After spending a little more than 25 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, John McElwain thought a part-time job helping out the local community college might be a good way to spend his retirement.
Nearly 15 years later, McElwain is finally going to get some free time. His part time job quickly evolved into a full-time position as spokesperson for College of the Canyons, working with a variety of departments and education leaders to spread the good word about COC. That’s all ending this Friday, when he retires for real.
“This is the best job,” he said, musing over a myriad of events from the last 15 years. “It’s the same as the Coast Guard. You have no idea what you’re going to be doing from one day to the next. It could be a national championship sports team one day and some boneheaded kid who robbed a bank the next.
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“I don’t have to go to work, I get to go to work,” he said.
McElwain said the college offered him a chance to be surrounded by young leaders and the opportunity to be a leader, a mentor and sometimes a surrogate father to students.
“One way or another, I got to help young people grow."
When he started working at the college, originally in the foundation office, there were 4,300 students taking a limited number of classes. Today, there are two campuses, a University Center and 24,000 students investing in their futures, something he points to with pride.
McElwain’s former boss, Sue Bozman, was more of an academic and “knew administration and the education system like the back of her hand.” He drew from his experience being a front man for the Coast Guard, working with film companies, government and environmental officials on special events and put those skills to work to make the college an integral part of the community’s everyday experience.
“Our job was to provide information,” he explained. “We have to strike a balance with what the public wants and expects.”
He used the example of his involvement in the Exxon Valdez disaster, where he represented the Coast Guard working with environmental companies and international politics, including the vast international press corps hungry for information.
“Whether you’re dealing with a success or a failure, the only difference between the global stage and a small community is that you know the people you’re dealing with personally. It’s a different kind of responsibility.”
Before he landed at COC, there was that quarter-century spent in service to his country on or around the water. His career in the Coast Guard centered around public affairs, which involved knowing and supervising shore operations, law enforcement, search and rescue and dealing with the public on all levels.
He served as the Public Information Office in the Coast Guard’s Boston office and was the Executive Officer in New Haven, Connecticut. After earning a graduate degree in communications, he was sent to Seattle, where he supervised public affairs for the Pacific Northwest area. Back across the country he went to assume command in New London, Connecticut.
One event from that time brought a broad smile to his face, remembering his time with a long-gone Coast Guard colleague.
“In 1975, we exhumed the body of Hopley Yeaton, who was the first commissioned Coast Guard officer. He got his commission from George Washington in 1790 and died in 1812. Yeaton was buried on a family farm in Lubec, Maine that was threatened with development and the Guard thought it was time to bring him home.
McElwain was part of the group that handled the exhumation and transportation of Yeaton’s remains, which were re-buried at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.
Next on his orders: Motion Picture Liaison in Los Angeles. Another cross country trip for him, along with his wife, who was also a Coast Guard officer, and their two young daughters.
“It was a two person office,” he reminisced. “But I knew we could make a difference in how the Coast Guard was depicted. We could add some realism to the mix.”
Add to that the conundrum that military ships and facilities were often used by movie companies at no cost because they were considered public – funded by taxpayer money.
Citing the disastrous films that resulted from no supervision by military officials, (“Boatniks” or "The Island," anyone?), McElwain worked with legislators and in 1987, was instrumental in getting a law passed (it was a rider to the 1987 federal budget bill) that for the first time, allowed the government to be reimbursed when their property was used in productions.
“It gave us an opportunity to make sure that the Coast Guard was depicted correctly,” he said. “There were those who said that movie companies using us were giving us free advertising and PR, but we convinced them that this was best all around.”
He served as advisor on movies such as “Clear and Present Danger,” “License to Kill,” and a reality show entitled "Coast Guard" that ran three seasons in syndication on TV.
“Baywatch was huge in England and Germany,” he said. “We were in Scotland and there was one of our ships with a helicopter on it. People by the dock asked us if that was the copter they used in ‘Baywatch’ and one of my guys told them ‘no,’ so they weren’t very happy. I told him in the future, tell them yes, it does great things for our image.”
Image was everything to McElwain and it served him well. He points to movies such as “The Guardian” and “The Perfect Storm” as accurate, mostly because of the effort to help film companies instead of turn them away and simply hope for the best.
“Plus, we had a weekly series about the Coast Guard on the air,” he said, referring to ‘Baywatch.’
The film office gig led to one more important office, that of handling Media Relations worldwide out of Washington D.C. One of his duties during that time was working on the rededication of the Statue of Liberty.
“We did all the media from Governor’s Island, there were performances and a laser light show, everything to light up the Statue – and because it was on the water, the Coast Guard was involved.”
Fast forward to the end of that 25 ½ year stint – newly retired, McElwain applied for a part-time position with the college’s foundation. Soon he found himself working with Bozman, who he called “a perfect match” – their skills complimented each other – a relationship that continued for more than a decade before Bozman’s retirement in 2009.
He’s still very proud and happy of what he accomplished at the college, and gives credit to the teamwork at the school.
“It’s very similar to the Coast Guard,” he said. “A ship is nothing but cold steel until the crew gets on. A college is just bricks and mortar until the people get there.
“My staff is marvelous and I will miss them a lot,” he continued. “I got to work with every department on campus and see the community embrace the college. You can’t talk about the growth of the community without talking about the college. You can’t talk about the nonprofits, or the city or the business community with College of the Canyons being a part of that conversation. The college became integrated in ways we never imagined and there is a large sense of ownership from our community.”
Asked if he was ready to go, he nodded in the affirmative.
”If you lead properly, it hurts to go, but it hurts the staff more by staying,” he said.
“I have no regrets. I had two great careers and it’s been a kick in the pants.”
“I’ve always felt that I’ve been charmed,” he said. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time and I remain optimistic.”
There is one item on his "to do" list and that is to write.
“It’s something I want to do for my kids. I feel the need to write, not a memoir, but to tell them some of the things they’ve never heard; things from the time I spent in operations or on movie sets and I had to miss birthdays or graduations. There are a lot of things they would benefit from knowing, that I was doing it for business or our family.”
One thing is for sure. If that book ever gets published, it will be a best-seller.