2017-08-18 / Front Page

Sopo native leads local ‘Fleet Week’

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Rear Admiral Mark Whitney Rear Admiral Mark Whitney Each year, the U.S. Navy stages what is colloquially known as “Fleet Week,” its signature outreach program, designed to not only unleash sailors on ports of call, but to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the forces that have defended our shores from the very beginning of the nation’s history.

Known since 2005 as Navy Week, the annual event has visited 72 cities, and this year Portland is one of 15 ports of call. Portland’s Navy Week will be held Aug. 21-27, and is timed to coincide with the Great State of Maine Airshow, to be staged in Brunswick on Aug. 26-27 with the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team and the main attraction.

Other events will include Navy divers and explosive ordnance disposal teams, sailors from the USS Constitution, musical performances by Navy Band Northeast, access to Navy simulators and other interactive displays, and visits by navel personnel to local schools.

And at the forefront of all of that will be a South Portland native, Rear Admiral Mark Whitney, 54, now the director of fleet maintenance at U.S. fleet forces command in Norfolk, Virginia.

On Monday, Aug. 14, Rear Admiral Whitney was at work in San Diego, but took time to speak to the Sentry via telephone about Navy Week, his career, and what how it all started for a kid from Thornton Heights.

Q: When did your family come to South Portland?

A: I started living in South Portland in 1964 and I graduated from South Portland High School in 1980. Then I graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1984.

Q: How did you spend your childhood in the city?

A: My parents lived down in Thornton Heights. There used to be an old A&W Root Beer place. We used to play baseball in a field there in the neighborhood. I used to walk to elementary school, up to Skillin School and Memorial Middle School. I played soccer and tennis in school. I ran track. And my stepfather had a 25-foot sailboard and we would sail the summers out in Casco Bay.

Q: And is that how you became interested in a career at sea?

A: Actually, in high school, in my sophomore year, the tennis coach, Peter Debervoice, went on a sabbatical. He had a 25-foot converted Maine lobster boat. I crewed for him for that summer and we went from Maine to New York, up the Hudson (River), through the Erie Canal, through the Great Lakes, down the Illinois and Mississippi (rivers), through the intercostal waterways and down to Tampa, Florida. And that really piqued my interest in things maritime.

Q: How did you get that opportunity?

A: I was a tennis player and knew him that way. So, I knew he was going on this trip and one day I asked him if I could crew and he thought about it and say, hey, that’s not a bad idea.

Q: And how big of a threshold moment was that for you in your life?

A: I was awesome. It was absolutely incredible. We stopped in a marina every single night. The Hudson, Great Lakes and Illinois and Mississippi were full of maritime industries. So, I got to see first hand an amazing slice of that world over the course of those two months.

Q: And that set you on a course to attending Maine Maritime?

A: It happened at a time when I was deciding where to apply (to college) and that definitely prompted me to add Maine Maritime to the list.

Q: What was your intention when you went to Maine Maritime. Were you expecting to springboard into the Navy at that time?

A: No. Actually, when I started at Maine Maritime, the Navy was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to go to sea and be an engineer. But by the time my class was getting ready to go into our senior year there were not maritime industry jobs, no shipping jobs. And so, I believe our class in 1984 had the largest number of seniors that joined the military since World War II.

Q: And what were your early years in the military like?

A: My going-in plan was I was going to go in for four years and get out, and hopefully by then the maritime industry would be different. I still had a third assistant engineer’s license for steam or diesel of any horsepower, and I really just wanted to go to sea. But the Navy just kept opening doors for me. I was having a great time doing what I was doing and I’ve loved every day ever since. So, I just kept going.

Q: You’ve been all around the world. What part have you enjoyed the most?

A: I’ve been stationed in Midport, Florida; Tampa, Florida; Monterey, California; Norfolk, Virginia; Frederickson, Washington; Washington, D.C. But I’ve traveled all over the place and I would say my most favorite place has probably been Washington State.

Q: Why was that?

A: Well, it reminded me an awful lot of Maine. And that’s where I got command of one of the navel shipyards out there, like the one in Portsmouth, down near Kittery, and my family and I just kind of fell in love with that area.

Q: Where do you live now? A: Down in Norfolk, Virginia.

Q: And how often do you get back to Maine?

A: It’s been a few months. My mother lives up in Falmouth. I think I was able to make it up last just before Christmas. So, I haven’t completely lost touch with the area. I’ve been back many, many times over the years.

Q: And what, in particular, is bringing you back this time?

A: When I saw that the Navy had Portland, Maine, on the list for Navy Fleet Weeks, I instantly volunteered, because I love the area and I just love how it helped me become who I am. I definitely have the example of several of my teachers in high school and my learnings at Maine Maritime to thank. So, I figured this was a great opportunity to pay back a little bit.

Q: What has the Navy meant to you? How has it changed you as a person?

A: I love being part of something that is bigger than myself. And the extra added benefit is that I love what I am doing, which is fixing and building ships. It’s just been a fantastic career and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some absolutely phenomenal people, some really great people.

Q: And what exactly is your job as a rear admiral? What do you do? A: My title is the fleet maintenance officer. So, I am responsible to my boss for the maintenance for all of the surface ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers home ported on the east coast.

Q: So, you really have put that Maine Maritime training to good use, just on a much, much bigger scale than you probably expected?

A: Exactly (laughs).

Q: Anything you want to do while you are home this time? Any sights you want to see?

A: I’ve seen the schedule and I get to spend a little time in Portland and in South Portland. I get to spend a little time at some of the icons of the area from when I was growing up. One is L.L. Bean and one is Casco Bay Lines. So, I can’t wait.

Q: As far as the public goes, what can they do?

A: I don’t believe there are actually any Navy ships that are going to be able to make it up into port. But there are going to be all kinds of static displays and sailors from multiple different groups are going to be spread throughout the area doing all kinds of interactions and demonstrations. So, there will be all kinds opportunity to talk to sailors and find out what they’re doing. My duty is to kind of kick things off with the mayor of Portland and through various interviews to give my thoughts on what I think the U.S. Navy is doing and what Navy leadership is doing, and why Portland, and why the Navy is important to it.

Q: And as sort of a preview, what would you say along those lines?

A: Well, you know, ever since I’ve been associated with the Portland area, it’s a port that’s very rich in maritime history. A lot of people today, especially younger people, don’t realize how heavily the Navy was involved in Portland and South Portland during World War II. So, it’s just an opportunity to say we are both inextricably tied to the sea and we are here to support all of the trade that goes in and out of the port of Portland and the Portland area. That’s why you need a Navy and we are honored to fill that role.

Q: What kind of advice might you have for a young person – say someone about the age you were when you were first looking for a career?

A: You know, I get asked that question a lot, and it’s pretty simple: Follow your passion. Do something that you know that you want to do and you’ll be surprised at the number of doors that open up for you, especially if you perform well and you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. The sky’s the limit if you really, really want it. There’s an opportunity to fund that success in the navy, there’s an opportunity to do that in the merchant marine.

Q: Speaking of sky’s the limit, how do you feel when you look back, having gone all the way from a kid in South Portland, Maine, to the level you’re at, with the responsibilities you have? What role, if any, do you think growing up in South Portland played in that journey? A: It was inconceivable to me that I would have been where I am right now. But I’ll tell you, there were a couple of key teachers and coaches at South Portland High School, and even at Memorial Junior High School. What they imbued in me was just plain old common sense. I can’t put it any more plainly than that, and that has made all the difference.

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