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Drawing the battle lines on AIDS.

Expectations are high as the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic prepares to deliver its final report under its tough taskmaster, a retired admiral who runs a tight ship.

When Adm. Jim Watkins celebrated his 61st birthday on March 7, his office staff threw a surprise party. It wasn't a sit-down dinner for 50 such as Watkins used to host when he was one of the five Joint Chiefs of Staff, and it wasn't prepared by the seven-member crew assigned to the Watkins household back when he was Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Instead, it was spontaneous, it was fun, and as the admiral's first mate, Sheila Watkins, notes, "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Why the tears? Because the admiral, winding down a ninemonth voluntary tour of duty as chairman of the president's commission on AIDS, used the event to thank what he calls his "incredible" staff.

"Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking . . . ," he began, knowing the familiar intro would draw immediate laughter. It did. His staff was well aware that since he assumed the hot seat as the commission's spokesman in October, Watkins has undergone endless grilling by reporters, issued countless public statements, and submitted to intensive televised interviews. His media reviews have been of the "rave" variety, and he has earned applause from persons who formerly criticized the government's handling of the AIDS epidemic. The raise has been lavish.

Although the admiral is quick to credit all success to the 13-member presidential panel and the 30-person staff, they are quick to return the compliment.

"He's an absolute joy to work with," says Polly Gault, the executive director of the commission, who previously oversaw an education subcommittee on Capitol Hill. Polly interviewed for her post in the vestibule of Garfinckel's department store in Washington when the admiral had to exit his buildings during a fire-alarm emergency. The admiral was determined not to waste a minute in reorganizing the commission after its original chairman and vice-chairman resigned last year. Meetings were scheduled on the run in an effort to push ahead with the panel's packed agenda.

"My friends used to tease me," Polly says. "They'd say, 'You've had it so easy, Polly. You've worked for two of the nicest members of the U.S. Senate. Someday you're going to be surprised at how hard the world really is and how tough some people can be.' When I signed up to work with the commission I thought, Well, this could be it. k's going to be back to boot camp. But it's been a delight. The admiral has been wonderful to work for. I'm batting three-for-three."

Retired Adm. William Small, once vice cheif of naval operations under Admiral Watkins, recalls his former boss as "warm and open--a delight to work for. He set ehtical condusct." A personal hallmark of the admiral is his ability to bypass the bureaucracy to get things done. "He never sees red tape as an impediment," Admiral Small says, "didn't see any reason for it to be, and felt if everyone did what he thought was right, the bureaucracy would have to adjust to it. That's a great attitude for the No. 1 leader to have. He's a religious

man, a very religious fellow, but not in any dogmatic way."

In spite of his 41 years in the military and his reputation for running a tight ship, Watkins is informal and flexible, and he mixes easily with all levels of Washington's power structure. His quick wit, friendliness, and willingness to match his staffs ten-hour days have helped to create a we're-all-in-this-together office environment. Staffers look forward to his morning rounds and never construe his visits to their desks as a BigBrother-is-watching tactic.

Macy Moy, an executive secretary on loan from the Department of Education, says the only obvious throwback to the admiral's regimented navy life is his adherence to military time. She's learned to adjust, can translate his jammed appointment calendar either way, and is so committed to her boss' goals for the commission that she generally is at her desk by 0700 at the latest.

"I didn't seek the hot seat," Watkins says. "I didn't ask for this job. I was called and asked to be a commissioner to bring some military experience to the group. But I didn't expect to take over the commission's leadership."

The unanticipated request came when Jim Watkins went out to the West Coast on business. He was attending a luncheon meeting at the Los Angeles Country Club when he was called to the phone.

"It was Washington," Mrs. Watkins recalls. "My husband was asked to take over the chairmanship. He said that he wanted time to think it over, but he really didn't have any choice. He's always served his country, and he's always admired President Reagan."

His reluctance was twofold. First, he had only recently retired from the navy, and he had a full agenda of activities planned. All had to be put on hold. Second, he was concerned about the direction the commission had taken under its former leadership.

"I had complained from day one that we had no structure, we had no objectives, we hadn't laid out a plan, we hadn't pulled together a staff. What were we doing?" Watkins asks, "Why were we holding hearings? What information did we need? But I felt there was an opportunity to make a go of it. By December, when we had submitted our report a week early, I knew we could do it. By then we had a road map, as I call it, a strategy to deal with the problem. I knew then that we were going to make an impact--a big impact-on the nation."

The commission was originally established in June 1987 to advise President Reagan on how the nation should respond to the AIDS epidemic. At first, the task of studying the deadly disease seemed to be a 180-degree turn away from Watkins' prime area of expertise, nuclear engineering. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he had had years of experience in nuclear propulsion, including the command of a nuclearpowered attack submarine and combat service as executive officer aboard the world's first nuclear-powered cruiser, the U.S.S. Long Beach. He had served as right arm to Adm. Hyman Rickover, the legendary father of the nuclear navy.

But Watkins' star-spangled military career also had taken a second bent, and that experience proved to be invaluable when he assumed the chairmanship of the Presidential AIDS Commission. As the navy's first admiral in charge of enlisted personnel and then as the chief of naval personnel, he had been deeply involved in offering support and sensitive leadership to a diverse group of recruits, many of whom were troubled. The post-Vietnam years he spent directing personnel were difficult for the country, the all-volunteer military was struggling to succeed, and the image of men and women in uniform was at an all-time low. Watkins surveyed the scene and responded with a barrage of innovative "people programs" boosting education, fitness, motivation, pride, and ethical conduct within the ranks.

Personal excellence became his chief concern, and his efforts were so successful that when he retired from active duty in June 1986, he announced his intention to devote part of his time to promoting a national program for personal excellence among youth. Operating under foundation grants and drawing ftom his navy experience, he lobbied business and government for a comprehensive plan that would emphasize education, health, and motivation in students. He hesitated to increase his responsibility with the AIDS commission because he knew he'd have to put the personal excellence program on the back burner for a year. But now he sees the goals of the program to be in harmony with the objectives of the AIDS panel. He believes AIDS is a devastating symptom of a society in need of help. The disease is calling attention to the many social problems--drugs, teenage pregnancy, inadequate education-that must be addressed by the nation. The epidemic has jolted the country and has forced people to look at themselves and the shortcomings in the system and to scrutinize possible solutions to the problems.

"AIDS tells us we have a health crisis at a time of health-education weakness," Watkins says. "It has also caused us to talk about how we treat each other and about our compassion and sensitivity to others. I think it may well be a catalyst for positive change if we look at it as an opportunity. Frankly, while I see AIDS as a critical problem, I also see it as an important subset of a larger dilemma. We cannot be complacent. I think someday as we look back, we'll see AIDS not only as a tragedy, but as an opportunity that we took advantage of or lost. I hope it will be the former."

Just as AIDS is everyone's responsibility, Watkins believes youth is everyone's concern, and that the two are linked. He endorses a partnership approach to problem solving, with all people participating in building a healthy, motivated, literate society. He especially emphasizes building a pool of bright young people.

"What I'm trying to do is move the nation," he says. "We've got a real problem in this country demographically and qualitatively. We've got international competition to worry about. We don't have enough scientists and engineers. Our technological needs are staggering. How can we have Star Wars? Where will we get all the scientists that we need for AIDS research?"

The answer is in the future, and the future is in the hands of the young people, he says. It's up to everyone to make sure those young people are prepared for the challenge. Again, it comes down to personal excellence, a topic he knows firsthand.

If "Be All That You Can Be" is the current slogan of the United States Army, it's been the Watkins family philosophy for generations. The admiral participated in a personal excellence program long before he packaged it and introduced it to the navy. His father was a successful Southern California Edison executive, and his mother was the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate in California, Overachievement ran in the family.

"We were like any other good family in that we had examples in our mother and father," he says. "There were seven of us kids. As number six, I was beaten around the head and shoulders by the top five. I learned to struggle along. Although we weren't wealthy, we had enough money so that my parents were able to pull me out of a useless school and send me to a good one. The do-it-yourself education process was in bogue in the '30s, and it meant 'take away the tough stuff and give the kids the easy stuff.' My mother hauled me out of there and had me tutored for three months to get me ready to attend the good school."

He met his wife, Sheila, when he was stationed in San Diego and she was a senior at San Diego State College majoring in journalism. Her dad was a navy captain, so she was well aware of the topsy-turvy life in store for her when she said yes to his marriage proposal.

"We fell in love, head over heels," she says with a laugh. "I never did, as they say in

the vernacular, 'do my own thing.' I had interests, but by and large I was a homemaker. The navy takes it out of you as a family. It's hard, very hard. I'm a strong person, and there were times when if it hadn't have been for my faith, I don't know if I could have made it."

Somehow she kept order in the house even though the house, changed 32 times in their naval career. Because the admiral was a nuclear submarina, he was. at sea for long stretches, leaving her to supervise their six children. As difficult as the separations and numerous moves were, the nomadic lifestyle cemented the family together. Friends kept changing but the family was always intact.

"Of course, no one is perfect, everybody's got warts, but our children are bright and have been blessed with good health," Mrs. Watkins says. "They're all very, bery high achievers. None is laid-back. In that way, they're like their father."

Today the Watkins kids are scattered from Norfolk to Brooklyn to Louisville to Bethesda, Maryland, to New London, Connecticut, to Rome. Katherine is a nurse, Laura Jo is active in the theater, Charlie is an engineer working on navy ships, Susan is a programmer for the Kentucky Center for the Arts, James, Jr., is in his last year of study for the priesthood, and Edward is an officer in the navy. If the children are still mobile, their parents have sealed into a retirement that almost smacks of normalcy. Their Washington "duty station" has remained surprisingly fixed, and no plans for a move have been announced. Until the AIDS commission submits its final report in June, the admiral's headquarters will be the commission's pleasant suite of offices on 15th Street. After that, it's anyone's guess. But you can rule out shuffleboard and rocking chairs. Politics?

"Not interested," he answers adamantly. "I'd rather influence things from behind the scenes."

Another health issue? Like cancer?

"Not for me. I'm not a health expert, I'm a manager. So if you've got a difficult task like a national energy policy, I'd love it. We need longrange planning groups in this country. We don't think ahead."

Perhaps a low-pressure job with no bureaucracy and no red tape attached?

"I like to beat down bureaucracy. It's my bag. When I find it, I just step on it and eliminate it. Works every time. People say, 'Well, that's the regulation.' So we change the regulation. It's simple."

For all his tough talk and his track record for excellence, the person who knows him best speaks to his soft side.

"He touches people," Sheila Watkins says. "He makes them stretch. He doesn't get involved in mediocrity. He challenges people, and when they come up to the quality he expects, they have respect not only for him but also for themselves."
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Title Annotation:Presidential Commission on AIDS prepares final report under direction of Adm. Jim Watkins
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1988
Words:2368
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