By Sophfronia Scott Gregory
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

The greeting Nancy Mace received when she arrived at school three years ago was not of the sort to warm hearts. One upperclassman seemed particularly put out by her mere existence. “He did not like Nancy Mace,” recalls Mace, 21. “The first weekend, I was so intimidated by him. He has these big brown eyes, and he stared a hole through my head.”

No more. One of four women to enroll that year in The Citadel, the venerable military college in Charleston, S.C, Mace beat 145 out of 150 cadets in a two-mile run and knocked off 59 push-ups in two minutes to become one of only four freshmen to pass their first fitness test. Following her physical triumphs with a magna cum laude academic performance, Mace on May 8 became the first woman to graduate from the 156-year-old institution. Though some still lament the school’s new coed ways, that glaring upperclassman, now a divinity student, returned to town just to see her pick up her sheepskin. “She won him over,” says her mother, Anne, 56. “As she did many others, because of who she is and her absolute commitment to do well, to excel.”

Though the major military academies, including West Point, had begun admitting women in 1976, The Citadel resisted coed education and was forced by court order in 1995 to enroll its first woman, Shannon Faulkner. Though she dropped out after only six days, a 1996 United States Supreme Court ruling requiring the Virginia Military Institute to accept women spurred The Citadel to vote to end its single-gender policy. Mace was one of just four women to enroll that fall semester.

“She has become not only a pioneer but a pacesetter for those who will follow her,” says Citadel president John Grinalds. And many will. With 1,620 cadets, The Citadel now counts 41 women in its ranks, a number that may rise as high as 100 next year. A recent survey of cadets also showed that 72 percent of the corps believe progress has been made in assimilating women.

Much of the credit goes to Mace. Two of the four women in her class quit in their first year and sued, citing hazing and harassment. The Citadel responded, first by installing alarms in the women’s rooms, and later expelling or disciplining several upperclassmen. Even then, Mace recalls, students continued to hiss when her name was mentioned in assemblies, professors at first called her “Mr. Mace” and, “in class, the last seats filled were those around me.” Still, Mace remained stoic. “You see positive leadership and negative leadership,” she says. “You take the positive.”

Toughness runs in the Mace family. Her father, Emory, 58, a retired Army general, is The Citadel’s most decorated living graduate. And two of Nancy’s three siblings are West Pointers. (Sister Mary, 28, graduated in 1992; brother James, 19, is a freshman.) Nancy grew up on various military posts, a disciplined Army brat who graduated from high school a year early. She had completed a year at a technical college when she heard The Citadel would admit women and knew instantly that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps.

The general, having just been offered the job of toughening discipline at the school as the new commandant of cadets (the equivalent of a dean of students), tried to dissuade his determined daughter. He gave in, but not without a warning. “I told her if she wanted to leave, she’d better start walking, because I wasn’t going to drive her home,” he says. Nancy understood: “He had his job to do and I had to do mine.”

Mace attracted considerable attention for taming The Citadel. Courted by the FBI, the staff of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and classmate Chris Niemiec, Mace opted for an engagement ring from Niemiec, 21, and a job with Andersen Consulting as an analyst trainee. For all the abuse she suffered, Mace says she learned some valuable lessons at The Citadel. “It’s taught me not to be critical, not to be mean, not to judge a book by its cover,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about myself, how I react under stress. And I’ve done well.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Don Sider in Charleston