New London – Jen Gaudio is very protective of museum artifacts.
As a museum curator at the Coast Guard Academy, she sometimes taught using historical medals, “and they disappear very easily, so I had to constantly count them,” she said.
Gaudio recalled that after taking time off for brain surgery in 2015, due to her Parkinson’s disease, she realized she wasn’t counting the medals. She convinced her then roommate to drive her around to count the medals, “got arrested” and got a conversation about coming to work before she was medically cleared.
Parkinson’s disease forced Gaudio, 50, into early retirement after 13 years as a curator. The museum’s longest-serving permanent curator, she stopped working in January and is hosting a retirement ceremony next week.
She and her colleagues say it was hard for her to let go. The museum was his life.
Gaudio thought of a medal awarded to Joshua James, a captain who saved hundreds of lives and was a member of the US Life-Saving Service, which would merge with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the US Coast Guard. Her great-granddaughter received the medal – now in the museum’s collection – when she had night terrors and was told it would protect her.
“For me, the academy and the Coast Guard were my Joshua James gold because they, in more ways than I think, kept me going on the days I just don’t think that I could have gone further,” says Gaudio. “And for that, I thank them.”
Gaudio is most proud of her work on the 2012 renovations of the 4,000 square foot museum and her work on the historical programming for the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. The renovations involved changing the format from thematic to chronological and adding a space dedicated to changing exhibits.
“It should have been done with a staff of 10 people, at least, and she did it on her own,” said Scott Price, the Coast Guard’s chief historian.
Price noted that Gaudio attracted many swabs — incoming cadets — interested in history and offered museum tours for VIP guests visiting the academy. (One story Gaudio likes to tell is that she accidentally introduced herself to Sandra Day O’Connor as Sandra Day O’Connor.)
As for his successor, Price said he needs to go through the federal civilian hiring process and hopes to have someone in the position in six to eight months.
Price and Lauren Laughlin, Acting Curator, spoke about Gaudio’s work with the family of Lt. Thomas JE Crotty. In 1942, Crotty became the first Coast Guard to be held as a prisoner of war since the War of 1812, and he died in a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines during an outbreak of diphtheria.
Crotty’s remains were not identified until 2019. Gaudio attended the funeral service held in Buffalo that year and she was given Crotty’s collection for the museum.
“You can conjure up almost any object or name, and Jen will tell you a single fact,” Laughlin said. She added, “Just the uniqueness of the hidden parts of the Coast Guard is what she went for.”
Laughlin said one of Gaudio’s favorite things is doll shoes made from reindeer hooves, sourced from the Revenue Cutter Service bringing domesticated reindeer from Siberia to Alaska Natives. There is also a giant inflatable unicorn hanging in the museum.
“I appreciated his sense of humor, his curiosity and his appreciation of the absurd,” said Coast Guard curator Arlyn Danielson.
Cmdr retired. Gary Thomas, Executive Director of the Foundation for Coast Guard History, said, “The Coast Guard has a rich and fascinating history, but for many people history is just a boring timeline of events. Jen brings it to life.
Fulfill a longtime dream
Gaudio said she has always been interested in history. Growing up in New Jersey, one of her strongest influences was her father, who shared her stories and took her children to an old dump, where they dug up toys and bottles.
“It always made me feel like the story is all over the place,” Gaudio said. “It’s just lying in layers, underneath everything.”
Gaudio earned a double major in Historic Preservation and American History at Goucher College in Maryland. After completing Cooperstown’s graduate program for history museum studies, she worked in Illinois with a collection of art, clothing, and more amassed by a Czechoslovak fraternal society. She worked for the Lynn Museum & Historical Society in Massachusetts, then for the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia.
But she said she had always loved the Coast Guard, going back to stories she heard as a child while touring the Jersey Shore with her family. She continued to apply for Coast Guard jobs throughout her career and was ultimately successful: becoming the museum’s curator in 2008. While she had been interested in maritime history in previous jobs, Gaudio said nothing prepared her for working in the military, “and I had so many protocol issues.”
She remembers receiving an invitation to an end-of-year party, but being too scared to ask what “casual civil festive” meant. She showed up in vintage clothes, red lipstick and rhinestones, “and I go to Admiral’s and it’s like J. Crew country. I’m totally overdressed.” She “chickened off” and tried to go into the out line but accidentally ended up in the receiving line.
Meanwhile, she was beginning to have trouble with her hands but had yet to see a doctor, and she was acutely aware of the dangers of picking up nibbles in a house with white carpeting, white walls, and white upholstery. So when she came face to face in the queue with then-Superintendent Rear Admiral J. Scott Burhoe, the only thing she could think of to say was, “Admiral , your house is very white.”
Gaudio was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009 and a bad fall last March triggered his retirement process. She said she “learned to fall as gracefully as possible in physiotherapy” and never hit her head, but landing on her bottom exacerbated her back pain. She has now started using a wheelchair again, which had been on and off since 2014, before her two brain surgeries.
Price, the Coast Guard’s chief historian, said he left the door open for Gaudio to continue to be involved and that she was part of the Coast Guard family.
Part of Gaudio’s legacy as a curator will be her efforts to get people to better understand the Coast Guard. In an interview Friday in the lobby of her New London building, she spoke about the Coast Guard laughing at him and not getting recognition from other armed forces.
“I think that’s partly because we don’t fit into a soundbite. Explaining what the Coast Guard does takes too long, and we’re a soundbite population,” Gaudio said. She added: “We are, as a society, attuned to the idea of the cowboy and the hero and the life and death situation. But in terms of war, we don’t think about the guy who risked his life in a helicopter to save someone, unless you’re the person he’s saving, or you live on the coast.”