Coast Guard Museum Association launches national fundraising drive in D.C.

Adm. Paul A. Zukunft, commandant of the United States Coast Guard, speaks of the importance of a National Coast Guard Museum in front of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Secretary's Circle during the national fundraising campaign launch breakfast at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Wednesday April 29, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Adm. Paul A. Zukunft, commandant of the United States Coast Guard, speaks of the importance of a National Coast Guard Museum in front of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Secretary's Circle during the national fundraising campaign launch breakfast at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Wednesday April 29, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Washington, D.C. — In Grand Haven, Mich., known as Coast Guard City U.S.A, a first-grade class is filling a clear blue water jug with pennies to raise money for the $100 million National Coast Guard Museum planned for downtown New London.

In 1980, in the midst of the Haitian refugee crisis and the Cuban refugee crisis, the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant rescued a female Cuban refugee who was nine months pregnant, and adrift in the Florida straits, holding on to a big chunk of Styrofoam. The woman gave birth on the flight deck of the cutter and crew members later found out that she named her baby Valiant.

In July 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, carrying Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law, went missing, the Coast Guard was the first to find the debris.

These were the stories heard and told by current and former Coast Guard brass on Wednesday in a small but ornate room on the second floor of the illustrious Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C.

The room was the site of the inaugural kickoff of a series of Secretary's Circle events, which are by invitation only and will take place across the country. The Secretary's Circle is composed of all of the past cabinet-level officers who have either been the secretary or deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Transportation.

"The notion is to use first of all their names and their credibility as bosses of the organization over time and allow them to use their contact files to advance the cause," said retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, who is the driving force behind the Circle and a member of the board of directors of the National Coast Guard Museum Association, after the breakfast event.

The job of the Circle members is to circulate information about the museum effort "to their wider circle and tell this story in a much larger sense than we'd be able to do it just from the board of directors," Loy said.

Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage links and fruit, attendees listened as speaker after speaker emphasized the need for a national museum to house the many stories that make up the Coast Guard's history.

Wednesday's event was hosted by the Honorable Rodney Slater, former secretary of transportation from 1997 to 2001. Slater is one of the Circle's co-chairmen along with the Honorable Norman Mineta, secretary of transportation from 2001 to 2006 and the Honorable Thomas J. Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005. Mineta was the first to join the Circle.

After the event, Slater recalled the phone call he received from Loy asking him to join. Loy asked Slater if he remembered the day when the two were traveling along the Thames River and Loy told Slater that he wanted to build a Coast Guard museum. Slater couldn't remember the exact year but said it was during a visit to the Coast Guard Academy during his tenure as secretary of transportation.

"I said, 'Yes, admiral, that's been a good while ago.' I said, 'Where are things?', thinking that I would hear a lot had been done," Slater said. "(Loy) said 'Well, I have to tell you a lot has not been done. We've been keeping the dream alive. So we are now ready.'"

While traveling along the river, Slater said Loy painted "this wonderful picture ... and I just remember this sort of image of what it could be." There were other potential locations for the museum in and outside of New London, but, Slater said, "we talked about that particular location on that particular day, and I'm pleased to say it's there."

The future site of the museum is adjacent to Union Station in downtown New London.

Before Slater told attendees of the Coast Guard's involvement in finding JFK Jr.'s plane, he said, "Maybe it's stories like this that will make their way into the museum."

Slater was secretary of transportation at the time of the plane crash and explained, "We basically took little pieces of information to bring together a whole and to figure out where that plane likely was."

He emphasized that the search effort was done in a "very respectful fashion" and that those who were a part of that effort took care of "the job that had to be done."

"In talking with Senator Kennedy after that, he was just almost speechless in trying to communicate his and his family's, and I think in a very real sense the nation's, appreciation for that effort," Slater said. "Now that's just one of the many, many, many stories, and so I am very pleased to be affiliated with this organization."

The fundraising campaign really kicked off last year after the city, the state, the Coast Guard and the museum association entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to work collaboratively on the project.

Starting his remarks, Grahn said, "We have so many stories to tell, and we're going to tell them."

In many ways, Coast Guard members aren't good at telling their story. To convey this point, Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, often uses the example of Corey Fix, an aviation survival technician, which, Zukunft said, "means he jumps out of perfectly good helicopters in the worst of weather."

Last year, Zukunft explained, Fix saved 13 lives by jumping out of a helicopter into treacherous waters in Northern California. None of the people Fix saved, nor Fix himself, should've lived, Zukunft said. During a foundation dinner, Zukunft called Fix up to say a few words "and that's exactly what he did," he said.

Zukunft recalled Fix's remarks, "'I'm a rescue swimmer. It's what I'm trained to do and I had duty that day' and he walks off the stage. Quite honestly, we have 88,000 Corey Fix's in the Coast Guard today."

The reality of the Coast Guard today is that it's facing tight budget constraints. Over the past four to five years, the service's acquisition budget has decreased by 40 percent.

The board of the museum association is hoping the federal government will kick in $25 million to $30 million, but that will require a lot of convincing as federal lawmakers navigate tough budgets across the board.

After the breakfast Wednesday, the board convened to plan the next several days of meetings with members of the Coast Guard committees in Congress, and a planned open house for federal lawmakers to come and learn about their effort.

The board has raised $25 million thus far, including a $20 million commitment from the state for a pedestrian bridge that will connect to the museum from Water Street. Over the past month, it has raised $2 million, Grahn said during his remarks. That money has mainly come from the maritime industry, according to treasurer John Johnson.

The board hasn't identified a specific amount of money that it would like the Secretary's Circle members to raise. Rather it would like them to reach out to their contacts in the maritime industry — tug and barge operators, cruise ship operators, ship builders — to encourage them to donate to the museum effort.

Some donors have come from some unexpected places — like the first-graders in Grand Haven, whose teacher attended retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, Jr.'s change of command ceremony.

Apparently, she was moved by the ceremony, as sometime later Papp received an envelope and inside were pictures of each of the students sporting a Coast Guard officer hat while holding mini Coast Guard flags. Underneath the pictures of the students are the words "US Coast Guard Museum Supporters."

The class also sent pictures of the water jug that they are filling with pennies for the museum. The jug has pictures of Papp on it, and lists Papp as the team captain and Zukunft as the co-captain. Papp said the students told him that if he comes to Grand Haven for this year's Coast Guard festival, "they will turn the money over to me."

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

Former Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater, right, shakes hands with Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr, 24th commandant of the United States Coast Guard, left, at the conclusion of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Secretary's Circle national fundraising campaign launch breakfast at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Former Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater, right, shakes hands with Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr, 24th commandant of the United States Coast Guard, left, at the conclusion of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Secretary's Circle national fundraising campaign launch breakfast at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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