2016-09-09 / People

Real People

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral George Emery, 75, of Kennebunkport, who served as commander of Atlantic Fleet submarine forces, in which capacity he served as the principal advisor for submarine warfare to President Bill Clinton, as well as the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stands beside a poster for the new Mothers Wing addition to the Graves Memorial Library, for which he now serves as committee chairman. (Duke Harrington photo) Retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral George Emery, 75, of Kennebunkport, who served as commander of Atlantic Fleet submarine forces, in which capacity he served as the principal advisor for submarine warfare to President Bill Clinton, as well as the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stands beside a poster for the new Mothers Wing addition to the Graves Memorial Library, for which he now serves as committee chairman. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — As chairman of the Mothers Wing committee at Kennebunkport’s Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library, George Emery oversees fundraising for the million-dollar addition. But while he is too humble to say so, that’s far from the most important thing he’s ever done, as worthy as it is.

An Alfred native who grew up in Springvale. Emery graduated from Sanford High School in 1959 and went on to attend the U.S. Navel Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. From there he served aboard submarines, circumnavigating the globe entirely underwater in 1980 as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Groton. By 1993, he had risen to the rank of vice admiral, and the post of commander of Atlantic Fleet submarine forces, in which capacity he served as the principal advisor for submarine warfare to President Bill Clinton, as well as the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Later an executive at Raytheon Technical Services Company, Emery, now 75, retired to Kennebunkport in 2000.

On August 31, he sat down at the Graves Library to talk about his life, his career, and his latest project.

Q: How did you get involved with the Graves Library?

A: I’ve used the library since we came here. I’ve always have used libraries. We just got to know Mary Lou [Boucouvalas, the library director] and some of the other folks here and some years ago she asked me if I’d be interested in being a trustee. I couldn’t then. I was still working. But about three years ago I joined.

Q: What appeals to you about the Graves Library?

A: It’s a little town library. This building is 203 years old. The door is the same door from when it was built. That’s the same fireplace (points across room). If we go upstairs I can show you the murals that were painted in 1931. They’re all still there and they’re absolutely beautiful. Things like that, but also the programs for adults and for children. Mary Lou is very active, outgoing librarian. It’s wonderful to have somebody who likes to get involved in things. So, because of that, this library has become a social gathering point for moms and dads and kids. Small town libraries, I love them. The Springvale library, the Alfred library from when I was a kid, I love them.

Q: How did you come to be chairman of the Mothers Wing committee?

A: I failed to say no. We have so many people at the library doing so many things, so much had been done already with so many people working so hard, nobody wanted to run a fundraising campaign. So, when I was asked I said, sure, I’ll do it, even though I have no particular skills in that regard, except that I think I know how to get things going.

Q: What do you think is most needed about the new wing?

A: Space. With the loss of the building next door, we have no place to have a book sale any more. That books sale brings in roughly $20,000 per year to help with our operating cost. The town takes care of 38 to 39 percent of out operating budget, but that’s not enough. We couldn’t survive on that. So, the book sale and our annual appeal, without that we’d have to stop doing some things. We might have had to stop paying the staff, even though we have a huge volunteer staff. They are absolutely wonderful — another reason to love a small town library — but you need a paid staff, too, even though ours isn’t paid too much.

Q: What was wrong with the building that is being town down?

A: Mold spores. We tore out the sheetrock and that didn’t get rid of it. It’s in the wood. We had to get rid of 30,000 books we had over there for the book sale. We had one of these giant green dumpsters out here and the trustees came and we spent a full day clearing that out.

We took out some pieces of the floor and walls, but the inspectors came in and said, no, that’s not going to do it.

Q: How was the mold discovered?

A: We used to have all kinds of meetings over there but it got so after 30 minutes or so people would have to get up and leave, because they just weren’t feeling well. The library bought that building in 1998 and the mold was probably already in the walls then.

We almost didn’t want to test for it, because we knew if we found mold, and if it was in there big time, the building would have to go. But it was like, look, we’ve got to do this.

We’ve got to protect staff, we’ve got to protect patrons. So, about a year ago we decided, okay, let’s get hot, how do we replace this, how do we design it so it’s something the townspeople would be pleased to have, as opposed to another civic building built that doesn’t look anything like the town.

Q: Was there any reluctance to add a new wing to the library, as historic as the building is?

A: Even though it’s on the historic register, if we don’t take town money, state money, as long as its all donated money, we can do whatever we like.

But, of course, we knew it’d be foolish to do anything if it doesn’t look like the rest of the library, like it fits in, in Kennebunkport.

Q: The new wing is going to have an elevator. What’s your best “elevator pitch” for why people should donate to the new wing? A: Well, it’s the elevator. The median age of people in this town is not young. And we want to encourage our adult population to continue to come here as they get older. Also, going back to the need for space, we get great turnout for the Pasco Lecture Series of author talks, but that means we hit standing room only at 70 people or so, and that’s with half the people standing up, and people crowded around the doorways, maybe a couple standing in the vault. The new lecture hall in the new wing will seat 150.

Q: Obviously, you’re a reader. What are you reading right now?

A: I’m reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book, “Valiant Ambition.” It’s about George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and other leaders of the American Revolution. It’s really tells how Arnold went of the end and became a traitor. Nathaniel is a great writer. I hope to have him here (for a Pasco lecture). I intend to try.

Q: Are you generally a reader of histories, or do you like fiction?

A: I enjoy both. Just a few days ago I finished a book called “The Commodore” by Peter Deutermann, who was a naval academy graduate in my class in 1963. He became a destroyer squadron commander — his father also was a destroyer squadron commander in the Pacific in World War II — and he started writing historical fiction using real events. Fantastic fiction, my God, because it’s so real. The guy is great.

Q: When you were in the navel academy with him, did you have any inkling he had that in him?

A: Hell, no. (laughs) I bet he didn’t either.

Q: So, how did a boy from Springvale like yourself get to become commander of the U.S. submarine fleet? Did you want to be a sailor even when you were a young boy?

A: We moved from Alfred to Springvale in 1948. Around the corner and down the street lived a couple named Albert and Marion Prosser. He was a captain in the U.S. Navy, retired, a submariner, a 1918 graduate of Bowdoin (College), who spend the entire was in the Pacific. I just looked at that guy and was like (mimics jaw dropping open). I just loved the stories he would tell.

I respected him so much. I was just overawed by this fellow. So, right then I said, I’m going to be a submariner. I don’t know how, but that’s what I’m going to do. I did well enough in high school (salutatorian) that I applied for the naval academy. I asked Margaret Chase Smith’s support for the navel academy and Edmund Muskie’s support for ROTC.

I was dating my wife Patricia then. We were high school sweethearts. I got word from Muskie that I get into Yale on an ROTC regional scholarship, and she was, like, “Yes!” But Captain Prosser, my old submarine friend, he was like, yeah, ROTC is great, but you’d really rather got to the naval academy. So much to my wife’s dismay I called Muskie’s office and said, “Thank you, but I’m not going to do it.” As luck would have it, a week later Margaret Chase Smith’s office called and I had the appointment to the navel academy.

Q: So, that must have been quite a big deal at the time?

A: Oh, it was. We were just from a little small town, my father was retired from the Department of Agriculture after 45 years, but we were no big thing — only big in terms of family, with seven kids. Fortunately, my mother was very smart, and so, we kids happened to be fairly smart and did okay in school.

Q: Was the naval academy everything you hoped it would be, or was it a rude awakening?

A: Both. From Maine to Maryland in the summer, running around holding an M-1 over your head for what seemed like hours at a time, with heat and humidity you didn’t know where such things came from, that was not entirely pleasant. But the academics I liked and overall the experience was positive. My best friends today remain the friends I made at the naval academy.

Q: How long were you in the Navy total?

A: Thirty-three years. I was at sea for 13 years and four months out of those 33 years. Of course, most of that occurred during the first 20 years. As you get more senior you spend more time at the Pentagon and such.

Q: What did you enjoy about it?

A: The esprit de corps was just amazing. Captain Prosser was right. All the writers of World War II were right. I mean, yeah, you’re living in a pig boat in terms of the living conditions, especially on those World War II boats, was not necessarily wonderful. But you knew you were serving with the best. Admiral Rickover, the man who was in charge of the nuclear propulsion program only took the best. Everyone from the academy who wanted to get aboard nuclear submarines had to be personally approved by him. And for enlisted men, we only took from the top 10 percent of scores on the ASVAB test. So, we were a smart bunch of guys. And, after a while, we got pretty good at what we were doing. You won’t find many guys were where serving then who do not believe, and are not pretty proud of the fact, that we were instrumental in bringing the Soviet Union down. We knew we put an awful lot of stress on them to try and keep up with us, but during those years we were always technically superior to them and we made them feel it. We made them spend a lot of money just trying to protect their submarines from us, even though there were not battles during that time

Q: What was it like, living for months under water?

A: The longest I was ever submerged was 87 days, with nobody seeing the sun except whoever the Officer of the Day was, and me, on the periscope. But there was so much to do. Training was part of our everyday life, because of you don’t train for flooding and fire, you won’t survive. And of course, with a nuclear power plant on board, there’s lots to do to keep that operating. Constant maintenance, constant attention. So, nobody was ever bored. But moreover, we knew what we were doing was important. That’s’ important to the psyche. Back in those days there was a lot of caring going on.

Q: What most people know of submarines comes from movies like The Hunt for Red October. Is it at all like that in reality?

A: It’s funny you should ask that. Before I became an admiral I was serving as executive assistant to the Secretary of the Navy — and that’s a damn fine position to get if the secretary picks you to be the guy who controls his office — and when they were turning that book into a movie, there was a great concern about classified material in it. When the final script came in, I looked at it for page after page after page. I ended up only making one tiny correcting. My wife looked at it, too, and she was like, “This is terrible.” She said, “This is not going to do a thing. There are no women, there’s no sex, there’s nothing in here. It’s not going to fly.”

Well, we ended up ribbing here about that for years, because, of course, it ended up being the most successful submarine movie ever made. But that was, indeed, what it was like.

But my wife doesn’t mind, because we got to go on the movie set — I was there to make sure nothing so classified was depicted that it gave secrets to the enemy — and while were there the door opened and up from the Captain’s cabin came Sean Connery in his uniform, bigger than life. Well, My wife melted right on the spot.

Q: Who else have you met who you found larger than life?

A: Well, Tom Brokaw always struck me as larger than life. And the older George Bush, who was the one who elevated me to my [admiral] commission. But then, also, while I was at (NATO) Allied Command, even though I was the one who basically decided how we’d fight any war with submarines, I worked with a lot of very, very impressive people.

Q: What lessons from your long military service still stick with you?

A: Plan ahead. Pay attention to the little stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself. Try not to ever find yourself in an awkward position because you never thought about what would happen if you were ever in an awkward position. Basically, keep wa- ter out the people box, as we always used to say. If you take care of the little things, the big things won’t happen.

Q: As far as planning ahead goes, that’s kind of what you are doing now with the Mothers Wing? How’s it going?

A: Right now we’re about 60 percent of the way toward out fundraising goal. If construction can start late this year, we think it will take about eight months.

Q: How was the decision made to call the new wing the Mothers wing?

A: Well, if you look at all of the programs we have at the library, and there are over 400, most of them are children’s programs. So, naturally, over the years, mothers have been integral to fostering that love of reading and learning in their children.

Mothers have always seemed to be a constant focus. So, we thought, that, among other things, if someone donates a certain amount of money, we’ll paint her name and the name of her book on a mural of bookshelves on the second floor.

Q: What was your mother like?

A: Oh, she was tough. Her name was Jean. She lived to 84. She made us study, made us work, and gave us some backbone, I think.

Most of us by 8 or 9 were out with a paper route doing something. And she was a smart cookie, valedictorian of her class at Sanford High School and of Nasson College, too, when she went there. But back then, her career was “mother.”

But see really instilled in me a love of books. We were going to Alfred library when I was only 4 or 5 years old. I remember, it wasn’t too much further to walk to the library from out house than it was to the Alfred jail.

So, without her, my life really could have gone an entirely different way.

Editor’s Note: Real People is an occasional Post feature spotlighting individuals in the Kennebunks and Arundel community, whether they’ve touched greatness or simply lived greatly, telling their stories in their own words.

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