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Our best-laid plans often take us somewhere else

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 20, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

It happened one Sunday at a gathering of the Fishermen’s Table.

Fishermen’s Table is an informal program, nearly 10 years old, initiated by the Protestant congregants of the Naval Academy Chapel. The purpose: to strengthen relationships among midshipmen and between midshipmen and the community — including the large and growing number of Annapolitans who attend the academy chapel each Sunday.

Fishermen’s Table has grown to include nearly 400 participants. It turns out that food, especially pizza, is the secret to maintaining and strengthening relations, so Annapolitans provide pizza with potluck food — and they undertake the setup and cleanup chores so the mids can get back to their studies.

One of the “townies” who forever volunteers to help make Fishermen’s Table work is retired Naval officer Bob Beaton. Beaton is an academy graduate (Class of 1959) who served in the Navy’s nuclear submarine force, retiring in 1979.

I’ve known Bob Beaton for many years — but, as I discovered, not really.

At a recent Fishermen’s Table, there were the usual announcements. One of them was to congratulate Beaton, now 78, for winning two gold medals (in the 16-pound weight throw and the javelin) and five silver medals (in the shot put, hammer throw, discus and other field events) in the Maryland Senior Olympics.

I was gobsmacked. The Bob Beaton I’ve known for more than 10 years is surely energetic. He stands tall, walks briskly and is a go-to guy who gets things done. But where do Senior Olympics medals fit into that picture?

On the way out, I said, “What’s with this throwing things around — hammers, javelins and the like? Why don’t you act your age?” We agreed to get together over coffee and talk more about the Senior Olympics.

In the meantime, I did some Google work on Beaton and was surprised to learn that my friend, as a youngster, was All-City and All-State in the pole vault and earned an invitation to the All-New England Championships, where he took first place — and, along the way, won the Rhode Island AAU decathlon championship in 1954.

When we met later in the week for coffee at Barnes & Noble, he confirmed what I had found on Google, but I wanted to know more. “Tell me your story — like from the beginning.”

That’s when Beaton told me he was from Rhode Island, the firstborn in a family of four. By the age of 12, he had a strong desire to attend the Naval Academy.

Beaton said, “The military was an honorable calling. My dad had enlisted during World War II, and he had strong feelings that his son should also serve — and serve as an officer, not as an enlisted man.”

Because he was an honor student and participated in four sports — where track and field were his best — he was off to a good start.

Once he arrived at the academy, everything seemed to be going his way. As a junior, he broke the academy’s pole vault record that had existed for 14 years.

His next goal was to represent the U.S. in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. But that was not to be.

Beaton said, “Even though I was stronger, faster and in better shape, I was also a cocky, prideful, swaggering peacock! By the time I realized I needed to change, it was too late. I did not break my own record, and I did not get to participate in the Olympics. For me it was my first blocked goal.”

Beaton continued, “After I graduated in 1959, I followed the path of a submariner. Everything was going my way, the way I had hoped and planned. I was on the road to becoming a commanding officer of a nuclear-powered submarine. But, again, for all kinds of reasons, that goal was also blocked.”

In the meantime, Beaton had married Linda, a Boston University coed and the love of his life. “She was a beauty! She was only 15 when we met in 1954. I was the lifeguard, and she was the snack bar girl. She was athletic. She was a winner, like her father, a gold medalist in the 1932 Olympics. We were quite a team — even back then.”

Following his Navy career plus 12 additional years working for a large defense contractor, Beaton and his wife decided in 1994 to cast their lot with Cru, an interdenominational Christian organization founded in 1951 at UCLA — continuing a relationship that began in 1974 while Beaton was attending the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Cru, known as Campus Crusade for Christ until 2011, currently has more than 25,000 missionaries in 191 countries — including nearly 1,800 college campuses.

In 1998, Beaton and his wife came to Annapolis to establish a Cru military ministry as an approved extracurricular activity at the Naval Academy. Though Linda died in 2005 after 43 years of marriage, Beaton, with three grown children and eight grandchildren, continues to work for Cru, which attracts 40 to 50 mids to weekly small group Bible studies and one-on-one meetings on personal and spiritual issues.

As we finished off our coffee, Beaton reflected on some of his life’s lessons. “You see, in my faulty way of thinking, you had to be an admiral, a commanding officer, or an Olympic medalist in order to flourish in life. Yet, my life has taught me that you can win gold medals in the most unexpected ways in the most unlikely places. But you have to listen for your calling. It may not be what you think it is or wanted it to be.”

Beaton’s closing comment reminded me of Robert Burns’ “The best-laid schemes of mice and men …” But then I recalled another, from a preacher, who said, “If you want to know if God has a sense of humor, just watch His reaction when you tell Him your plans.”

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