On March 30, 2011, the son of a Navy Skyraider pilot and a Navy nurse, Rear Admiral John Christenson, became the 53rd president of the U.S Naval War College. The War College, founded over 125 years ago, offers a resident program that awards Master of Arts degrees in national security and strategic studies.
Patch recently sat down with the admiral in his office, which he said is considered the “best in the Navy,” with its sweeping views of the Narraganset Bay and the Pell Bridge.
Patch: Explain to us a day in the life of an Admiral. Let’s start with when you wake up in the morning.
Admiral Christenson: Well, life has gotten so busy and I’m kind of committed, as is the Navy, to a culture of fitness, that I really have to PT in the morning. It’s not my first choice. . .but this morning the alarm went off at 5 a.m., and I went to the gym. . . so I’m at the gym at 5:19. . . the gym is just a walk from the house, so I’m pretty lucky in that regard, blessed. It’s about a 6 minute walk.
Sit-ups, push-ups, weights and then this morning I ran on the treadmill for 30 minutes and then stretch, come home and eat breakfast, take a shower and get to work. Pretty much you try to, as you say ‘The Admiral," try not to get to work before 8 o’clock, which allows all the people who work in the front office a reasonable chance to get a good night’s sleep, get up. . .it’s not as easy for them to get to a gym as it is for me and they have lives and families. Most admirals stay at home, if they are just dying to start working, they will just work from home. They can read their e-mail at home, they can read newspapers at home. . .so they try to get to work, not earlier than 8 o’clock.
Patch: You mentioned your house, could you paint us a picture of what it is like to live in the house here on base?
Admiral Christenson: It’s a beautiful house. Two things people always say when they find out you are going to go be president of the War College is that you have the best office in the Navy because you have this view of the bay and the bridge. The other thing they say is that house is great. The house was built for a Navy captain. It was built for the commanding officer of the base. . .it’s a big, beautiful house, it’s the nicest house we’ll ever live in. You are very conscious of the fact it belongs to the War College. We kinda live on the second and the third floor, we have part of the downstairs. . . it’s exciting.
Patch: Do you have house staff?
Admiral Christenson: Yes, there are two what I call personal quarters culinary specialists. . . Monday we are having a reception for the Naval War College Foundation and then the next day we are having a lunch for 70 admirals in the backyard and then that Friday we are having a reception in the backyard for hundreds, so they are not really there to work for me, they are kinda there to work for the social responsibilities of the President of the War College.
Patch: How do you balance the life of an admiral against being a husband and a father?
Admiral Christenson: Well it’s hard right now. I’m flying to go see my wife tonight. Usually they try to move admirals in the summertime, but I moved in March because Admiral Wisecup had an important job they wanted him to start in March, so I got here in March. I have three teenagers. . . and one was in high school and one was in eighth grade, so when we were coming from Northfolk we wanted to give them a chance to finish their school year. It’s the first time they have ever got to go to the same school three years in a row. So I have been separated for two months, but she’s on her way!
Patch: Where will your children attend school?
Admiral Christenson: We have put in an application for the boys to go to Prout, which is across the bridge. Our daughter was going to go there five years ago when we lived here last, but we ended up moving before she had a real chance to start.
Patch: Can you tell us about your ties to Newport?
Admiral Christenson: My parents met here in 1951. My dad was a Navy destroyer officer like me, on his way to flight school. My mother was a Navy nurse. So they met here in ‘51, were married here in ‘52. The Navy has ordered me here nine times in my life: twice as my father’s son and seven times in my own career.
My first daughter was born here, Grace, was born in Newport Hospital. It was the best birth experience of the three children by far. It’s just a wonderful hospital, wonderful doctors.
Probably the most rewarding tour my wife has ever had in my career is when I was stationed here from ‘04 to ‘06 and she worked at the Command Spouse Leadership School.
Patch: What is it like to be the wife of an admiral?
Admiral Christenson: You can make of it what you want. A lot of admirals’ wives have full-time careers and so they support their husband probably pretty much as the husband supports them. They are both very busy.
In my case, when we started having children, my wife left a very good job to be a stay at home mom. As time allowed, especially as my career progressed . . .they are always looking for volunteer leadership and Teresa has always provided that volunteer leadership.
Patch: What do you do to get away from it all, when you don’t want to be an admiral?
Admiral Christenson: (laughs) That’s a funny question. When I don’t want to be an admiral? Well, reading, I think, for a lot of people.....
Patch: What is the last book you read?
Admiral Christenson: It’s not going to make you think I got away from being an admiral. It’s called “Carrier Battles,” it’s sitting on the desk over there. I get a book on average, about one a day. I probably read about between 10 and 20 percent of 90 percent of the books that are given to me. Rarely will I read the entire book. The last book I read from front to cover was probably “Neptune’s Inferno.”
But like a lot of people, I enjoy reading on the Internet, surfing the Internet. Wikipedia, I love biographies, I love reading about people. So something will happen, and I’ll just get interested.
I love music. That’s probably my biggest escape. Daydreaming about the future, and remembering the past and that’s usually aided by listening to music. I have five brothers, and they all have different music tastes.
Patch: You mentioned the past, thinking back on the past. Give us an example of one thing you would have done differently.
Admiral Christenson: You try not to have regrets. My late mom always said "life is a one way street," so you make the best decision you can and you keep moving. You enjoy the ride, the commercial says.
The thing I would had done different is given I went to the Naval Academy, which is an engineering school - I majored in math because it was easy for me. If I had it to do over again, the Naval Academy made sure I had a minor in engineering. . . I would had majored in history. I took every history elective I could, but I was trying to be more practical by being a math major.
What I realize now in hindsight is if you go to the Naval Academy, you are going to be an engineer and your major is just what you do to broaden yourself.
Patch: What do you think are your special qualities that have differentiated you as a leader?
Admiral Christenson: I genuinely love the Navy. . . I saw what the Navy did for my poor, farm-boy father and I know how much the Navy has given me, what an interesting life it has been. It has provided me an opportunity to make my parents proud of me, my friends proud of me. It hasn’t made me rich, but I’ve also had a very secure financial life. They say if you love what you do, you never work.
I have some cousins who used to tell me, “you know, you move all the time Johnny." This is my mom’s side in Pennsylvania. " Grampie used to say, decide where you want to live and find work there.”
I took that as a comment on the fact that I move all the time and somehow they didn’t think it was a good way to raise a family or live a life. My response back, after thinking for a couple of seconds, was I decided where I wanted to live. I want to live in San Diego and Newport and Annapolis and Boston and Washington DC, and the job that allows me to live in all those places is the Navy.
Patch: Is there anything else you would like to tell the community?
Admiral Christenson: These many times we have been ordered back to Newport, your first reaction, especially growing up in Southern California is, oh my gosh, the winters are long, it’s a short summer. . .your first thought is the weather and the roads.
But in every case when you return, you quickly forget about those trivial details and our family has always left reluctantly. Our family has always prospered here, has always done well here. There is a sense of excitement when that short summer does arrive that can’t be found when you live in Southern California, since essentially summer lasts all year. You have to get past the thought that we are going to this cold, New England town. But Newport is just wonderful.
In fact, this time, the ninth time, we came here, the overriding comment of everybody was, "back to Newport, it was so magical last time." We will never be able to duplicate how happy all five us were for those two years.
It’s almost like it’s a tough act to follow, we were so happy here last time.