Gordon Nugent — From the navy to newspapers
Although Navy veteran Gordon Nugent did not see combat during World War II, that does not mean he was not exposed to the death and destruction wrought by the worldwide conflict.
Nugent, who will be the grand marshal in Monday’s Memorial Day parade, sat down with The Bulletin to reflect on his military service.
A native of Peoria, Ill., Nugent is the son of a farmer’s daughter and a traveling salesman. Upon graduation from high school in 1944, Nugent qualified through testing for officer’s candidate school.
“I was asked which branch of the service I wanted to be in,” he said with a smile. “I didn’t know how to swim and my parents were afraid of water so, of course, I checked Navy.”
The Navy offered to send Nugent, who planned to major in mechanical engineering, to any school in the country.
“That was the first of my lifetime mistakes,” he said, adding that he opted for Purdue University on the advice of a school principal. “I could have gone to MIT or CalTech.”
But off to Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., he went. What should have been an exciting time for him was darkened by thoughts of his classmates who went off to war.
“Purdue had a huge ballroom that attracted the likes of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey,” he said of the big band leaders. “While I was dancing, some of my classmates were dying,” adding that was the first feeling of survivor’s guilt that would dog him throughout his life.
His next mistake, he said, was not understanding the importance of three things:
- Completing what one has begun.
- Obtaining a degree.
- Obtaining a [military] commission.
With the end of the war in 1945, the Navy shut down the officer’s training program. It presented the students with a choice:
- Enter the Naval Air Forces.
- Complete his degree and serve out his military commitment.
- Drop out of school, go to boot camp and join the fleet.
“I was confused … I didn’t know anything of the world,” he said of his 19-year-old self. “I went with the fleet to see what life aboard a warship was like.”
His next mistake, he said, was admitting to knowing how to type, and with that he was sent to Washington, D.C., to the Navy Bureau of Medicine, Division of Death Records.
“I typed the details of the deaths of Navy personnel killed in action,” he said. “You can imagine the horrendous range of details — the needless accidents and all kinds of mayhem. It tended to magnify my guilt complex.”
When Nugent’s hitch was up he went back to Purdue to complete his degree. but upon graduating, instead of engineering he headed into journalism, working at a country weekly in a small farming town outside Peoria. “I was editorial writer, janitor, and linotype operator,” he said.
Considering a career in journalism, “I thought The New York Times should be my goal,” he said, so he got in his car — paid for with earnings from his Navy service — and drove to New York City. There were no openings for the copy boy position he applied for at The Times, but he was hired at the New York Post.
“It was wildly different than The Times,” he said, “with characters beyond belief.”
He eventually heard from The Times, which hired him as a clerk on the foreign desk, where he gathered news from teletype machines and short-wave radio.
“I was part of the action,” Nugent said, adding it spurred him to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. After obtaining his degree he married Irene Scheidmann, a concert pianist from Vienna, and the two sailed off on the Queen Mary to Europe for their honeymoon.
When they returned, with no jobs and little money, they settled in Riverdale and Nugent embarked on a career in public relations, where he could earn more than if he stayed in newspapers. It was a good career — first with General Electric and then with Union Carbide — but his heart was still in journalism.
“These days, seeing journalism attacked as the "enemy of the people,” he said, “with Trump’s rhetoric convincing people. I wish I could be back at The Times and acting against it.”
Moving to Wilton
It was while he was working at General Electric that he and Irene got a notion to move to the country.
“We couldn’t afford Westchester or the Connecticut coast, but when we made our way to Wilton, it had that familiar country atmosphere and the rolling hills of New England.”
He still lives in the house they purchased in 1959.
Nugent spent his career commuting from Westport to Manhattan and said, “If you’re considering a commuter career, forget it. It impedes with having a family. You leave before the kids are up and get home after they are in bed. … It’s no way to build a family’s ties.”
But his two children, Bärli and Thomas, survived, and graduated from Wilton High School.
Nugent counts his blessings — “We are lucky to be in the richest region of the richest state” — but I am depressed at the way the country is going. Up the road in Bridgeport, children are born in poverty, with only nine percent having a chance to get a college degree.
“Put another way, 91 percent of kids born in poverty — some may be Beethovens or Einsteins or God knows who — but they will never become what they might have been. We need to be ashamed of the poverty in this country and doing nothing about it.”
Closer to home, Nugent said he is proud to be in Monday’s parade. “It is one of the town’s best community events,” he said.