course.
He then goes on about how college football had had an East-West game, in which Michigan and Stanford played in Pasadena, Calif. It was sponsored by the Rose Bowl Association. And did you know that the Naval Academy actually played in one of the first Rose Bowl games, in 1924? It tied against Washington, the senior curator said.
He spewed off this information with no notes or books in front of him. Just from memory.
In the 50 years Cheevers has worked at the museum, he’s been a reliable resource to alumni who call him from a bar about a bet they’ve made, a midshipman desperately trying to get an A on a history paper or a superintendent acclimating to his new role as head of the academy.
Cheevers, 75, jokes that he doesn’t remember his age or birthday, but knows that George Blake, the fifth superintendent of the academy, lived from 1802 to 1871.
“For some reason I have fun,” Cheevers said. “I may be crazy.”
The historian will be retiring in coming months, making this past Commissioning Week his last. So how does the Naval Academy go about replacing him?
You simply can’t, friends and co-workers said.
Cheevers was the kid who went to nature camp. A history major at the College of William & Mary, he took every history class possible. He figured he’d join the military and then become a teacher.
He applied to Officer Candidate School after graduation, but the Navy wouldn’t take him because a bout with pneumonia left a pesky spot on his lung. So he volunteered for the draft.
After basic training, he was assigned to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. The officers found out he could type and had him work in headquarters. One day, an officer told him he needed Cheevers, 22 at the time, to run the 2nd Infantry Division Historical Center.
He has worked in a museum ever since.
Cheevers credits the military for allowing him to discover a career where he’ll happily work 12-hour days and never get bored. “People always ask me how I remember it all,” he said. “I think it’s because I enjoy what I’m learning.”
When Cheevers applied to the academy’s museum to be curator of collections in 1967, it was originally his backup plan. He thought he wanted to work at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington but soon realized he couldn’t climb the ranks there.
He had never visited Annapolis and knew nothing about the Naval Academy. He took the job anyway.
At Cheevers’s retirement luncheon, the Naval Academy superintendent said he figured the historian would stay on the Yard forever. Former colleagues called him a renaissance man. The mayor named May 17 “Jim Cheevers Day.”
“He knows more things than most of us have ever thought,” former superintendent Virgil Hill, a retired rear admiral, said last week as 150 of Cheevers’s friends, family and former co-workers celebrated his career at the Naval Academy Club.
He easily could have had 500 people there, said Dolly Pantelides, a close friend and administrative assistant at the museum. Cheevers has been active in community organizations such as the Friends of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, Friends of St. John’s College and Historic Annapolis — just to name a few. He’s also in high demand on the garden club speaker circuit (he’s an expert on birds).
Friends call him kind and generous, saying he rarely misses a birthday or an anniversary.
“I swear he knows who married who, who their children were and what their children did, whether this child was good or not so good,” said Scott Harmon, former museum director. “He knows everyone in Annapolis, and most people in Annapolis know him.”
He’s an “adopted” member of several families in the area. And while he doesn’t have any children, Sheila Wimbush and Jeannie Allen call him their uncle. Their aunt, Lillie Mae Chase, who was a member of the janitorial staff at the museum, was a mother figure to Cheevers. When their mother died in a car accident when they were young, Cheevers stepped in as a paternal figure.
Cheevers taught them how to cook Italian food by throwing spaghetti against the wall and signed them up for swimming classes at the Naval Academy. He exposed them not only to the academy, but also to arts and culture, they said.
The sisters, who are African American, added that because Annapolis was still segregated during the 1960s and ’70s, you didn’t find too many white people hanging out in their communities. He taught them to not see color.
“It wasn’t the happiest of childhoods during that time,” Wimbush said of her mother’s death. “But the bubbly personality I have, and my spirit, is from him.”
When he turned 75 this year, Cheevers knew it was time to go. His arthritis was getting worse. He started popping a Tylenol to get through the work day.
The historian believes he’s accomplished what he’s wanted to do. He’s proud of the exhibits he’s curated, including one in which he compared 100 years of exploration, ranging from Ferdinand Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the Earth to the Apollo space program that landed on the moon.
He’s met dignitaries such as academy graduate and former president Jimmy Carter and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Museum director Claude Berube described Cheevers’s impact as “incalculable.” What takes some staffers weeks to research takes Cheevers minutes to remember, Berube said. The director believes Cheevers knows information about all of the museum’s 1,400 pieces. Berube added that once Cheevers leaves, he’ll probably restructure the position.
“We can’t replace 50 years of knowledge,” Berube said. “I secretly hoped he would stay forever, or until Google figured out how to download people’s brains.”
Cheevers said he’ll still be around for Naval Academy questions, and he’s finally going to cave and buy a personal computer for retirement. He hopes to go on a cross-country driving trip and travel to Spain. He plans to help local nonprofits with their archives during his retirement.
“I’m sure I’ll probably have a rough time not staying as regimented as I have been,” Cheevers admitted.
He’s not sure when his official last day will be, as his retirement paperwork is still being processed. So in the meantime, he’s working on putting together notes of frequently asked questions for the museum.
As always, he’ll be sitting at his computer with his back facing the door. If someone calls with a question, he’ll undoubtedly answer: “Naval Academy Museum, Mr. Cheevers.”