Gen. John Shalikashvili, 1936-2011

<p>Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, U.S. Army, delivers his remarks during his farewell ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., on Sept. 30, 1997.  </p>

SEAVIEW — As many mourn the death of John Shalikashvili, a four-star general and the former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, some Peninsula residents reminisced this week about a local vacationer who was a true product of the American dream.

A Polish immigrant, Shalikashvili died from complications from a stroke on Saturday, July 23, at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma. He was 75, and is survived by his wife, Joan, and a son, Brant.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military council in the U.S. He was the first immigrant to achieve that rank.

Former State Sen. Sid Snyder remembered with a chuckle, “He wasn’t seeking the position, but the president offered him the job and he said ‘You don’t turn the president down.’”

Shalikashvili retired from the Army in September 1997.

Local reactions

For a number of years, the general spent a couple weeks each summer on the Peninsula at Joan’s family’s vacation home. Joan and her sister, Jean Thompson, inherited the home from the Sugarman family, who owned a grocery store in Seaview years ago.

John Gevurtz, whose family has vacationed in Seaview for generations, shared fond memories of Shalikashvili and his annual August trips to the coast. 

“He was very impressed with the United States as a little boy, and growing up here, he was very proud,” Gevurtz said from his Portland home on Monday. 

“He was sort of interesting, because the military is usually with the Republicans and all, but he came out for one of the Democratic presidential candidates and even gave a talk at the presidential Democratic convention.”

Gevurtz says he even had Thanksgiving dinner at the Shoalwater with the general. 

“I remember he ordered duck. I was really surprised,” he said. “He was really in the spirit of things, a pretty exceptional person I think.

“He was always friendly, down to earth, a very nice guy, very smart, he loved Seaview,” said Gevurtz. “But, you know, he had his agents around him just in case he needed to communicate.”

Gevurtz remembers when Shalikashvili used the Super 8 motel as his office away from home during the Cold War.

“He had to be in touch with the Pentagon and the White House; he had communications there,” he explained. “That whole first floor was occupied by U.S. federal government communications in case they needed him … A few times he had to go to Astoria, and then Portland to fly to Washington, D.C., because president needed him.” 

“He’d continually get briefings and updates,” added Jean Thompson’s husband, Howard. “But I don’t remember anything big that blew up while he was here, that sort of thing … But he was a very regular guy. I’ve put up sheetrock with him, and we did some renovations on that beach house and he’d be hammering and sawing with us.”

Loyalty Days supporter

In 2003, Shalikashvili was the guest speaker at the Loyalty Days banquet, where he shared how the Lewis and Clark Expedition shaped the nation and how the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks impacted the American people. 

He suffered a severe stroke in 2004, the same year he served as an advisor for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. 

He was a visiting professor for Stanford University, as well as an active supporter in reversing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a goal which came to fruition the day before he died.

Loyalty Days committee member Bob Andrew remembered, “He was very genuine, the whole family was. His son, Brant, did all of his booking and PR stuff, and he came to the banquet with John and Joan. Just down to earth folks. It was a lofty title, but it wasn’t in his head. If he saw you on the street, he would talk with you and remember your name. He was one of those people that you never forget once you crossed paths.”

“You know he was just about a regular guy as you could find,” Snyder concurred. “I’m sure he was a tough officer and a tough general, but sitting down and talking to him was like talking with your next door neighbor. Just a delightful guy … He was just a regular guy, I don’t think when he came to town he made himself to be someone special.”

The rise to the top

Born on June 27, 1936, in Warsaw, Poland, he moved to the U.S. with his family at the age of 16 and learned English by watching movies. He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., in 1958. That May, he and his parents became American citizens; he received a draft notice in July.

He entered the Army as a private, applied to Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1959. In field artillery and air defense artillery, he served as a forward observer, platoon leader, instructor and company commander. In 1968 and 1969, he served as a senior district advisor for Advisory Team 19, Military Assistance Command, in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam.

Upon returning from Vietnam, he attended the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He received a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1970.

It was also in 1970 that he became executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery at Fort Lewis. Seventeen years later, he became commander of the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis. 

While acting as NATO commander, he served as commander of Operation Provide Comfort, which delivered humanitarian aid to Kurdish refugees who had fled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime to northern Iraq during the Gulf War. Many credited Shalikashvili’s sensitivity to displaced civilians to his own experiences, as he was a child of a family who fled the Soviet Union and had grown up in Poland during World War II.

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