Memorial Day feature

Sitting in his Murfreesboro apartment, Dr. John Todd reflects on his life spent in the Navy, as a commissioned public health officer and as a family man and missionary.

If you were to casually meet Dr. John Todd, you may not realize the rich life he has led in his 91 years as a Navy sailor or a public health professional who served Native American populations.

His vocations, however, are not the sum of the man. Setting aside his careers, Todd has built a legacy as the patriarch of a family of 29 — including adult children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — and as a missionary.

John Todd and Marilee (Denver) Todd, his wife of approximately 69 years, reside in an independent-living apartment at AdamsPlace, where Todd leads a weekly Bible study.

The couple’s apartment is filled with mementos, including photos of the destroyer on which Todd served, and him in uniform. There is a western painting to commemorate the Indian Health Service installing water pumps in Arizona. He also proudly displays bolo ties (western ties) someone made when he moved to Washington, D.C.

His voice lowers when he discusses his faith.

“I think the Lord’s played a major role in my life,” he said. “I can know that God has been leading us. I believe he’s the same yesterday, today and forever.”

Todd’s journey began in Richmond, Ky., where he was born on Feb. 15, 1928. His father was an electrician and mechanic at Eastern Kentucky University. Later, his father worked as a beekeeper, moving the family to Georgia. His father died at age 46; Todd was 12.

His mother kept the 1,000 hives that year and sold 60,000 pounds of honey to bakeries in Atlanta. She sold the hives and the family moved to Kentucky. Then, they moved to Troy, Ohio, and he graduated from Troy High School in May 1946.

Post-war service

Todd graduated too late to serve in combat during World War II, but the military was still drafting, so he joined the U.S. Navy. After basic training, he was assigned to the destroyer USS Gainard, based at Newport, R.I. He was a machinists’ mate in the engine room.

The Gainard did a shakedown cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; about 100 of the 120 sailors had never been to sea, he said.

The Gainard was assigned to plane guard detail in the Atlantic Ocean, meaning it would trail after an aircraft carrier to search for pilots who crashed into the ocean, he said. The destroyer carried sharpshooters to detonate mines that were left over from the war.

During the year it was deployed, the destroyer visited such locales in the Mediterranean Ocean as Naples, Venice and France.

College and marriage

Todd said he was discharged in May 1948 but was told he was part of the Naval Reserve for four years, meaning he could be reactivated. He spent the summer working odd jobs such as with moving companies.

“I never moved so many pianos in my life,” he said in a deadpan voice.

He enrolled at Ohio University in the fall of 1949.

“That summer while working, I met a nice young lady.”

He and Marilee were married in December 1949.

While he was enrolled in college, the couple visited his mother for Easter when he opened a letter from the Navy calling him back to active duty. He was ordered to report to Cincinnati to prepare. A doctor who examined him asked if he had known he was in the Reserve. He said “Yes.”

“(The doctor) said ‘I’ve been examining many, many people that had no idea they were in the Reserves, and I personally wouldn’t want to be on a ship with those guys that’s called back because they were pretty mad and upset,’ ” Todd said.

“I said, ‘Well, I knew it all along.’ ”

Todd said he was a semester away from completing his studies, and so he and his wife were upset. He failed to receive a deferment.

“I said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be going back in the Navy. You’ll learn a different life, being married to an active-duty sailor.’ ”

However, a week before reporting for duty, he said, he received a telegram directing him to disregard his previous orders. The Navy decided it had all the machinists’ mates it needed. Todd graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and then his master’s degree.

Finding a career

After graduating with his master’s degree, Todd said, he took a job in California with seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co. He had wanted a job as a state engineer in Ohio but there were no immediate openings. A year later, he returned to Ohio and took a job as a sanitary engineer.

After his state training was completed, he took a job with the county health department in Fayette County, Ohio. After a year, he moved to North Carolina to study for a master’s degree in public health. He convinced the health department to pay a salary for writing educational stories for a newspaper to earn money for college. The catch was that he had to return to the health department for a year after college, which he did.

At the same time, Todd said, he earned a Reserve commission as a lieutenant commander in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps. The Commissioned Corps is a uniformed noncombatant service; officers wear uniforms much like a Navy uniform and hold Navy ranks. Most of the officers serve with state health departments, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Indian Health Service, Todd said.

Serving others

Todd knew that to advance, he had to stay on the move by taking new postings, he said. He and Marilee had become interested in Native Americans, so he activated his USPHS commission for assignment to the Indian Health Service. He insisted on going to a reservation in Winslow, Ariz., where he was able to observe life “at the grassroots level.”

Todd continued his education and earned a doctoral degree in public health, he said. He took on what he said was the highlight of his career when the Indian Health Service entrusted him in the 1960s to start and operate a program in Santa Fe, N.M., to train Peace Corps volunteers in nursing care. These volunteers were sent to Korea to provide maternal and child healthcare. He still stays in touch with some of the people from that program.

Not long after his involvement with that program ended, Todd was transferred to the USPHS headquarters in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant. His duties included helping build and operate JFK memorial hospitals around the nation — and in Monrovia.

He continued to be promoted and retired in 1985 as assistant surgeon general with the rank of admiral, he said.

The Todds lived in Maryland and then Florida. They moved to Murfreesboro several years ago because one daughter lives in Watertown with her family and another daughter lives in Mt. Juliet with her family. A son and his family live in Maryland.

Before he moved here, Todd said he founded a mission called Hands of Love in Poolesville, Md. The organization collects assorted items and ships them to such areas as Haiti, Kosovo and Kentucky and West Virginia. Todd said he has stepped down as chairman but remains on the board, and his grandson is chairman. Todd said he also helped build a church in Haiti and helped with rebuilding efforts in Kosovo following the war there.

Having served in the Navy and in the USPHS, Todd said that Memorial Day means a great deal to him.

Memorial Day means having “the freedom to do and say what you want to as long as it meets with God’s standards.”

“I’ve had a great life,” he said.

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