Nestled amongst the 103-acre campus of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy are a variety of memorials and plaques, each with its own story about a moment or person in the service’s history. Recently a plaque was added recognizing a different story, one of a bear keeper and a class’ continued commitment to each other.
During a recent alumni reunion, retired Cmdr. Jennifer Yount was walking through a building on Academy grounds during a football game, where she encountered two of her classmates engaged in conversation.
As she joined in conversation with them, she realized the sloping grounds of the Academy campus they’d easily traversed as cadets were no longer as accessible to her aging peers. While mobility-related difficulties can be age related, they can also be due to factors such as disease and accidents, affecting approximately 13% of adults in the United States.
As Yount reflected on her classmates’ inability to participate in watching the football game and the impacts of limited mobility, she recalled one classmate in particular: Lt. j.g. Keith Culver.
Culver is remembered as loving, caring, and a lifelong friend. When sharing memories of Culver, his classmates’ faces light up with smiles. Culver was one of the Academy’s last bear keepers, responsible for the beloved Objee XXVII. Classmates often break out into laughter at the impossibly comical situations Culver found himself in while navigating life as a cadet while also caring for a nearly 400-pound bear.
Shortly after commissioning, Culver was diagnosed with early onset diabetes forcing a medical retirement from the service he loved. His friends are challenged to find words to adequately describe the pain of watching Culver struggle with a disease that significantly restricted his mobility. Culver passed away due to complications from his disease at the age of 57 and is interred in the Academy’s columbarium in Crown Park.
Yount noted Culver’s strength and dedication to his classmates throughout, “He wasn’t going to let the disease get him down. He was always there for you.”
Culver’s spirit is certainly reflected in the class of 81’s unofficial motto, “No Classmate Left Behind.” This motto has spurred the class to invest in a series of projects designed to increase accessibility options throughout the Academy grounds to benefit not only alumni, but also family, friends, and staff who experience mobility-related difficulties.
Yount imagined what Culver would think of the initiative, “First, he is romping somewhere with Objee. Secondly, he was looking down on all of us from his final resting place in the columbarium overlooking the Thames and the Academy he loved so dearly and saying ‘Good job classmates, this is a righteous cause. Thank you.’”
Recently, construction was completed on the first project in the class’ initiative, an outdoor accessibility entry to the Academy’s athletic facilities in Billard Hall, which was dedicated in Culver’s memory on Oct. 2, 2021.
Culver’s roommate and fellow bear keeper, John Ochs reflected on Culver’s passing, “Our class’ official motto is Carpe Diem. Keith’s passing really made me take a step back and evaluate my life and whether I was living up to that motto.”
Less than 12 hours after the dedication, Ochs and Yount led the charge in raising an additional $58,000 towards additional accessibility options for the Academy.
In life and in death, Culver’s fortitude and friendship provided inspiration to his classmates. In that vein, the dedication of this ramp isn’t a remembrance of Culver’s disease – a disease he strove to rise above and not let it define him. Instead, this project is one of many steps forward in building a more inclusive campus and a facility where no classmate gets left behind.