STANDING ON THE STEPS SO THE Oak Ridge Military Academy administration building, 17-year-old senior Nancy Mellette gazed out at the reporters who had invaded the quiet campus of the North Carolina boarding school. Then, as they fired question after question, the high school ROTC second lieutenant did what any good soldier would: she dug in and held her ground. “I’m well prepared for whatever comes up,” she told them.
She’d better be. Late last month Mellette applied for admission to the Citadel, South Carolina’s all-male militaty academy. Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet admitted to the state-funded institution (when a Federal judge found that she qualified and that no other school could provide equivalent military training), dropped out in August, just six days after enrolling. She claimed the stress of being the only female cadet had made her ill. “This is my personal health I have to worry about,” she said.
The Citadel had hoped Faulkner’s withdrawal would discourage other women applicants, but Mellette, like the handful of other women who have applied to the school this year, is determined to soldier on. Asked how long she has wanted to attend the school, she doesn’t hesitate. “Since I was a very little girl, sir,” she replies. After Faulkner dropped out, Mellette’s parents helped her contact Shannon’s lawyers. Mellette now hopes she can join Faulkner in the legal battle to make the Citadel’s cadet corps coeducational in a case that will go before a federal court next month. Why fight so hard to get into the Citadel? “It’s a good military structure, and I plan on entering the military,” said Mellette, who wants to major in electrical engineering. “I understand they definitely do not want me there, but I’ll just have to deal with that when it comes up.”
Certainly she seems better prepared than Faulkner to survive the boot-camp rigors of the Citadel. Faulkner was reportedly 20 pounds over the school’s weight requirements, but Mellette is an athlete, carrying around 100 lbs. on her 5’2″ frame and lettering in three sports at the coed Oak Ridge: basketball, crosscountry and softball. She can already meet the Citadel’s male standard for maximum time in a two-mile run (15 minutes, 54 seconds) and minimum number of sit-ups (52 in 2 minutes). “I can do push-ups pretty well too,” she said at the news conference.
If she does gain admission, Mellette will be carrying on a family tradition at the Citadel. Nancy’s father, retired Army Lt. Col. Bland Mellette, 54, a civil engineer, graduated from the school in 1963. Her brother, James Bland Mellette III, 21, is a senior there this year. (Her mother, Connie, 51, is a psychiatrist. Twin sister Catherine, who has no martial ambitions, is a high school senior in Chapin, S.C.) Mellette’s father says he believes the school will eventually become coed, an attitude he says is shared by many other Citadel alums. (Brother Bland III hasn’t expressed any opinion publicly.)
Her time at Oak Ridge, which is 80 percent male, should help prepare her. “Nancy works hard at everything she does,” says her roommate, Maggie Spence, 17. Mellette ranks fourth in her class of 39, is an officer on the cadet battalion commander’s staff and is a member of the school’s state champion drill team. Even Oak Ridge president Col. Frederick J. Kennedy, a former assistant commandant at the Citadel who opposes female cadets there, concedes he’s impressed by her. “If a woman has to go, I’d like it to be somebody like Nancy,” he says. “She’s quiet, determined and capable.”
On campus, Mellette is known for her no-nonsense military bearing. “Some of the girls couldn’t get over her saying ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ to her parents, but she does,” says Mellette’s dorm advisor, Theresa Blanks-Lloyd, 24. “In her own way, she’s gained their respect.” Mellette family attorney Malissa Burnette knows why. “My first reaction [when I met her],” she says, “was to check my posture and salute.”
DON SIDER in Oak Ridge