A Giant Among Giants
POSTED ON: Saturday, March 5, 2022 11:28 AM by MC1 Jordyn Diomede
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – We stand on the shoulders of giants. Throughout the history of the U.S. Naval Academy there have been many figurative giants who paved the way for future generations of midshipmen.
Although a small woman in stature, Lillie Mae Chase was one of those gentle giants. Born during WWI in Annapolis, Md., Chase spent the majority of her life living on College Avenue in Maryland’s capital. A mother of one, she earned her living working at a naval research lab in Annapolis for 22 years, before becoming a custodian in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum from 1965 until her retirement in 1976.
Spanning more than three decades, Chase unofficially sponsored and mentored Black midshipmen attending the academy in the segregated state. Her home provided a refuge to more than 40 midshipmen over the years, to include 1968 Naval Academy graduate, Vietnam veteran, astronaut and former NASA administrator, retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr.
“I wasn’t emotionally ready for that environment,” said Bolden. “I think the isolation --the racial isolation-- and everything else was really difficult until I met Lillie Mae and her family midway through Plebe Summer.”
Even before she became a custodian at the museum, Lillie Mae and her mother began opening their home to Black midshipmen in the mid-1950s.
“They couldn’t go to restaurants,” said Shirley Mae Perry, Chase’s only child. “But they had a home they could come to and they were welcomed with open arms.”
The door to their home on College Avenue was always open, and Chase wanted them to feel comfortable there.
Once at the museum, she was able to see every midshipman who came through the academy and knew how many Black midshipmen were in each class.
“She made it her business to try to help us find a way to her home and welcome us into her home as a home away from home,” said Bolden. “She was the kindest, most gracious, most loving, encouraging individual I ever met.”
On any given Saturday evening, a dozen Black midshipmen would be at her house -- a place where they could talk, relax, play games, and eat with others facing the same challenges.
“Without a doubt, it gave you a feeling of comfort,” said Bolden. “It let you know that as bad as things may have been on the yard or out in town, there was always a place you could go and people would understand and try to help.”
To Bolden, Chase (known to them as ‘Lil’) was his mom away from home. The nights at her house allowed Bolden to meet upperclassmen and alumni of the academy who had been in his shoes before.
Additionally, Chase would provide him and the other midshipmen invaluable advice and guidance to help them be successful. He still remembers some of her advice to them.
“As a general rule, it was ‘keep your head down, stay cool and calm; don’t react to things that people say to you or about you, and whatever you do, don’t get in a fight,’” he said. “Don’t bite the bait. There would be people who would try to get you to react to something they said or did on the yard, and she knew that you were going to be the one to pay the price. So, she said, ‘whatever you do, just turn and walk away.’”
At the start of Bolden’s freshman year at the academy, he began receiving threats from upperclassmen in his company because he was a Black midshipman. He said they had told him that he wasn’t going to get through his plebe year.
“I said, ‘well with all due respect, what makes you think I’m not going to get through here?’ And they said, ‘because we’re not going to let you.’ I just told them, ‘we’ll just have to see about that.’”
Although there were moments he struggled while attending the academy, there were several people he knew he could turn to.
“I had been calling my mom and dad every weekend since we were allowed to use the phone, literally crying to them,” said Bolden. “I just wanted to go home.”
The threat from those midshipmen convinced him to listen to what his parents told him, ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you what you cannot do.’
Afterwards, he went to talk with Chase who told him, ‘Your mom’s absolutely right. Don’t let ‘em threaten you. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you. You just do what you have to do and do it well. Just ignore them and things will work out.’
According to Bolden, Chase was absolutely right. Since his days at the academy, he flew more than 100 combat missions as a Marine Corps pilot in the Vietnam War. He became an astronaut and piloted four space flights, two of which he was the commander; and if those accomplishments aren’t enough, he broke glass ceilings when he was named the first Black NASA administrator by President Barack Obama in 2009.
“I don’t know that I would’ve survived the Naval Academy without Lillie,” he said. “There were days I would get to the house and I’d literally be in tears. I wasn’t really having a hard time, not as hard as some of the others were; but I don’t remember a single day that, if I had an issue, I didn’t go out and talk to Lil, and Lil got me back on the right track again.”
Her impact on others extended beyond helping Black midshipmen survive the rigors of the Naval Academy. Jim Cheevers, a co-worker of Chase’s at the museum, remembers her as a kind, humble and splendid person.
“She was pretty modest for all that she accomplished and did,” he said. “She [would be] embarrassed if you pointed it all out to her.”
Cheevers said he’s known some real winners and Chase was one of the top ones, noting that she was like a mother to him, and recalled a story she once told him about asking a woman wandering around at Gate 3 if she could help her. The woman had nowhere to go while waiting for her midshipman son to get out of class because the town was segregated. In true Lillie Mae fashion, she invited the woman to come to her house while she waited.
“I think she went out of her way to help other Black people because she knew what it was like,” said Cheevers. “But she was kind to everybody. I never heard her say anything bad about anybody.”
Stories of her kindness and generosity to others were common themes to all who knew her.
“Ms. Lillie Mae was a dear friend of, not only my family, but everybody on the street and everybody, probably, throughout Annapolis,” said Linda Washington, one of Chase’s neighbors on College Avenue. “She was so full of life with abounding energy, and cared so much and did so much for so many.”
She remembers that Chase would make her home an inviting haven for Black midshipmen to let loose and enjoy each other’s company in a cheerful environment absent of reprieve or judgment.
“She lived life to the fullest,” she said. “I think she believed that to whom much is given, much is required, and she lived that credo. She encouraged us to use our talents and our skills to help others and paved the way for us to be confident in who we are.”
Her ability to encourage and help others can be seen through the eyes of Bolden and so many other Black midshipmen who attended the Naval Academy so many years ago. A relationship so special that years later an engraved jewelry box gifted to Chase from the graduates would read, “To Lil, from all your sons.”
“She always said, ‘this is your choice, but this is an incredible opportunity that I really hope you don’t choose to waste,’” said Bolden. “You don’t let these people get you down and don’t let them talk you out of being here, because you belong just like anybody else.’”
Chase passed away in 2001 at the age of 82, but her memory lives on in the people she so humbly graced with her generosity, wisdom and kindness.
“I tell people all the time we stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Bolden. “Lil was one of those giants. The important thing was, she was the biggest person I met in my time at the Naval Academy in stature. She was a little lady, but incredibly powerful and strong.”
Lillie Mae Chase lived her life in service to others, and her legacy and contributions to the Black midshipmen she helped so many years ago will never be forgotten. For she truly was a giant among giants. Gentle and all.