On January 29, 2022, we lost the inimitable Lois Bouton, known as “The Coast Guard Lady” for her dedication and devotion to the Coast Guard and its people. Mrs. Bouton was a woman of character. In her 102 years of living, she touched thousands of Coast Guard members and their families with her warm, thoughtful letters.
The Power of Believing
I was the fortunate recipient of some of those letters. When I was assigned as the first woman to command a vessel of the Great Lakes (the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.), it was hard. I was a young, seagoing officer who yearned to be seen as a sailor, not as a female sailor. Yet, having graduated in one of the first classes to accept women at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, I couldn’t escape being the first.
Not everyone was ready for a woman to be in charge of a ship with an all-male crew. I felt like I had to “prove myself” as the new commanding officer. Then I got a letter from Mrs. Bouton. She offered words of encouragement and support. She was proud of me and she believed in me. That message boosted me when I most needed it during a particularly challenging time.
Last June, I launched a book on character-centered leadership. Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters is my way of giving back leadership lessons learned during my 40 years in uniform with the U.S. Coast Guard. But I never forgot that I succeeded because of the women who navigated around the icebergs and broke the glass ceilings to make way for young women like me to follow. I dedicated my book, in part, to two remarkable women who did just that. Captain Dorothy Stratton and Petty Officer Olivia Hooker were members of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve, known as the SPARS for the service’s motto “Semper Paratus – Always Ready.” They were among the very first women to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Established during World War II, with the advocacy of Captain Stratton, the SPARS performed duties on the home front so men could serve in combat. In 1943, Mrs. Bouton stepped up to serve her country. She enlisted as a SPAR, and served as a radio operator. Following her tour of duty in the U.S. Coast Guard, she continued serving for 30 years as a first-grade teacher. Just think of the young lives she touched, leading in the classroom all those years.
I feel a bond with Mrs. Bouton that started with her first letter to me back in 1990 when I was assigned to the Katmai Bay. Over the years, I admired her for her core values, which reminded me of my own: hard work, perseverance, honesty, and humility. Lois Bouton personified all those and more. She was an upstanding woman of character. Her light shined for years, and I’m sad to see it extinguished. Yet her legacy lives on in the history of who she was and what she did to serve our nation, and our Coast Guard. Thank you, Mrs. Bouton. I salute you.
Look in the mirror. What have you done lately to offer encouragement to someone who could use a boost?
Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.
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