“Lessons I Have Learned”

–This is a speech I gave to a veterans’ group at the Center for Active Generations in Sioux Falls on January 27, 2016–

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to be here. It’s so good to be living in South Dakota again. I graduated from Augustana College in 1972 and joined the Navy, and did thirty-two years on active duty. I’d come home once or twice a year for a visit, but that was it, until moving back here to live in 2010.

I thought this morning I would talk about some of the lessons I learned in the thirty-eight years I was gone from the state.

One of my first discoveries in the Navy was that guys liked me. I was really shy, I didn’t have any dates in high school or college, I didn’t talk to people. I assumed people didn’t talk to me because they didn’t like me. It took a lot of years to come to the realization that shy people are actually selfish. Everybody’s not watching us. Everybody’s not thinking about us. Everybody has their own insecurities.

That finally hit me when I was home on leave in the late ‘90s. There was an all-school reunion dance for Clear Lake High School, and I asked this guy to dance. I told him I’d had a big crush on him when we were in high school. Here I was, a captain, almost fifty years old, and I was still expecting him to react negatively to that fact. But what he said was, “You did? You liked a short little guy like me?”

I didn’t realize he would think of himself like that, because he certainly didn’t seem short to me. It brought the awareness that we should all spend a little more time focusing on other people instead of ourselves.

Although that’s easier said than done.

My first lesson in the chain of command came when I was in Pensacola, Florida, in the supply department. I was an aviation storekeeper. I’d enlisted in the Navy because the women’s officer program was full at the time, and about a year later I put in request to go to Officer Candidate School. Part of the application package was, I had to have this letter signed by my department head. So I brought the form into his office and gave it to his secretary and asked her to have him fill it out.

Later that day my division officer came over to my desk, and he started asking me questions, and I saw he had this piece of paper. I said, “Where did you get that? I gave it to the lieutenant commander. He’s supposed to sign it.” He looked at me like “how stupid can you be” and he said, “Well, who do you think is going to write the letter?”

So in later years, when I had young sailors who didn’t know as much as they should, I only had to remember how young and dumb I once was, to have a little more sympathy for them.

My first real leadership lesson came–after I got commissioned, I went to Oklahoma City. I was the test control officer for the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station. Being the junior officer there, I was SLJO—shitty little jobs officer. I had all kinds of collateral duties, and I did them well, and they were all okay, except for the one of race relations officer. I really did not like that one, because we had to have a quarterly training session, and there was no way I could get up in front of a room full of people and talk to them, especially something like race relations, which I knew nothing about. I always let my NCOs do that. I told myself I’m being a good leader; I’m giving them this opportunity to do some public speaking.

One day the commanding officer’s secretary came into my office and handed me a sealed envelope. I opened it and took out the letter from my CO. It started by telling me all the things I did well. Then it said, “The one area in which you are failing is as race relations officer.” He said, “You rely on your NCOs to do your job for you.” He told me what he expected me to do—to write a command instruction on our race relations program and to give the next quarterly session by myself. I didn’t know which was worse, the idea of being considered a failure or the idea of standing up in front of this room and talking to all these people. But I wrote the instruction, I did the session, and I ended up with a glowing fitness report out of that command.

That was a lesson—a format–that stayed with me, as to how to counsel subordinates. I had the opportunity to use it in that very same command. I had four test sites throughout the state, and one was in Tulsa. There was an Army staff sergeant running that office who was doing a very poor job. He was the perfect example of the Peter principle, where he’d been promoted beyond his capabilities. So I wrote him a letter, and explained what he did well and what he didn’t do well. This is what he had to do, and this is when he had to do it, and these were the consequences if he didn’t get it done. I’d go up and visit and look at the progress, and there was no progress, and finally the deadline came. There was an E-5 in that office who was a real hard charger, so I asked the two guys if they wanted to swap jobs, and they both said they did. The E-5 took over running the office, and the E-6 was perfectly happy to be a test administrator and not have to mess with any of running the office.

So that was a format I used various times throughout my career, when I needed to counsel somebody.

At my next command is when I got the leadership lesson that affected me more than anything else. When the Navy opened up the aircraft maintenance officer field to women, I applied for it and was approved. I went to maintenance officer school and then down to Kingsville, Texas, to a training squadron. There had obviously never been a woman in the maintenance department before–there weren’t women pilots at that time–and I was very careful about the questions I asked because I didn’t want to sound like a dumb woman. I learned a lot, and I worked my way up from material control branch officer to division officer, up to assistant department head after a couple of years.

When the maintenance officer went on leave for a week, I thought, wonderful, now I get to run the maintenance department while he’s gone. But the commanding officer never talked to me. He only talked to the maintenance master chief. I thought well this isn’t right, I’m in charge of the maintenance department, the master chief works for me. But–this is the commanding officer. He’s a commander and I’m only a lieutenant. He must know what he’s doing.

Well, he did, all right.

When the MO got back, they had their semi-annual job change meeting. I knew they’d had this meeting, where they were reassigning all the division officers, and it was my job as assistant maintenance officer to make all these moves happen. So I went to the commanding officer’s secretary to get the list, and she wouldn’t give it to me. It took about two days of asking before she finally handed me the list. I looked at it and the first thing I saw was assistant maintenance officer with somebody else’s name by it. I looked for my name and it was way down at the bottom by material control. I looked at the secretary and then I realized she’d been stalling, because she hoped one of these men would tell me they’d fired me, so I didn’t have to find it out from her.

I went looking for the maintenance officer, and I shoved the letter in his face and said, “Look what the Skipper did to me.” He looked at the paper, and he handed it back and said, “Oh, he did it, huh?”

I said, “You knew? You knew I was being fired and you didn’t tell me? I don’t even know what I’ve done wrong.”

He said, “Well, you’d better go talk to the Skipper.”

So I did, and he wouldn’t tell me, either. The commanding officer only said I wasn’t assertive enough. He said, “If you do a good job as material control officer, you’ll still leave the squadron with a decent fitness report.” Then I realized I’d been set up. That he’d arranged this to see if I would protest being left out. But I hadn’t. So he fired me.

At the time I just thought it was bad. Looking back, I can see that’s what made me a real leader. I determined then that I would never fire someone without first telling them what they’d done wrong and giving them an opportunity to improve. And if I ever thought that I or one of my subordinates was being left out of something, I would protest. I wouldn’t let it go. I think I got the reputation that my sailors knew they could always count on me to look out for them. So it was a good lesson, I guess.

When I went to my next squadron, a patrol squadron in Jacksonville, Florida, I was a senior lieutenant, I’d been in maintenance for three years, I was number 3 of 32 lieutenants in that squadron. I got there and the maintenance officer assigns me as material control officer. I already had that job three years ago. He told me I’d never been in a patrol squadron before, I didn’t know how they operated, so he’d give me that job until I was comfortable, and then I could move up.

Have you ever heard of a male lieutenant being assigned somewhere and being told to sit over here until you become comfortable? No, he’d be thrown in the job and expected to succeed. That was what I wanted, too. But they needed to get used to me. I had to wait my time and prove myself.

That reminds me of when I’d been in maintenance officer school. I made a comment one day, something about I’d earned everything I received in the Navy. This one chief petty officer told me he thought it sounded like bragging. He said, “I don’t have anything against women in the military. As soon as they prove they can do the job, I accept them.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly the difference. Men, you accept right off, unless or until he screws up. But a woman has to prove herself first, before you accept her.”

He said, “You know, you’re right. I never thought about it like that before.”

I continued to prove myself in the patrol squadron. I made lieutenant commander before I left there. After my next two tours, I got promoted to commander, and I was selected to be the department head of the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department in Jacksonville, Florida. That job for a maintenance officer is equivalent to a pilot being selected to command a squadron. I had 650 sailors working for me there.

One day I called one of my senior chiefs into my office to discuss how he’d handled an incident. I pointed out what he had done wrong and what I expected of him in the future. When he left, I didn’t want him to think I was mad at him, so I smiled as he left my office. I was congratulating myself, thinking that went pretty well, and then his division officer calls me up and says, “What did you say to the senior chief?”


“Because he came back here and said you chewed him out and then laughed at him.”

That made me realize these crusty old senior chiefs and NCOs, they’re not really as tough as they look. Everybody still wants a pat on the back, everybody still needs to be appreciated, everybody still gets their feelings hurt, regardless of who you are or how far you’ve come.

My next job was at the Naval Supply Systems Command in Washington, D.C., and I got selected for captain while I was there. The list came out while I was home on leave. I was attending Naval War College classes through night school. We had an exercise scheduled when I came back from leave, and I had been assigned as assistant task force commander. I wasn’t well prepared. I counted on the task force commander to have done his homework. When I got to class that night, the instructor and my classmate decided, since my name was on the captain’s list, we would swap jobs. I was now in charge of the exercise. Oops.

So I did what any good commander does–I delegated it to my assistant. I let him run the exercise and then I congratulated him for doing a really good job. So I made it through that one.

My first assignment as a captain was in Japan. I was the maintenance officer for the Western Pacific, and stationed at Atsugi, Japan. While I was over there, I learned to play golf. Sort of.

There were four captains in the command, and the three men were all avid golfers. One of them kept after me to learn to play golf so we could have a captain foursome. My secretary had taken lessons, and she played, so she set me up with her instructor. I went through the two sets of golf lessons, and I bought my clubs and a really nice bag. She and I would go out on Saturdays and play golf. Finally, one day, we set up our captain foursome. I was looking forward to the camaraderie, the four of us being out there playing golf together. But what I discovered was, those three teed off over there, I teed off from the women’s tee, I hardly saw them all afternoon. Because they were over there, I was over there, and of course playing golf, you’re looking for golf balls. I thought, this isn’t fun at all. And they also never invited me to have another captain foursome. I guess they got tired of waiting for me. I still have an almost-new set of golf clubs, in an almost-new bag. They haven’t been taken out of the bag since 1998, and they’re still sitting in my garage.

When I left Japan, I’d been selected for major command. I went to Los Angeles and commanded 350 civilians at a Defense Contract Management Agency command. One of the things I did in Los Angeles, I self-published two memoirs. I’d written the first drafts of them in Japan, and I finished them up and published them. A Farm In the Hidewood is about growing up on a farm by Clear Lake in 1963, hauling hay bales and butchering chickens and going to a one-room country school. Navy Greenshirt covers eighteen of my years as a maintenance officer in the Navy, from the time I went to maintenance office school until the time I made captain over in Japan.

Also in Los Angeles, I became a mother at age fifty, when I started the process to adopt a pair of sisters, ages five and seven.

And, Los Angeles is where I learned about stress. We were getting ready for a command inspection, and some of the employees didn’t show up for work. Their bosses told me they were so stressed with this inspection that they called in sick. I thought, that makes no sense, what do they have to be stressed about? I’m in charge of the whole organization. If we fail the inspection, it’s my responsibility, not theirs. All they have is their little section to worry about. Plus, I’m concerned about the adoption. The birth father was contesting the adoption; he wanted the girls back. And I was waiting for orders to Washington, D.C., and I didn’t know whether the adoption would be final first or my orders would come through first.

But what made me understand what my employees were going through–the district commander (my boss) was a real jerk. I never knew when he was going to call me up and chew me out for something I had done or one of my people had done. One day he called my civilian deputy and me down to the district headquarters. So we go in the office there, and his deputy starts reading us a letter. I said, “Wait a minute. Is this a counseling session for Ron?” (My deputy.) They said yes. “There is nothing wrong with Ron’s performance,” I said. “And if there was, it’s my job to counsel him. He works for me.”

The district commander pointed his finger at me. “Your turn’s coming. You’d better keep your seatbelt fastened and your tray table up and locked.” I took that as a threat he was planning to give me a bad fitness report.

That helped me understand the stress my employees were going through, because I realized what causes stress is when you have no power and no control. That’s when you feel stress. As the commander of the unit, I had some control over what was going on. I could find out things. But they didn’t. And working with a boss where you never know when your beeper in going to go off and you have to return his call, and you know he’s going to chew you out about something, but you don’t know what it is, that’s stressful. So I understood them a little more then.

But the difference was, I had a way to handle stress. The way I handle stress is I turn it over to God. I know it doesn’t do any good to worry about things you can’t control, so I just give it to Him and say, “Take care of this, Lord.”

So we left Los Angeles. I adopted the girls and took them to Washington with me. I retired from the Naval Inspector General staff in 2004. I finished writing the biography of Faron Young, Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, and published it. I imagine most of you have heard of Faron Young; he used to come to Sioux Falls. Then Marty Robbins, I started working on his biography, Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins.

About 2008 the girls and I were talking about moving to South Dakota, and I kept waiting to sell my house in Maryland. Then one day it hit me. You’re not supposed to move away from something; you’re supposed to move toward something.

And I knew where I wanted to live; I wanted to buy a house on the west side of I-29, in the 57106 zip code. I found a real estate agent, and I went through all the processing. I had to have my loan application approved before she would show me houses. We did all that, and we came up with a list of houses. My brother and sister came down from Clear Lake, and she showed them around and they picked out a house for me. I saw pictures of it, and I said okay, and I bought it.

I asked my sister to get it ready for us to move into. I’d had eleven different homes, and this time I didn’t want to have to even hang up a shower curtain. We told her what colors we wanted in the bedrooms, and I gave her a checkbook to pay for everything, so she could sign checks. When we came here, she took us to our new home. Our bedrooms were exactly the colors we wanted, and all the shower curtains were hung, and we just moved in, and have lived there since.

Paul Millman wanted me to tell you about my newsletter. In 2005 I started publishing an email newsletter when I was working on Faron Young’s biography because I wanted to tell Faron stories, and also advertise the fact I was working on the book. I added Marty Robbins later. Now, every other week I publish classic country news. People write in and I print their letters, too. If any of you are interested in getting that newsletter, give me your email address, and I’d be happy to put you on my list.

Thank you for coming today, and it’s good to be in South Dakota.

Comments are closed.