Located on the historic grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is a 21-foot gray obelisk named Herndon Monument.
The monument memorializes Commander William Lewis Herndon, a naval officer who lost his life in 1857 in a gallant attempt to save his ship and men during a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It’s a symbol of bravery, loyalty and selflessness.
For academy midshipmen and graduates, Herndon Monument holds deep personal relevance. On a designated day at the end of each school year, the first-year class of midshipmen — or plebes — attempt to ascend the granite pillar, retrieve a white plebe “Dixie cup” cap from atop the monument and replace it with an upperclassmen’s hat.
Known as the Herndon Climb, the annual event marks the end of the grueling plebe year for the academy’s greenest officer candidates.
Plebe year is tough — and, appropriately, so is “The Climb.” Prior to the ascent, upperclass midshipmen slap more than 200 pounds of lard on all sides of the obelisk. It’s a slippery trip to the top.
At the sound of a cannon blast, more than 1,000 spirited plebes rush Herndon Monument. Each hopes to be the first to the reach the top and immortalize his or her name at the academy. Tradition even holds that the plebe who swaps the navy hats will be the first from the class promoted to admiral.
But the Herndon Monument Climb is no individual endeavor. It’s impossible for a plebe to reach the top alone. Success comes only by cooperation and teamwork. The initial wave of plebes peel off their T-shirts and use them to wipe layers of lard from the stone. They give way to rows of sturdy midshipmen who encircle the monument and form the base of a human pyramid. Then smaller plebes climb atop layers of broad shoulders and wiry limbs. They push, stretch and pull in a joint effort to elevate one of their own to the top.
Some classes at the academy have reached the top of Herndon Monument in under two minutes. Others required several hours. No matter. The end result is the same. Plebe year is over.
With their mission accomplished, the exhausted classmates embrace, lock arms and shout as one: “Plebes no more! Plebes no more! Plebes no more!”
The lessons of the Herndon Climb reach beyond Annapolis. Most great achievements — including the timeless goals of eternity — are realized through teamwork and cooperation.
As the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant’s shoulder to mount on.”
When the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah’s ancestral home of Jerusalem was destroyed, he received the blessing of both his king, Artaxerxes, and the Lord to rebuild the city. Rebuilding Jerusalem was a difficult task. The enemies of the Jews were relentless and tried to sabotage the effort. But Nehemiah pressed forward and enlisted the cooperation of his Jewish brethren.
“Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, now Jerusalem lieth waste and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.
“Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build” (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
With the Lord’s help, Nehemiah and the Jews came together and got to work. Jerusalem was rebuilt in 52 days.
In his April 1977 general conference address, President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency said Church members enjoy unique appreciation for cooperation and unity because they understand that all humans are the spirit children of God. They are siblings in a divine and eternal family.
“Some people ask the reason for an organized church,” he said. “They feel they can work out their salvation alone, and that there is no need to attend church meetings or fill other requirements as long as they are honest and honorable and do good to their fellowmen.
“But the Lord has given us instructions that we should belong to a church; and this, His church, has the same organization that Jesus Christ Himself established while He was on the earth. We have many explicit declarations from the Lord that make this clear, and also that we need to encourage and help one another. ... We need the strength that comes from association with others who are seeking the same goals.”
As the Lord admonished: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32).
While serving as a Seventy, the late Elder Henry D. Taylor shared a timeless story of cooperation entitled “Man Does Not Stand Alone”:
“A boy was extended an invitation to visit his uncle who was a lumberjack up in the Northwest. [As he arrived] his uncle met him at the depot, and as the two pursued their way to the lumber camp, the boy was impressed by the enormous size of the trees on every hand.
“There was a gigantic tree which he observed standing all alone on the top of a small hill. The boy, full of awe, called out excitedly, ‘Uncle George, look at that big tree! It will make a lot of good lumber, won’t it?’
“Uncle George slowly shook his head, then replied, ‘No, son, that tree will not make a lot of good lumber. It might make a lot of lumber but not a lot of good lumber. When a tree grows off by itself, too many branches grow on it. Those branches produce knots when the tree is cut into lumber. The best lumber comes from trees that grow together in groves. The trees also grow taller and straighter when they grow together.’ ”
And so it is with people, observed Elder Taylor.
“We become better individuals, more useful timber when we grow together rather than alone.”