Ancient Keeper’s 41 Year Watch Ends Friday

Story and photo by Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen

John Downey has helped save mariners’ lives in New England for the past 41 years. The Coast Guard master chief has stayed in the Northeast his entire career, but Friday he is finally going to step down and let someone else take over.

Downey, 60, joined the Coast Guard four decades ago in 1966. Thirty-seven years and a wealth of experience later, he was honored with the Coast Guard’s first and sole Joshua James Keeper Award. The award’s namesake is credited with saving more than 600 people and is said to be one of the world’s most celebrated lifesavers.

Master Chief John Downey retiring after 41 years service.

The prestigious award, along with the title of Ancient Keeper given to the award recipient, was created to recognize Coast Guardsmen with outstanding performance and longevity of service at boat forces units, which are multi-mission units excluding cutters and air stations.

Downey’s career includes more than 28 years in those assignments, every one of them in New England. But Friday morning his Coast Guard career will be over.

The symbolic change of watch ceremony will be held on the lawn overlooking Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island next to a lighthouse Downey has fond childhood memories of. There, he will pass his cherished title on to someone else while about 500 of his peers, family and friends look on.

He grew up in Narragansett, R.I., in the house right next door to the Coast Guard station, saved his first life there – a fisherman in distress – and was the officer in charge in 1980 and again in 1998. So, it was no surprise when he announced that he wanted to hold his change of watch and retirement ceremonies there as well.

“It’s been a part of my life forever,” Downey said of Station Point Judith.

He used to watch search and rescue drills and play in the boathouse at the Coast Guard station when he was a boy. He credits those experiences for his decision to join the Coast Guard.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Chad Curth, the current officer in charge of the station, said he’s honored that Downey chose Station Point Judith as the location for the ceremonies.

“Master Chief Downey is sort of a legend in the First District,” Curth said. “As the first (Ancient) Keeper award recipient, I think it is very fitting that he relinquishes that title at the place where he was first in command and the only unit he has commanded twice.”

During his last two years in the Coast Guard, Downey has not been in command of a unit but has continued to fill an important role as the First District command master chief. Downey is a liaison between the operational units he led for so many years and the two-star admiral in command of the entire district.

“One of the best decisions I made coming in was selecting him to work with me as the command master chief,” said Rear Adm. Timothy Sullivan, commander of the First District, which extends from Maine to northern New Jersey. “You can trust him 100 percent of the time to do the right things for the right reasons. I really respect him a lot.”

Downey seems to inadvertently command respect from everyone he works with. As is the case with command staff duty driver Seaman Zach Coleman, who occasionally drove Downey to official functions.

“He treats everyone the same – from a seaman apprentice all the way up to the admiral,” Coleman said. “He gives people the respect they deserve, regardless of their rank.”

“He has a down-to-earth way about him that makes him very effective at his job,” said Curth.

And despite some challenges, his family life has been equally successful.

He married his wife Judith when he was 20 years old. Early in his career they decided together that they would do what was best for their children when it came time for him to transfer to a new unit. That meant that rather than making their five children switch schools every few years, Downey and his wife chose to live several hours apart for a large part of his career.

“When he was home, it was more about the quality of time than the quantity,” Judith said.

They kept their children on a stable, routine schedule and Downey made his best effort not to miss any softball games, school events, or other important activities, she said.

Although that would be difficult for many couples, the Downeys never questioned whether or not it would work. They celebrated their 40th anniversary in December.

Now that he’s leaving the Coast Guard, he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family, even though they may have to get used to that.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s home all the time,” Judith said, laughing.

But the grandfather of six is happy to have more time at home.

“Now I’m going to do the things I haven’t found the time or made the time to do,” he said.

Still, he knows saying goodbye to his shipmates will be difficult.

“I’ll miss the camaraderie,” Downey said. “I’ll miss the fantastic feelings I get when I see people accomplish great things. I’ll miss it.”

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