Memorial Day 2018
Born to Serve: Jeff Pierson, Avalon's Memorial Day Keynote Speaker
By Dave Bontempo
Jeff Pierson is held by his parents, Frank and Gladys, after Frank returned from serving in World War II.
Photo following Jeff Pierson’s promotion to brigadier general.
The future brigadier general at 3 years old.
Memorial Day grips Jeff Pierson on several levels.
Avalon’s keynote event speaker brings more than glittering military credentials to this occasion. Before the decorated 42-year career in the U.S. Army and New Jersey National Guard, leading to retirement as a brigadier general, Pierson grew up in Wildwood. Long before his current role as a member of the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders, he worked in Avalon Tile stores as a teenager. Pierson shares this holiday platform with Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi, who, via his role as director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, is a fellow county executive.
Pierson, the one-time Upper Township committeeman and Veterans Interment Officer for the Cape May County Veterans Bureau, will not only speak here. He also will serve as master of ceremonies at the county’s Veterans Cemetery in Cape May Court House in the afternoon.
This holiday supplies a wealth of nostalgia.
“It’s wonderful to be around the veterans and, when thinking of personal memories, I hearken back to my dad, a World War II veteran,” he says of Frank Pierson, who was deployed during the D-Day invasion of France, and suffered a severe head wound during the final push that ended the European war segment.
“For all those years, he never told me what happened,” the son recalls. “I knew about his wounds but he held back on what they were up against as they moved forward through France and Germany. I find that most World War II and Korean War vets did not easily talk about their experiences until much later in life, probably so that others would not worry. Finally, in 2003 [around the time Jeff was retiring], my dad did tell me all about it.”
Even without that knowledge, Pierson had already leaned toward a service career. Osmosis had supplied the push.
“My mom, Gladys, was the president of the auxiliary of the New Jersey American Legion in the 1970s,” he says. “We were always at American Legion events, doing all kinds of things. Being around them, and all those veterans, I wanted to sign up at an early age.”
Jeff Pierson (third from right) at Eagle Scout ceremony for Troop 75 in Wildwood.
Pierson launched a lifelong journey of signing up, walking a road impacted by one major twist. While serving in the New Jersey National Guard in the 1960s, he applied for active duty in Vietnam and never heard back. It would become a blessing.
“In high school, I wanted to sign up for the Army even before we had troops involved,” Pierson recalls. “Later on, I volunteered as a single guy. Now about a year or so goes by, I am married, expecting a baby and so I ask the head officer if he knew anything about my paperwork. It turns out he never sent it. He wanted me to become a full-time training officer in Cape May Court House. So it was bad that I couldn’t go initially, and then it was good.”
Pierson spent about half of his career preparing soldiers for war, half in administration, all stateside. He also attended the Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College, along with numerous military and civilian schools. Pierson earned numerous awards, letters of appreciation and letters of commendation. The most prestigious are four Legion of Merit awards. He also garnered four Commendation Medals between the Army and Air Force.
Pierson has an insider’s appreciation for the nation’s recent budget bill increasing military spending.
“We have top-notch equipment, over and above many of the countries we support and defend,” he says, “but over the last several years, funding for maintenance, for training and the reduction in flight hours has not been good. You need the flying hours to maintain proficiency, and then you put maintenance issues on that. If you don’t go out and use the equipment, you end up in a situation that many units are not deployable because of equipment.”
Pierson equipped himself for life after service. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University and a master’s in administrative science from Fairleigh Dickinson University. The schooling, coupled with the discipline and leadership realms of Army life, carried forward.
Twelve of Jeff Pierson’s grandchildren pose on stairs.
His second career involved local roles as an undersheriff in the correctional division of the county sheriff’s office and several state government positions within the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. His freeholder duties include directing Health and Human Services, overseeing areas like aging and disabilities services, mosquito control and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. He also serves as a liaison to a number of human-services and nonprofit agencies and commissions in the county.
For Pierson, some things never change. He applied for Vietnam duty about 50 years ago and says he would enlist now,
except for approaching age 75 and enjoying the company of three children and 13 grandchildren. Pierson’s heroes and heroines include his late wife, Sally, who passed away from cancer in 2013.
This type of day brings out two words describing his life: “forward” and “march.” For about six decades, in one form or another, his service uniform has stayed on.