History of ‘Old Ironsides,’ world’s oldest warship, offers perspective as Northeastern honors veterans

Photo of US Navy Commander Billie J. Farrell
Billie J. Farrell, the first woman commander in the 225-year history of the USS Constitution, was keynote speaker at Northeastern’s Veterans Day ceremony. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Billie J. Farrell, the first woman to serve as commander of the 225-year-old USS Constitution—commonly known as “Old Ironsides”—gave a Veterans Day speech at Northeastern Friday that was a U.S. Naval history lesson cloaked in the stories of its most romantic warship. 

“She is undefeated in battle (33-0), remains a legend in our national history and serves as a living testament to our strength and dedication as a country,” Commander Farrell said in her keynote address against the backdrop of the university’s Veterans Memorial on Neal F. Finnegan Plaza.

The well-attended event on an unseasonably pleasant fall day included a steady blend of students passing by the plaza who stopped to listen to the crisp speeches, delivered from a variety of perspectives, that dwelled on the sacrifices made by servicemembers in defense and in honor of their country.

“We’re here today to recognize the service of every man and woman who stepped forward, raised their right hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” said Jack Cline, a Marine who serves as Northeastern’s vice president for federal relations. “A solemn oath like no other.”

Many times Farrell had reflected on the larger meaning of the USS Constitution while sitting in its captain’s cabin, a refuge for the ship’s preceding 76 commanding officers, all of them men.

Named by President George Washington and launched from Boston Harbor in 1797 as a 44-gun frigate, the USS Constitution fought its signature battle in the War of 1812 as an underdog against the HMS Guerriere, a 38-gun British frigate.

“Captain Isaac Hull had been preparing the crew of USS Constitution for weeks, running gun drills for hours a day,” Farrell said. “He wanted to make sure his crew would be ready when called upon. The crew’s training and attention to detail found them prepared for battle. They could move their guns faster than their adversaries and fire with more accuracy.”

As the British cannonballs bounced off her hull, a sailor on the USS Constitution exclaimed, “Huzzah her sides are made of iron!” And so was born the enduring nickname.

Some 500,000 people visit the USS Constitution annually.

“Our mission is to preserve, promote and protect the legacy of the ship,” Farrell said of its crew of 80 active-duty sailors, who take her out to sea seven times per year. “We have been entrusted to continue telling the USS Constitution story and what she represents.

“USS Constitution is a symbol of our citizens’ unswerving perseverance and dedication,” said Farrell, “and a living testament to all who have served the United States and to all that have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution.”

The master of ceremonies was Northeastern senior Christian Etherton, an Army veteran who serves as president of the Student Veterans Organization. 

Etherton, who will graduate next month in industrial engineering, told the audience that he has been asked during job interviews to describe a time when he displayed agility. In such moments, he said, his thoughts have turned to his years in military intelligence as a foreign-language code-breaker and translator while forming lifelong bonds.

“I think back to tense times with my fellow operators, usually at odd hours of the night,” Etherton said. “I often focus on their faces. Despite our differences, we were so tight and developed such reliance on each other. We lived these values—resilience, agility, flexibility. We worked collaboratively with a laser focus on goals that we needed to achieve.”

Cline, who lobbies for Northeastern in Washington, D.C., spoke emotionally of his family’s legacy. He grew up dreaming of becoming a Marine after hearing the stories of his grandfathers who served in World War II and his father, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.

“I wanted to be a part of an organization that was focused on honor, courage and commitment,” said Cline, who enlisted at age 18. “Something bigger than myself: An organization focused on attention to detail, self-reliance and unwavering execution of orders.”

Cline also spoke in memory of Richard I. (Butch) Neal, who died at age 79 in June as a retired four-star Marine Corps general. Neal remains the highest-ranking Northeastern graduate in U.S. military history, said Cline.

Andy McCarty, director of the Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers at Northeastern, framed Veterans Day by asking the audience to consider the bigger picture.

“Why do we do this every year? Why are we here?” asked McCarty, who answered his question by referring to the military experiences shared by all veterans.

“I spent four years in the military,” said McCarty, an Air Force veteran and Northeastern graduate. “I’ve worked at Northeastern four times as long. Yet to this day I continue to unpack what I learned and went through in those 48 months of service. And maybe that’s part of the reason we’re here. Not because the events of the past have changed. Instead, what they have to teach us is made anew in the context of our present day. And that present is always changing.”

Neal Finnegan, for whom the memorial plaza is named, presented the Joseph Hefflon Yellow Ribbon Award to Northeastern graduate Ryan Vanderweit, in honor of his extraordinary contributions to the university’s veteran community.

Vanderweit, an Army veteran, is director of the New England Warrior Health and Fitness Program, which helps veterans, service members and their families achieve health and wellness goals via exercise, nutrition, mindset coaching and social connections, said Finnegan. The no-cost program is offered through Home Base, a national nonprofit founded by Mass General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox that is dedicated to healing the invisible wounds of war, added Finnegan.

Finnegan, chairman emeritus of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees, also took time to read a letter from Vietnam veteran William Maloney, a Northeastern graduate and committee member who helped create the Veterans Memorial. Maloney recalled long ago wondering why families of fallen veterans were unable to move on with their lives.

“‘Then it struck me,” said Finnegan, reading from Maloney’s letter. “‘These people, especially the families of those lost, can never move on. They have lost a son, brother or father who can never be replaced. And they revisit that loss in memory and in pain every day.”

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