Retired Adm. Watkins dies

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WASHINGTON - Retired Navy Adm. James D. Watkins, former chief of naval operations, who was chairman of President Ronald Reagan's AIDS commission and energy secretary for President George H.W. Bush, died of congestive heart failure July 26 at his home in Alexandria. He was 85.

A funeral Mass for Watkins is to be celebrated Aug. 3 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Watkins was a Knight of Malta and the father of a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush in 2008 in recognition of his "ideals of courage, character and ingenuity."

In 1989, the admiral told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper, that his son's ordination as a priest that year was a highlight of his life.

"It's the most exciting day of our lives; nothing could match it," he said, describing how he and his wife felt at the ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. "We felt inspired today as we've never felt inspired before. ... To me, it's the greatest blessing we can receive from almighty God."

Msgr. James Watkins, one of six Watkins children, is pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Washington.

"Few have lived as full or accomplished a life as Adm. Watkins," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said July 27. "Although we mourn his passing, we celebrate his accomplishments not only as a consummate naval officer and public servant, but also as a man who understood the importance of taking care of the entire Navy family," he told the Navy News Service.

Watkins was chief of naval operations from 1982 to 1986. A year after he retired, Reagan appointed him to lead the President's Commission on AIDS where he advocated the passage of anti-discrimination laws for AIDS patients and the need for laws to protect the rights and privacy of those with AIDS.

From 1989 to 1993, he was U.S. energy secretary. During his tenure, he developed a plan to strengthen environmental protection and waste management activities at the Department of Energy and instituted policies designed to increase oil production.

In 2001, he was named chairman of the Commission on Ocean Policy created by President George W. Bush. The commission urged better controls over coastal pollution and overfishing and sought for an increase in scientific input in regulatory policies.

He was born March 7, 1927, in Alhambra, Calif. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and graduated in 1949.

Watkins spent 37 years in the Navy and served as commander in chief of the Pacific forces before becoming chief of naval operations. During his military service, he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

A biography of Watkins in the 1989 issue of Current Biography said that while he was chief of naval operations, members of his staff called him "Hamlet" because of his "propensity for contemplating at great length decisions having moral implications."

In a 1991 speech to graduating eighth-grade students at St. Ann's Academy in Washington, Watkins urged them to remember: "Your individual conscience is the single unassailable asset that nobody can take from you. It will be your greatest guide and your best comfort throughout all your life."

"Never let it die, even when times are so good that you think you might not need it," he added.

He also told the students of the difficult moral decision faced during his career in public service. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said, he was confronted with an especially difficult issue - nuclear deterrence. He also said that in his Navy career, he had to deal with times of peace, times of war and times when difficult questions had no easy answers.

"At all times, my decisions were influenced by the most up-to-date information and analysis, by the words of my trusted advisers, by years of experience and, in the end, by my own conscience," he said.

"It has invariably been my own conscience which has guided me in the final analysis, in areas where facts oppose each other, where opinions differ," Watkins added. "On such occasions, I must act as a moral man. I must call upon my conscience."

James Watkins's first wife, the former Sheila Jo McKinney, died in 1996. He is survived by his wife of 12 years, Janet Tobin Watkins, and six children from his first marriage, four stepchildren, a brother, 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Contributing to this story was Mark Zimmermann.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970