In Annual Pope Lecture, Gregory Johnson Calls on Young People to Pursue Public ServiceBy Paulina Morales ’24
In his talk, "The Privilege, Benefits, and Responsibility of Public Service," Johnson discussed his experience serving as a military officer and the satisfaction and fulfillment he derived from a career in public service.
Johnson, a native of Westmanland, a town in Maine's northernmost Aroostook County, is a retired US Navy admiral and the former commander of the US Naval Forces, Europe and Allied Forces, Southern Europe. Following his career in the US Navy, Johnson retired in 2004 and founded Snow Ridge Associates, a provider of strategic advice and counsel.
Johnson then honored the legacy of Everett Pope ’41, H’46, H’89. “He was among the hundreds of Bowdoin graduates who became giants of their generation, and selflessly went about our nation’s business in a time of great need during World War II.” He recounted Pope’s service in the armed forces as he successfully led his men in the fight against Japanese attacks while all odds were stacked against him. Pope received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman for his service and two honorary degrees from Bowdoin.
Johnson described a stroll he took across campus three weeks before the lecture, a time he used to reflect upon the service of the men inscribed in the “deeply moving memorials” across campus. The names, he stated, “helped me better understand the selfless willingness to serve the common good displayed by these Bowdoin graduates. That same level of selfless willingness to serve the common good is in the DNA of every Bowdoin student who walks off the stage at graduation.”
Johnson spoke about his own early career when he served in the armed forces in the 1960s. During this era of the Vietnam War, he said the armed forces faced an onslaught of attacks in the midst of racial unrest. During his first assignment, between 1975 and 1978 at the Pentagon, he was required to wear civilian clothing as "it was deemed too risky to be seen in public wearing a uniform.”
Decades later, respect for the armed forces improved dramatically, especially compared to other bodies such as Congress or the executive branch, he noted. But despite its favorable standing, the US military still faces declining numbers.
Johnson also says he believes the nation should consider some form of mandatory public service for every American sometime between their eighteenth and twenty-fourth birthdays.
“I am confident that these millennials and Gen Z-ers will address the many vexing issues discussed this evening," said Johnson. "They will answer the call to public service as generations of Bowdoin graduates before them did and bring their civic awareness and their Bowdoin education to bear at the local, state, and national levels.”