They say bravery is common, but great souls are rare – John Gordon Witherspoon was among the rarest of souls.
Born August 26, 1939 in the North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, John Witherspoon was the fourth of 11 children born to Jesse and Augusta Witherspoon. Raised in a working-class family, Lenoir, Witherspoon began to show leadership potential at an early age by helping to raise his siblings. “John was always in teaching mode,” said one of his siblings. “He was the person you went to for advice, and he always encouraged us to reflect and look to the future.”
Growing up in the pre-civilian American South, Witherspoon was always aware of his role as a black man in America. He taught his siblings that they had to fight like crazy to get what they wanted in life. Witherspoon’s weapon of choice for combat was personal excellence, and his mantra was “learn, think, then act”. When one of her younger sisters quit her job, Witherspoon sat her down to write about the consequences of her actions and what she hoped to gain by losing her job. She recalled the experience teaching her a valuable lesson in problem-solving and decision-making: “John made it clear to each of us that we needed to be a force for good and a platform for change.” Several of the Witherspoon siblings would grow up to be transformational community and business leaders.
Witherspoon was an outstanding student and formidable athlete, playing football, baseball, and basketball. In a basketball championship game, he took 11 shots and hit them all. When the paper came out the next day, the sportswriter nicknamed him “Mr. Perfect,” a nickname that stayed with him throughout high school.
After high school, Witherspoon’s parents could not afford to send him to college. Witherspoon chose to enlist in the U.S. Army, even as Army deployments to the Vietnam War were increasing. After serving a three-year enlistment, he returned home to care for his aging parents.
In 1963, Witherspoon enlisted in the Coast Guard, and within eight years achieved the rank of Quartermaster First Class. It was then that he set his sights on becoming a commissioned officer. He had an exemplary enlistment record, an excellent reputation, and was confident he could meet the academic challenges of Officer Candidate School (OCS). However, there was a problem. Witherspoon could not meet the selection criteria, which required two years of college education. That didn’t stop Witherspoon’s stubborn determination from achieving his goal. He applied for a waiver and, with the support of Congress, was allowed to apply for the SCO. He was eventually selected and, 17 weeks later, graduated with academic honors.
Retired Chief Petty Officer Jimmi Wilson fondly recalls Witherspoon’s OCS journey: “He stopped by my office on his way to OCS. Four months later, in 1971, he came to my office for a brief visit as a Coast Guard ensign. I was very proud of him. I am happy to have had the pleasure of serving with him!
Witherspoon’s officer assignments were diverse and demonstrated the pioneering role he played in Coast Guard history. He served as commander of the Mallow, Valiant, and Dependable Cutters. When he took command of the Valiant, he became the first African-American officer to command a Coast Guard medium-endurance cutter. When Witherspoon assumed command of Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Services in Houston/Galveston, the event marked the first time an African-American officer commanded both afloat and shore units.
Reflecting on his memory of “Papa Spoon,” retired Vice Admiral Manson Brown said, “There were fewer than 80 black officers in the Coast Guard when I was appointed in 1978. Then Lt. John Witherspoon was one of them. Our paths did not cross until I interacted with him at National Naval Officers Association conferences beginning in the mid-1980s. Attendees embraced Papa Spoon as one of the few senior men in the corps black officers. He was an inspiring role model. He embodied leadership by example. He showed composure and professionalism. And, he taught us that we can make a positive difference in the Coast Guard through commitment, hard work and perseverance. His most powerful lesson for me was his exceptional ability to graciously speak truth to power, which I watched him demonstrate on more than one occasion. I especially remember Captain Witherspoon’s playful smile, which he often shared during casual moments. His legacy illuminates a path to excellence for those who follow. Although I have received many humble honors over the course of my career, I cherish it most when I was named in 1994 as the first recipient of the Coast Guard’s Captain John G. Witherspoon Award for Inspirational Leadership. It’s a testament to the influence Papa Spoon has had on me and countless others. His name is etched in my heart forever!”
According to Coast Guard Captain Warren Judge, “When I reported to the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant in 1990 as a radioman second class, my [commanding officer (CO)], Commander Witherspoon, was the first senior African-American officer I met in my career. I always thought about being an officer in the Coast Guard, but after serving under Commander Witherspoon for three years, my desire grew. Knowing of my aspirations to be like our commanding officer, a board of chief petty officers began calling me “Teaspoon”, a name given to supporters of Witherspoon. There are many stories I could share from my three years working for and under Captain Witherspoon, one that resonates with me – we were on patrol, and our mid-patrol break was delayed for three days, at the three day mark, we were again extended for two days. At the end of those 48 hours, the commander received another call to discuss our extension again. After an “interesting” radio conversation, the last words I heard were: “My crew have been working hard. We return to port tomorrow morning for the mid-patrol break. OUTSIDE!’ Later Papa Spoon called me to his quarters to provide me with 101 leadership. He talked about the importance of taking care of your crew at all costs because once you lose the respect of your crew it is difficult to win it back. When it was time for me to transfer, Captain Witherspoon strongly suggested that I put Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina on my dream sheet. I replied, ‘No sir, I have no idea where that unit is.’ Captain Witherspoon said, “Yes.” Judge RM2 said “No”. While on patrol, Captain Witherspoon called the designer and said, “Judge RM2 will take over Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina.” . . the end!’ I didn’t know Captain Witherspoon was from Lenoir, NC, and he knew there was a Historic Black College and University (HBCU) near the air base. Listening to my mentor [smiling]I went to airfield and later graduated from Elizabeth City State University.”
I don’t remember when or where I first met John Witherspoon. However, I remember shortly after we first met, he started greeting me with the nickname “Namesake” because we shared the name John. He called me Namesake, but I always called him “Sir”! I quickly understood the qualities that many appreciated in him: integrity, honesty, pragmatism and a focus on problem solving.
In my years of service, I never heard Papa Spoon complain. However, I remember him speaking bravely about what he described as his most difficult mission: enforcing a US immigration policy in the Caribbean Sea that he deemed discriminatory against migrants of color. Haitian immigrants were summarily repatriated without a hearing, while Cubans were offered safe haven as political asylum seekers. He also noted that the policy was incredibly insulting to African-American crew members who had to carry out this perceived unfair practice.
Witherspoon’s military and civilian awards and decorations included the Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal, two Coast Guard Commendation Medals, and the Roy Wilkins Distinguished Service Award from the National Association for the Advancement of the Persons of color (NAACP). After his death in 1994, the Coast Guard established the Captain John G. Witherspoon Inspirational Leadership Award, given to an officer who, like Captain Witherspoon, exemplified the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect, and dedication. . In 1995, the National Naval Officers Association established the Captain John G. Witherspoon Award for Excellence in Leadership and Mentorship. Additionally, in 2003, Captain Witherspoon was inducted into the Caldwell County School Hall of Fame (North Carolina). A plaque with his photo and biography hangs in several Caldwell County schools as an inspirational example for students. Soon it will also be honored as the namesake of a Coast Guard “Sentinel” class rapid response cutter.
Throughout his career, Witherspoon has distinguished himself as a model professional. However, it wasn’t just professional accomplishments that cemented Captain Witherspoon’s legacy. Instead, Papa Spoon will be most remembered for his wise counsel, superb personal example, and compassionate mentorship to so many Coast Guard men and women who are pursuing the “right path.” Papa Spoon was the consummate awareness of caring for others, and in the years to come his role model and mentorship will multiply through his army of ‘teaspoons’.
If we need a guiding star to guide our life, our work and our service to others, we could not ask for a better example than Captain John Gordon Witherspoon. The professionalism and charisma that Captain Witherspoon displayed at all times spoke volumes about who he was and how respected his voice was not only among his peers, but also in the Coast Guard. He was a pioneer in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, who taught us to fulfill our duty to one another as human beings.
In January 1994, as I walked in the funeral procession of friends and family behind the horse-drawn coffin of Captain John Gordon Witherspoon, I reflected on how much I had benefited from his wisdom, expertise operational and fundamental values that have guided his extraordinary life. As I walked, I thought I heard a soft, calm voice say, “Now it’s your turn. I looked at Papa Spoon’s flag-draped casket and smiled.
I am truly blessed and honored to have known Papa Spoon and to have been the beneficiary of his wisdom. I will never forget his magnetic smile. I can only hope to leave a legacy half as remarkable as the one he left to the Coast Guard and to me.