The real-life story of Paul Rinn’s career in the U.S. Navy is one you’d expect to see reenacted on the big screen, maybe with a (much younger) Clint Eastwood in the starring role. Rinn’s leadership and heroism have earned him a boatload of commendations and honors, including the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart; he is one of only three people currently alive who has been inducted into the Navy’s Surface Warfare Hall of Fame.
But let’s start at the beginning. Paul Rinn was born in the Bronx, where he attended — and played football at — Mount Saint Michael Academy. Athletic scholarships to several colleges awaited him upon graduation, “but I got hurt, badly, and my father thought it would get worse if I continued to play,” Rinn said. His teachers suggested Marist as a possible alternative. “So I drove up to the school, and fell in love with the place. It isn’t anything like it is today — just a small school on the Hudson — but it seemed right.” He graduated in 1968, having majored in history and minored in political science; a year later, he married Pamela Paul, a nursing student at Poughkeepsie’s Saint Francis Hospital. Together for 46 years, the couple today makes their home in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
After graduation, Rinn joined the Navy, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Greg, a naval officer. Paul rose steadily through the ranks, seeing combat action on land during the Vietnam War. In 1986 he was put in command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, a frigate that — two years later almost to the day — hit an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf.
“I was racing for a rendezvous with the USS Seattle because we were low on fuel,” the captain remembers. “We didn’t see the mines in front of us — there were 14 altogether, three on the surface — until we were in the middle of them. We started backing away, and that’s when we hit the one that got us.” The explosion blew a 30-foot hole in the ship’s hull, breaking the keel in half; only the main deck held the ship together. With the engine rooms flooded and fires on four decks shooting flames 100 feet in the air, Rinn and his 220-member crew valiantly fought to keep the ship afloat and maneuver it out of danger — a feat they accomplished with no loss of life.
To what does he credit the miraculous outcome of that day? “I think a lot of it goes back to the stuff I learned at Marist,” Rinn said. “You have to be determined, you have to be disciplined, you have to train — you have to know the playbook and be able to execute it. Teamwork was incredibly important; that was very strongly emphasized by the Brothers and the teachers that I had.”
In particular, Rinn credits Prof. Thomas Casey with helping him learn to control his emotions under pressure. “I’ve always had a great faith; you can only deal with things you can control, so we have to do our best. [While serving in Vietnam] it dawned on me that this was the stuff that Tom Casey had taught me in American Pragmatism that — at the time — I’d blown off completely. So I wrote him a letter from the Mekong Delta. ‘Remember how I told you that I’d never use any of the stuff you taught in that class? Well, I was wrong. And I want to thank you for that.’ I handed the letter to a helicopter pilot — with no address, just ‘Marist College’ — and told him it was important.
“About 30 years later, I was on campus and asked Casey if he’d ever gotten the letter. He grabbed my arm and pulled me into his office. Over his desk he had the letter framed. He said that, as a teacher, there was no greater reward for him than that letter.”
After retiring from the Navy in 1998, Rinn worked for Whitney, Bradley, and Brown, an international consulting company, until 2011. Today, he is an author and motivational speaker on leadership topics. Whether you’re in the boardroom or on the battlefield, Rinn believes effective leaders have three traits: “Absolute integrity: If people believe that you’re telling them the truth, they will trust you and follow you. Competency: You have to know what you’re doing. But the most important thing is communications. You’ve got to talk to people, but you have to be able to listen and hear what they have to say.
“I learned almost all of that at Marist College.”
This story and others are courtesy of and originally published in the Marist School of Management monthly newsletter. To read more stories like this click here.