As a young man, Francis “Stash” Pelkowski was drifting, barely graduating high school and unsure what he wanted to do with his life.
The Fort Salonga native loved the water so he joined the Coast Guard. That changed everything.
After eight weeks of boot camp, “I came out an entirely different person,” with a mission in life, and the structure and discipline to keep himself on track, said Rear Adm. Pelkowski, 58, who during 38 years in the Coast Guard rose to senior reserve officer, overseeing the military branch’s more than 7,000 reservists.
On Saturday, in a West Islip ceremony presided over by the Coast Guard’s top official, Commandant Paul F. Zukunft, Pelkowski officially retired, though he will remain on the job through July 1. He has spent the past two years as senior reserve officer and deputy commandant for operations.
Although Pelkowski is one of the Coast Guard’s top officials and he is on the job about 200 days a year, he is still considered a reservist, he said.
He lives in West Islip with his wife, Cathy, 48, and sons Joey, 10, and Jake, 13.
After retirement he will continue to be a full-time instructor at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx and may do research and consulting in the maritime industry.
Zukunft spent much of his address recounting Pelkowski’s long and varied resume, which includes engineering, law and business degrees, assistance in mobilizing the Coast Guard abroad after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and relief operations after last year’s deadly hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and the Virgin Islands.
But Zukunft also told a story to illustrate Pelkowski’s dedication to serving others. On the way to a meeting with Coast Guard captains, he noticed an older woman with a flat tire at the side of the road during the Washington, D.C., rush hour. Pelkowski stopped to help her and arrived at the meeting late, dirty and disheveled, Zukunft said.
“There is someone who knows how to manage priorities,” Zukunft said. “No one else would stop to come to the assistance of this elderly woman, none other than Stash. She needed him much more than those captains needed him at that meeting that day.”
One of Pelkowski’s most wrenching duties was assisting after the July 17, 1996, crash of TWA Flight 800 off East Moriches, which killed 230 people. Pelkowski helped coordinate search and rescue — and then recovery — efforts and helped to console families.
“You had to hold it together,” he said in an interview. “It was an emotional time because literally the bodies started coming in.”
As the ceremony neared its close, Rear Adm. Andrew McKinley, who will succeed Pelkowski as senior reserve officer, recited a variation of The Watch, a traditional speech given at Coast Guard and Navy retirements, saying for 38 years, Pelkowski “has stood the watch so that we and our fellow countryman could sleep soundly in safety.”
“Today,” McKinley said, “we are here to say, shipmate, the watch stands relieved, relieved by those you have led, guided and trained. Rear Adm. Pelkowski, you stand relieved.”