Known for passion for Coast Guard history and finding the unique, museum curator retires
New London — Jen Gaudio is very protective of museum artifacts.
As curator of the museum at the Coast Guard Academy, she sometimes taught using historical medals, "and they go missing very easily, so I constantly would have to count them," she said.
Gaudio recalled that after she went on leave for brain surgery in 2015, due to her Parkinson's disease, she realized she didn't count the medals. She talked her roommate at the time into driving her in to count the medals, "got busted" and got a talking-to about coming in to work before she was medically cleared.
Parkinson's has forced Gaudio, 50, into an early retirement after 13 years as curator. The museum's longest-serving permanent curator, she stopped working in January and is having a retirement ceremony next week.
She and her colleagues say it's been hard for her to let go. The museum has been her life.
Gaudio thought about a medal awarded to Joshua James, a sea captain who saved hundreds of lives and was a member of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which would merge with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. His great-granddaughter was given the medal — now in the museum collection — when she had night terrors and was told it would protect her.
"To me, the academy and the Coast Guard was my Joshua James gold medal, because they, in more ways than I think they know, kept me going on days when I just don't think I could've gone any further," Gaudio said. "And for that I thank them."
Gaudio is most proud of her work on the 2012 renovations to the 4,000-square-foot museum and her work on history programming for the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. The renovations involved changing the format from thematic to chronological and adding a dedicated space for changing exhibits.
"That should've been done with a staff of 10, at least, and she did it all by herself," said Scott Price, chief historian of the Coast Guard.
Price noted that Gaudio got many swabs — incoming cadets — interested in history and gave museum tours to VIP guests visiting the academy. (A story Gaudio likes to tell is that she accidentally introduced herself to Sandra Day O'Connor as Sandra Day O'Connor.)
As for her successor, Price said he has to go through the federal civilian hiring process and hopes to have someone in the role in six to eight months.
Both Price and Lauren Laughlin, acting curator, talked about Gaudio's work with the family of Lt. Thomas J.E. Crotty. In 1942, Crotty became the first Coast Guardsman to be held as a prisoner of war since the War of 1812, and he died in a POW camp in the Philippines during a diphtheria outbreak.
Crotty's remains weren't identified until 2019. Gaudio went to the funeral service held in Buffalo that year, and she received Crotty's collection for the museum.
"You can bring up almost any object or any name, and Jen will tell you a unique fact," Laughlin said. She added, "Just the uniqueness of the hidden parts of the Coast Guard is what she went for."
Laughlin said one of Gaudio's favorite objects is doll shoes made from reindeer hooves, stemming from the Revenue Cutter Service bringing domesticated reindeer from Siberia to Native Alaskans. There's also a giant inflatable unicorn hanging in the museum.
"I enjoyed her sense of humor, her curiosity, and her appreciation of the absurd," said Arlyn Danielson, the Coast Guard's curator.
Retired Cmdr. Gary Thomas, executive director of the Foundation for Coast Guard History, commented, "The Coast Guard has a rich and fascinating history, but for many people, history is just a timeline of boring events. Jen makes it come alive."
Fulfilling a longtime dream
Gaudio said she was always interested in history. Growing up in New Jersey, one of her strongest influences was her dad, who shared his stories and took his kids to an old landfill, where they would dig up toys and bottles.
"That always gave me a sense that history is ever-present," Gaudio said. "It's just lying in layers, underneath everything."
Gaudio double-majored in historic preservation and American history at Goucher College in Maryland. After going to the Cooperstown Graduate Program for history museum studies, she worked in Illinois with a collection of art, clothing and more amassed by a Czechoslovak fraternal society. She worked for the Lynn Museum & Historical Society in Massachusetts and then the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va.
But she said she always loved the Coast Guard, going back to stories she heard as a child while visiting the Jersey shore with her family. She kept applying to Coast Guard jobs throughout her career and eventually succeeded: She became curator of the museum in 2008. While she had gotten into maritime history in previous jobs, Gaudio said nothing prepared her to work in the military, "and I had so many protocol problems."
She recalls getting an invitation for a holiday party but being too scared to ask what "festive civilian casual" meant. She showed up in vintage clothing, red lipstick and rhinestones, "and I go to the admiral's house and it's like J. Crew country. I'm totally overdressed." She "chickened out" and tried to go in the exit line but accidentally got in the receiving line.
Meanwhile, she was starting to have a hard time with her hands but hadn't seen a doctor yet, and she was acutely aware of the perils of picking up finger foods in a home with white carpeting, white walls and white upholstery. So, when she came face-to-face in the receiving line with the superintendent at the time, Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, the only thing she could think to say was, "Admiral, your house is very white."
Gaudio was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2009, and a bad fall last March started her process of retirement. She said she "learned how to fall as gracefully as I could in physical therapy" and never hit her head, but landing on her butt has exacerbated her back pain. She's now back to using a wheelchair, which has been on and off since 2014, before her two brain surgeries.
Price, the Coast Guard chief historian, said that he left the door open for Gaudio to continue to be involved and that she's part of the Coast Guard family.
Part of Gaudio's legacy as curator will be her efforts to get people to better understand the Coast Guard. In an interview Friday in the lobby of her New London apartment building, she reflected on the Coast Guard getting made fun of and not getting the recognition of other armed services.
"I think some of it is because we do not fit into a sound bite. To explain what the Coast Guard does takes too long, and we are a sound-bite population," Gaudio said. She added, "We are, as a society, tuned to the idea of the cowboy and the hero and the life-or-death situation. But in terms of warfare, we don't think about the guy who risked his life in a helicopter to save somebody, unless you're the somebody that he saves, or you live on the coast."