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New London — The paws were everywhere.
That is what irked Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. when he stepped aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Papaw in Charleston, S.C., as the ship's new commanding officer in 1986.
The crew had adopted the paw print as an unofficial emblem. Paws were spray painted on the deck, on lockers and on buoys the crew worked on. The ship was once asked to leave a port in Florida after the Navy found paw prints down the side of a destroyer, Papp said.
The previous commander ignored Coast Guard instructions and policies and had been fired, work was behind schedule, standards were low and the crew looked ragged, Papp told the corps of cadets at the Coast Guard Academy Wednesday.
"The first thing I did after taking command is I said, 'I want every damn paw print removed from the ship,' " said Papp, the commandant of the Coast Guard. "And we set about the business of doing that. What I didn't realize was that they liked that, they had become accustomed to that. They took offense to the fact that this new guy they didn't know was coming in and unilaterally giving directions to change what they had been doing for two years."
Papp said he had been arrogant, and even though it was for the right reason — to change the climate on the ship — he encountered tremendous resistance. He said he should have made changes more slowly, set goals, and engaged the chiefs and other officers on board. He said he should have kept the big picture in mind and not have worried so much about the paw prints.
He eventually did do that, and he said he was proud of the ship by the time he left in 1989.
Leadership, at its most basic definition, is accomplishing tasks through other people, Papp said. The hard part, he said, is making them feel happy about what they are doing and inspiring them.
This year's annual leadership address at the academy was Papp's last as the head of the Coast Guard, and unlike any of his previous addresses.
Papp did not have a formal speech prepared. He spoke candidly about the practical lessons he has learned and mistakes he has made during his 39-year career so the cadets will not make the same errors. He showed pictures of his wife, Linda, and three daughters, Lindsay, Caitlin and Jillian, through the years. His family is his greatest success, he said.
"We've had 39 good years. And we have enjoyed every moment of it," he said. "… I've never had a job in my life because I've been able to come and do something that I enjoy, that I love, and that has provided me with all kinds of adventures and thrills and excitement."
Before he retires, Papp hinted he may try to better address alcohol abuse and its role in misconduct because, he said, his previous efforts to do so have failed. He said the issue has been "weighing very heavily" on him, particularly because of the number of sexual assaults that involve alcohol.
"A lot of my admirals right now are encouraging me to do something very significant before I leave," he said. "I don't want to leave as commandant and be remembered as the guy who did away with drinking, or I don't know what it is. I don't know exactly what they want me to institute. I don't want that to be my legacy. But maybe I do. Maybe it's important enough to do that."
He has not decided on any policy changes at this point.
After May 30, when he is relieved as commandant, Papp said he will cheer from the sidelines.
"I love this organization. I love the academy and I love all of you, and that's why I take the time to do this," he said to end his talk.
Several cadets said after it was the best talk Papp has given at the academy.
"You always picture these leaders as perfect at this point in their career, they've never made a mistake," said Zach Kearney, a second-class, or junior, cadet from Virginia. "… He was mentioning the mistakes he made with his crew and with those higher above him. It's good to see someone admit to these mistakes and figure out what he learned from them and tell us this now. If this happens to us, when it happens to us, we know we're not alone."
Sarah Kukich said she liked seeing how someone can balance a successful career and family life.
"He was being so candid and so lively about it," said Kukich, a third-class, or sophomore, cadet from East Lyme.
Jon Heller, who is in charge of instructor development at the Leadership Development Center in New London, said the center uses a series of videos in which Papp talks about his leadership tenets in classes for officers, enlisted members and civilians who work for the Coast Guard. In one, Papp explains the challenges he faced commanding ships.
"It's nice for the commandant to be able to say, 'I thought I knew it all. I had been a successful leader in the past and here's someplace where I hiccupped, took a step back and learned from it,'" he said. "He is a model that way … leaders are always learning and growing."
Papp also visited Norwich Free Academy and the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., last week. Papp graduated from NFA in 1970, from the Coast Guard Academy in 1975, and from the war college in 1990 with a master's degree in national security and strategic studies.
At NFA, it was a homecoming for Papp, who grew up in Norwich. He had never addressed the students before and could not recall ever visiting.
John Tedeschi, who was an athletic trainer, returned to the school to welcome his former student back. He said tears came to his eyes when he first saw Papp walk into the auditorium Tuesday.
Papp encouraged about 500 11th-graders to give back to their community or to the country by working for the government, serving in the military or finding some other way.
At times, Papp said he wishes he could be a cadet again, so he could do it all over.