Before embarking on a naval career that would send him to the North and South poles, Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd spent a year studying at UVA.
Born in 1888 in Winchester, Va., Byrd enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute at age 15, determined to serve in the Navy. Unable to gain admission into the Naval Academy from VMI, Byrd came to Grounds for the 1907-08 academic year while waiting for an appointment to Annapolis.
While at UVA, he lived in 118 House “B” on Dawson’s Row, at the edge of the South Lawn. In a letter to his future wife, Byrd considered himself “very lucky” to have that housing assignment, for there were “no professors or private houses near to keep us from having any sort of football game or rough house we care to.”
Nothing in his correspondence from that year suggests that Byrd would become the most famous aviator-explorer of his time. He admired how “the workings of the whole school hinges and revolves about the honor system,” but it appears that he was mostly interested in organizing football games and coercing friends into taking a one-mile trot around Grounds before breakfast each morning.
Byrd entered the Navy in 1912 and served on a number of battleships until 1916, when he aggravated an old gymnastics injury and was forced to retire from active duty. But at the start of World War I, he convinced his superiors to send him to flight training at Pensacola, Fla., where he became a naval aviator.
Byrd then turned his attention to exploration.
While leading the 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition to Greenland, Byrd realized that a flight to the North Pole would provide the Navy with valuable magnetic, hydrographic and geographic information. And it would be faster than a sledding trip.
Using air navigational aids of his own design, Byrd made the first flights over the Greenland Ice Sheet and the Queen Elizabeth Islands. In 1926, the Navy rejected his plans to fly over the North Pole, so he made the flight after securing private financial support. Many questioned Byrd’s calculations, doubting that he had indeed reached the Pole, but he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts.
In 1927, after years of planning, Byrd hoped to make the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, but his plane crashed during a test flight. Left without a plane, Byrd offered Charles Lindbergh the use of his airfield and weather data, and Lindbergh made the historic flight instead.
Next came Antarctica. At the age of 40, Byrd in 1929 became the first man to fly over the South Pole. Over the course of five expeditions, he and his crew discovered land, built scientific basecamps and used aerial photography to map more than 1.5 million square miles of the continent.
Byrd made his final expedition to Antarctica in 1955, two years before his death. His exploits had inspired many songs and poems, and children were named in his honor. Moviegoers watched Hollywood newsreel footage of his South Pole adventures, and families listened to his live radio broadcasts of life at subzero temperatures. “Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them,” Byrd said. “There are deep wells of strength that are never used.”
Whether he exhausted his resources or left more to mine, Byrd’s character was enough to make him “The Admiral of the Antarctic,” one of the most celebrated figures of his time.