The captain and the Key to the City

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan Schafler
Liaison to the District of Columbia

Ceremonial Key to the City of Washington D.C., presented to deceased Cmdr. Albert Frost, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Unimak, July 26, 1957. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Ceremonial Key to the City of Washington D.C., presented to deceased Cmdr. Albert Frost, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Unimak, July 26, 1957. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

It was Wednesday morning and I opened up my email as usual scanning the posts with my mind already focusing on the day’s activities. An email from Gary Thomas, executive director for the foundation for Coast Guard History popped up. Gary and I have been working on a detailed historical tour of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., the nation’s first campus for the mentally ill. Now the sprawling 168-acre campus was in the midst of a huge redevelopment, half the campus becoming the new home for the Department of Homeland Security with the U.S. Coast Guard as its anchor tenant, and half into what will become the largest redevelopment project in the District of Columbia’s history complete with a sports stadium, shops and homes. Divided by Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., both sides of the campus are alive with construction and promise of bettering communities east of the river in Washington.

As the liaison to the District of Columbia, Gary’s email immediately caught my eye.

“Thought you might be interested in this item we found for sale on Goodwill.com,” he said. “Interesting to show that the U.S .Coast Guard and the city of Washington D.C. have been partners for a long time.”

Attached was a listing to bid on a large ceremonial brass key to the City of Washington with a presentation case and a military ribbon bar set. The case read: “Presented to Cmdr. Albert Frost, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Unimak, Washington, D.C., July 26, 1957.”

How cool that was, I thought to myself, and shot back an email to Gary that we should attempt to obtain the key for the forthcoming National Coast Guard Museum. Gary and I both placed bids and watched the auction that would end in two days on Friday and this is where the story gets really interesting.

Capt. John Barresi was sitting in the vacant office across from my cube as he was in transit from his current job as executive assistant to the deputy commandant for mission support to a graduate school tour for advanced studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d poked my head in a few times already this Monday morning and as I came in to share my find I could see that my welcome was wearing thin.

“Ya gotta see this Captain” and walked him back to my screen.

“Wow, that is so cool, what was the name?” asked Barresi.

“Frost, sir,” I replied.

“Frost? Why does that name sound so familiar? Isn’t that the Captain we are interning in Arlington National Cemetery on Friday?” Barresi asked.

“Well Captain, I seriously doubt it as Gary’s email has no mention of that and the listing is on a national auction site,” I responded.

Barresi went back to his computer and a moment later exclaimed, “You’re not going to believe this but Capt. Albert Frost, U.S. Coast Guard retired, will be interned at Arlington National Cemetery this Friday with full honors! You have found his key to the City of Washington.”

A quick check of the Register of Coast Guard Officers confirmed that Frost retired in 1972.

We were both amazed. The coincidences that had occurred so far, that Barresi happened to be in that office, that he had seen the solicitation for Frost’s funeral, that I had shared the listing with him, all led to this wonderful discovery.

My next call was to Chris Mack, coordinator of Coast Guard ceremonies at Arlington to find next of kin. We had to move fast with only a day left until the internment and Mack was quick to provide the contact information for the next of kin, John Frost of Woodbridge, Virginia, 20 minutes from headquarters. I rang the number and without saying much, left a message for the woman on the other end to call me in reference to Frost’s funeral service.

I then called the Goodwill.com online listing service and got hold of Goodwill’s E-Commerce site manager, Daniel Hart, whose warehouse holds tens of thousands of items donated to Goodwill deemed too valuable to sell at their thrift stores and were placed into auction on Goodwill.com.

The staff of Shopdcgoodwill.com and the Coast Guard rejoin over receiving the key to the city and its return to their rightful owners. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The staff of Shopdcgoodwill.com and the Coast Guard rejoin over receiving the key to the city and its return to their rightful owners. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Hart agreed to pull the auction and ensure the key and ribbon set were put aside. They would donate the items back to the Coast Guard so they could be presented to the family (if they wanted them). What if the family had a falling out with the captain, what if they purposely gave all his belongings to Goodwill? Surely that couldn’t be the case, but I was determined to find out.

A few hours later I tried the Woodbridge number again. Elena Frost answered the phone.

“Is this about the service on Friday?” Elena asked.

“Well ma’am, yes, and no,” I said.

As I relayed the story, I could hear her voice starting to crack.

“This so wonderful, I think I’m going to cry,” said Elena. “After John’s father, Albert, died we cleaned out his place and the items we thought others could use went to the Goodwill donation box. Somehow, a suitcase we thought contained only sheets and linens must have contained the key as we couldn’t find it anywhere. We were both sick about it. This is so wonderful. My husband John is at work but I relayed your earlier message and I am sure he will call you. Again, thank you so much for finding this key.”

Not more than five minutes later my phone rang.

“This is John Frost, I understand you want to discuss details of the service on Friday?”

Cmdr. John Frost, also a career Coast Guard officer and now DHS employee, had not yet heard the story from his wife, and was ecstatic that we had made the discovery.

“You know my father had an incredible career, commanding three different Coast Guard cutters and several high profile assignments,” explained John. “He had a good life and actually died on his 100th birthday this year. This will be a wonderful footnote to a great Coast Guard career. To the best of my recollection the key was presented to him for hosting the commandant’s change of watch aboard the Unimak when it docked in Washington that day in 1957.”

“Well sir, we have secured the key and ribbon set and would like to present it to you at the pre-reception on Friday,” I offered.

The foundation for Coast Guard History made a generous donation to Goodwill for their efforts in returning the key. The Goodwill employees responsible for finding the listing of the key were Charmaine Lewek and Angela Brooks.

Capt. Jennifer Williams and retired Cmdr. John Frost pose for a photo with the Key to the City of Washington, D.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Capt. Jennifer Williams and retired Cmdr. John Frost pose for a photo with the Key to the City of Washington, D.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

I related the story and the intent to Capt. Jennifer Williams, who would be the escort commander representing the Coast Guard at Arlington on Friday, and she agreed to present the key to the family.

Thursday afternoon myself and Lt. Alex Austin traveled to Forestville, Maryland, where the entire staff of Goodwill.com came out for a picture and to thank us for reuniting the key with its rightful owners. There were smiles all around.

The service at Arlington was just as scripted, a wonderful remembrance complete with caisson with horse-drawn carriage, 21 gun salute and appropriate honors to a great Coast Guard officer as is befitting his life and career. The key and ribbons returned to their rightful place with the family. Honor, respect and devotion to Duty – a good day to be a Coast Guardsman.

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