He may have traveled the world and advised the president on a national crisis, but U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger can still remember his childhood in Elyria, taking piano lessons on Middle Avenue and graduating from Keystone High School.
Neffenger, who was recently nominated by President Barack Obama for the position of vice commandant — the second in command in the U.S. Coast Guard — returned to his roots this week. On Thursday, he met with students and gave a talk at his alma mater, Baldwin Wallace University.
For Neffenger, coming back home to both his former college and his hometown of Elyria is always a grounding experience.
“You know how everything works … there’s a physical feeling to it,” Neffenger said of returning to Lorain County and the surrounding area.
Neffenger now works from Washington, D.C., and was on the advisory council to Obama during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but he still credits a lot of his success to what he learned as a child growing up in Elyria.
“Elyria was a small enough community that you had a community,” Neffenger said, crediting the city for opening his eyes to diversity. He remembers one student in particular when he was at Keystone High School who would walk around with a pencil, giving interviews to other students. “I realized the world is full of interesting, oddball people.”
It was this realization, along with the trips with his church youth group to places like Puerto Rico and Jamaica that Neffenger said really gave him a sense of adventure and interest in the world outside Elyria.
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the world, and I had to go pay attention to it.”
With this mindset, Neffenger graduated from Baldwin Wallace and later got three master’s degrees from Harvard, the Naval War College and Central Michigan University. He rose to the ranks of vice admiral and became deputy commandant for operations for the Coast Guard.
Neffenger was on a committee of government and military officials who advised the White House on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico in what Neffenger calls “one of the most intense summers of my life.”
In the months after the April 20, 2010, spill, Neffenger said he faced some of the most-difficult situations in his career, including receiving criticism from the public and media.
“Sometimes your role is to be the person who catches all the arrows … so you can let the people who need to get (the work) done, get it done,” Neffenger said.
Now, almost four years after the disaster, Neffenger finds himself as much in love with the Coast Guard as before. He said his recent nomination by the president to become the second-in-command in the Coast Guard is “humbling.”
“I didn’t expect to still be in the Coast Guard,” he said, adding that if the U.S. Senate votes to confirm him as the vice commandant, he will be able to not only stay in the Coast Guard but to have a much more active national role.
“(I would) stay in at a level that allows me to touch the entire Coast Guard,” Neffenger said.
Though he’s not sure when the decision will come through the Senate, Neffenger said he’s not nervous, partially because he was already voted into his position.
“They looked at me once before, so maybe I’m OK,” he said with a laugh.
It’s with this same attitude that Neffenger has led most of his career up to this point.
“Everybody fails,” he said of the advice he told himself when taking on a somewhat daunting career path. “You just have to redefine failure.”