Interview with John Ondik, US Navy
Name: John Ondik
Military Branch & Rank: US Navy, Commander
Dates of Service: 1983 – 2008
Date of Interview: May 22, 2019
Interviewer: Michael D. Brown
Audio Producer: Laura Bang
Length of Interview: 61 minutes
Transcribed by: Nicholas Coscarelli
Edited and annotated by: Meg Piorko
MICHAEL BROWN (INTRO): Thank you for joining us today. My name is Michael Brown, and we are here today at Villanova University recording another installment of the Voices of Villanova’s Veterans.
BROWN: Alright, welcome to another installment of the Voices of Villanova’s Veterans. Today is May 22, 2019. We are here at Villanova University in the Rare Book Room in Falvey Library, and today I am interviewing –
JOHN ONDIK: John Ondik.
BROWN: John Ondik, who is a United States Navy veteran, and also a Villanovan. And we are glad to have him here on campus. And as we get started, let’s talk a little bit about where you were born, when you were born, and a little bit about your family life growing up.
ONDIK: Sure, great. So, I am the oldest of five born in Conshohocken way back in 1961. And then it’s then two years to my sister, two years to my brother, two years to my sister, and then five to the baby. And a lot of my family is still in the Conshohocken area. And my wife and I are now empty nesters, which makes me miserable. In Havertown, we’re right down the road from campus. We have three children. John, my oldest, is in fact a naval officer. Went to Georgetown ROTC, so it’s kind of cool to have a chip off the old block, if you will. Our middle guy, Christopher, will be 30 next month, and is a pretty successful sales guy. Still lives here, spends just half the time at our beach house and half the time up here, depending on where his sales calls take them. And our youngest, Alexandra, will be 28 in September. A Villanova grad. Christopher went to Fordham, I’m not sure if I mentioned that. So, John was Georgetown and Chris was Fordham. We finally got one that decided that Villanova wasn’t too close to home to go. And so, Alexandra graduated from here in 2013, spent a couple years in the Peace Corps, and now works for Google out in San Francisco. So, that’s kind of the family tree. My siblings are all still right here in the area. One in Conshohocken, one in Blue Bell, one living in the house next door to my mom in Gulf Mills. And then the third, this is all the way over in Williamstown, New Jersey, all the 45 minutes away. So, we’re all still pretty close.
BROWN: Sure. And tight knit, I would say?
ONDIK: Yeah, we’re close. I like to kind of describe it as like our cousins are in some cases, like some of my friends’ siblings, and our distant cousins are kind of like other people’s first cousins in a lot of ways. So, we tend to get together a lot as a big family. My grandmother passed away a few years ago now, but it was not unusual for her to call up and say, “I’m having spaghetti dinner on Sunday,” for no good reason. And that would be like 35 or 40 people at the house for spaghetti dinner. And we might do it again next Saturday, kind of just because.
ONDIK: And so, we moved to Havertown 30 years ago. A lot of my family stayed in Conshohocken, so a lot of my cousins’ best friends are their cousins. And these guys are in their 30s now. And they’re still best friends with the cousins that they kind of grew up with, which is kind of cool.
BROWN: Yeah, absolutely. It creates a great dynamic of family and friends and cousins everywhere.
BROWN: So, that’s great. So, talk to me a little bit about, you know, growing up and you’re in school and what led you to think, “You know what, I’m considering the United States Navy as my choice, my career.”
ONDIK: This may not be the ultimate recruiting piece when people go listen to it. So, I’m honest to … I went to the LaSalle College High School here in the area. All boys prep school. I did pretty well there and then was looking at colleges. And I used to get these, you know, mailings from ROTC and other places about, you know, you should try for a Navy scholarship, Army scholarship, whatever. True story, folks. So, I would take those from the mailbox and toss them into the trash can, unopened. And one day, my godfather was at the house, who’s my dad’s best friend from their Colonel Dougherty Days. And my dad enlisted in the Army back in the very late ‘50s, early ‘60s. My godfather is a retired Army Colonel, who was still in the reserves at that point. And they sat me down and said, “Son, I don’t think you’re considering strongly enough what the military could do for you.” And I’m a long-haired lifeguard, spending summers on the Jersey shore. And I said, “I know exactly the military can do for me.” They want to cut my hair short and tell me, you know, say, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir.” And that just was not me. So, my father said, “You’re going to apply for a ROTC scholarship, unless, because I know the senator a little bit, you want to go to the academy, and then I’ll try to make that happen for you.” I was like, “I am absolutely not going to the Naval Academy. I’m sure I’ll apply for these scholarships.” So, long story short, I applied for the Navy scholarship, and nothing happens. And so then after a while, I got a letter that says, “You have been awarded a Navy ROTC scholarship. But you have you haven’t submitted all your letters of recommendation,” because I purposely tried to tank the thing, and I asked for like three and I sent two. And I got this scholarship anyway. So, I said, “I don’t know what happened.” So, with my father over my shoulder, I sent in the third letter. And then I get a call down to the main office at LaSalle. And no one calls you to the main office unless someone has died, right? “Mr. Ondik, please report to the main office.” I get down to the main office and the principal is standing here with the phone in his hand. And I’m thinking, “Jesus, somebody died.” And he says, “John, this is the Navy ROTC program. And they said that you missed your physical and were you still interested in the scholarship?” I told him, “Well, of course I’m still interested in the scholarship.” Hands me the phone. This guy on the other end says, “Look, we can reschedule you to this weekend, but you’re supposed to do that.” The principal’s standing right here and I said, “I don’t know how I could have possibly missed that. So sure, I’ll be there on Saturday.” So, honestly, God’s truth. So, I do the physical, I get the scholarship, and I had not applied to any colleges that had a Navy ROTC unit. Now this is well into second semester, senior year. And during a college night at LaSalle, I had met the priest who came over from Villanova junior year and had said, “Hey, I’m signing this now. If you apply to Villanova, you will be accepted.” I pretty good grades at school. So, now we flash forward this year forward. I have a scholarship. I have no place to use it. My father said, “Well, son, you know, I know a professor emeritus. We can get you to Penn.” And I’m like, Penn, it’s a bunch of Ivy schools, a bunch of snotty people. That’s not me – who ends up being a Wharton MBA, right? Several years later. So, you know, you make stupid decisions when you’re young, folks, whoever’s listening. So, I go over to Villanova with this letter and it says, “I have a Navy scholarship,” and I walk into the registrar’s office and who is now the head of registration, but this priest who had been over there at college night and said – and I had this letter that says – you know, “Father, you don’t remember me, but you said if I apply to Villanova, I will be accepted.” And he told me, “And John, you will.” And that was it. So, he literally took me down the hall to the registrar, said, “John is accepted into this class.” I said, “Oh, by the way, I’d like to be a business major.” He said, “Well, we can’t do that.” Like, “School starts in a few months. I’m going to enroll you in arts and sciences.” He walks me down to the, I guess, the registrar and picks out the five business classes that all the freshmen will take first semester and said, “You want to take all business classes and then I will transfer you into the business school after your first semester.” So, that was a long story, but I was absolutely meant to be in the United States Navy. I don’t know how, but between the scholarship shenanigans and then Father admitting me into Villanova way late in the game to use a scholarship. And just then to further that point, I had every intention in the world of taking the two free years you get for Navy ROT scholarship back then. Then it went to one year. My son was in, somebody tells me it might be two again now. So, I was going to take the two free years and say, “Thank you very much, and I’m out of here.” I lifeguarded every summer. I didn’t have a dime to my name. I was young and foolish enough to call back to some of these scholarships. I had one out of LaSalle and said, “Hey, you know what, I got this scholarship to St. Joe’s way back when, and I got this other scholarship. So, I’d like to take that scholarship.” I’m a young kid, of course, who’s stupid. And they said, “When you didn’t come here, we gave that scholarship to somebody else.” So, I make like five phone calls at different schools that I got money from. And I went, “Oh my god, I got to stay in the Navy. Because my father, my parents, had no money to send me to college, at that time. And I went. So, first day junior year comes around. They pass out your contract that you now sign to say, “I’m committing myself to the United States Navy.” Two more years of school, at least four on active duty, four on the reserves. So, I take this paperwork and I’m literally shaking. My best friend is sitting right next to me. And I signed my name and I slide the paper away. And I said to him, “Oh my god, I don’t believe I just signed my name to this document.” And my best friend sitting next to me says, “John, don’t worry about it. We all signed your name. You’re in for 30 years!” The whole class laughs, I cry, and the rest is history. I really want to be a Navy SEAL. And unfortunately, I made it down to kind of the very last group of folks. But did not get selected. So, I ended up in flight school. Wasn’t a very good pilot. Didn’t want to be in flight school, bounced around flight school for about a year and a half. And then in another act of fate, ended up in the supply court, the business side of the Navy. Spent nine and a half years plus on active duty. I would have stayed in the Navy, but I’d gotten into the Wharton School, and I tried to get the Navy to send me to Wharton. But I’d been selected to go to the Navy post-graduate school in Monterey. And so, I chose to get out of the Navy and go to Wharton and stayed in the reserves for another 16 years.
BROWN: So, before we get to that part of your life, I want to really go back to your father and your godfather in the United States Army. And you decide to join the United States Navy. So, what was it, just like, “screw these people, I’m doing something different?” Or was the Navy, for some reason, a better option for you?
ONDIK: So, I grew up since, my mother likes to say, I was naked on the beach six months old. There’s been a house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey for like, I guess, like 70 years or so now in the family. I love the ocean. I love the water. So, when I realized that I was going to have to be applying somewhere, I was going to go into the Navy because ships go in the water. That was as much logic, Mike, as there was to it. So, and, and loved it, right? Really, really did love it.
BROWN: What was campus like back then when you were here on, you know, doing your, what was the environment? Like, was it fun? Were you partying all the time? Was it kind of, you know, talk to me a little bit about your time here in Villanova.
ONDIK: So, I should have been a better student than I was. I was a good enough student. When we graduated, I was probably around number two in the class between GPA, military scores, and physical fitness tests, which is how they rated you, right? The GPA was the lowest part of that for me. But as I didn’t admit to my children ‘till later in life, I played a lot of Frisbee and a lot of softball. We played a lot of competitive sports. The ROTC even had teams, intramurals, for basketball, football, et cetera. But the campus was, you know, just nothing like what we have today, right? There was still a very heavy commuter presence. I had many, many friends that I knew who commuted to Villanova. And the angst and pressure were just, I think starting to really start to build then to say, “We got to build more dormitories because we don’t want to be this commuter school.” And there probably were a thousand kids who commuted back then maybe of a smaller school. But it was great, it was a great place. The ROTC unit, which, you know back in the ‘70s, Vietnam was not long ago. I’m commissioned in ‘83. I enrolled here in ‘79. There was still a sense of Vietnam around the country. I had multiple family members who were vets, who came back and were like, “This is the country I went and fought for?” I mean, all that kind of ugliness. And yet, while I understand it had been ugly, even those days, even at Villanova, the ROTC was really respected on the campus. And I guess the best example I can give of that is, every day we would do the colors and run the flag up and down the pole at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day. And students, wherever they were, like, stopped and stood at attention and watched that flag. And I mean, softball games are going on in the field right in front of John Barry there, other sorts of things. And everybody just stopped. Everybody just kind of turned around and did that while the Honor Guard was doing their thing. And I think that was kind of the tone. When you wore your uniform around on Tuesdays because you had drill, you know, it may not have been cool, but it was certainly like, “Okay.” So, it was a very cool place. I did commute here, born and raised in Conshohocken. And, you know, it was beautiful. I could roll out of my bed at eight o’clock and be in here for an 8:30 class. So, that was the one part that was a little bit different about my experience because I met my wife – who was also class of ‘83 here. And I used to spend nights on campus with different friends of mine who lived here once in a while, but I went back home afterwards. So, it was a little bit different. ROTC was like its own big frat. So, I had a lot of friends there, and between that and the business school outside of that, I didn’t know as many folks because I still had my roots in going home in Conshohocken every as well.
ONDIK: So, you know, they had, basketball teams were pretty competitive then. They’d just thrown football off while I was here. My wife was back on campus in ‘85 when they won the first championship. So, it was a great place, and we’re a pretty Catholic family. So, I don’t think any of the schools I considered other than Penn was non— and not that that was a deciding factor, but it was just kind of where I ended up applying.
BROWN: So, back to the Navy, you get, you know, you get your commission here at Villanova, and where’s your first duty station? Talk to me about what that life was like, you know, now that you’re actually in the Navy compared to, you know, “Oh my God, I’m signing my life away.” Now you’re doing it. What was it like?
ONDIK: I had, so, as I said, right, I tried to be a Seal, which was my first choice on my dream sheet. When I submitted my initial dream sheet, I had Seals, supply core, and surface. And the commanding officer of the unit was an ex-flyer. And then he called me in one day and said, “John, what’s this Seals thing?” And I said, “Captain, you know, I mean like Superman, that’s what I want to do.” I’d been a little bit of a martial artist. I’d been an ocean lifeguard. So, I had a lot of the skills I thought, right? And he said, “Well, you know, I have a lot to say about where you get to go when you come out of here, because it’s based on my recommendation, in addition to your dream sheet.” And he said, “I think you should go to flight school, son.”
ONDIK: And I said, “Flight school?” I said, “Captain, I just have no desire to do that.” He said, “Well, I got to tell you, I’ve been in this man’s Navy 20 some years, and I’ve never ever seen a dream sheet that said you either want to swim up behind people and slit their throats, or you want to worry about getting paper cuts!”
ONDIK: “Seals and then supply corps are one and two, and then you got surface, and flight school’s not even here anywhere?” And I said, “Yeah, sorry.”
ONDIK: But in those days, it was a pipedream because you couldn’t go supply corps from ROTC unless you were not physically qualified to go to sea or go to be a line officer. So, the only guys who got to go, and I knew that I wasn’t going to get it, but it was my second choice anyway. So, he said, “Well, you’re not going to –”
BROWN: Either of those. [laughs]
ONDIK: “You’re not going to be a Seal, and you’re certainly not going to supply corps, and you’re going to put flight school on your list.”
ONDIK: And then I remember saying, “Captain,” you know, I’m like, “I did pretty well here. Number two, I should get a chance to do what I want to do,” right? And he said, “Yeah, that’s how some people might see it.”
ONDIK: True story. And he said, “You know what, I’ll make you a deal.” He said, “I will recommend you to be a Seal. And you’re going to put fight school number two.” I’m young. I’m cocky. I said, “Great. Thank you, sir.” I stood up, shook his hand. And so that year – ROTC is not the traditional pipeline for Seals. So, myself and a buddy of mine from the class, who helped me become a runner that I never was, getting ready for the physical, both made it to like the final core of folks that went to take from your ROTC space. And both did not get selected. We were told it was down to the final six and they picked three, and we weren’t in that group. The Marine Lieutenant Colonel, who was the MOI here, and I had gotten pretty close. And he called down to the Seal detailer and said, you know, “Hey, why did my guy not get picked? “And the guy said, “I don’t know.” I mean, at that point, it’s like competitive. It’s whatever. Who isn’t? And he said, “But if I was betting, I’d bet that the guy who’s like 5’7 and 130 pounds is just not as functional for us as a guy who’s 6ft and 175 pounds.” He said, “But I don’t know.” And my buddy Mike was significantly smaller than I was in those days. So, for whatever reason. Now, to your question, Mike, I ended up in flight school. And I’m like, this is, okay? But what’s nice is my first duty station was Pensacola, Florida, to go to the ground school portion of it. And I got stashed at what they call, “knife and fork school.” So, when warrant officers and limited duty officers, who had been enlisted guys, now get their commissions, then they go to school to teach them everything about. There was classes in English, because you’re going to be writing evaluations now; how to wear officers’ uniforms, all that kind of stuff. One of the greatest experiments I had in the Navy, because all these guys are older guys. They’ve been there and done that. And now they’re in school. And the stories that they told. So, I was one of like four ensigns that was stashed there waiting to go to flight school. And all the instructors were also senior commander, lieutenant commander, or LDO’s, or warrant officers. That was just a great environment. So, I was there for three months. While I was there – again, one of my thrills in my life – a gentleman who was a Navy SEAL named Mike Thornton, who was a Medal of Honor winner, was there for life and fork school. And one of the things that they had to do was give speeches. Like, I forget if they had to do maybe a five-minute speech and a 15-minute speech on something for a public speaking perspective. And so, I got to meet him just because I’m the kid sitting at the desk, and we shake hands. And I remember he asked for permission of like the school director to say, “Can I go over the time a little bit?” Because people kind of understand he’s wearing a medal of honor. You know, rarer in days, was given out more, but there were a lot of living, active-duty people wearing a medal of honor. And you got to go see his story about what he did. It’s just unbelievable. And so, they said, “Absolutely.” So, this classroom is packed. Not only are all his peers there, not only everybody on the whole staff there, but officers, senior and otherwise, from all around the base are crammed into this room. People literally out in the hallway to hear him tell his story. And one day, I don’t even remember why, because it’s not like we were close. We just got to know each other because I’m the kid that’s there. And I knew all the folks in the class, we were walking from the building to go somewhere one day. And so, there’s Mike and there’s me. And the three-star, who was the chief of Naval education training, is coming, walking this way. And it was one of the coolest things in the world because he lit that salute up and saluted this medal of honor wearer. And it was just really cool. So, for the first three months of my Navy time, I sat in this office with really cool people in a beautiful location. I hit the Pensacola beaches on the weekends, did grad school eventually, and ended up in Corpus Christi, Texas, another cool beach town. South Padre Island is really a nice place to be. I was an OK pilot, kind of average. And you don’t get to be a pilot in this man and woman’s Navy if you’re average, because they want you to be better than that. And so, this is all for posterity sake, right? Jeez. So, on what would have been my last flight in the basic portion of flight school – where if you complete that and you want to intermediate and you go on to advance – and at that point, you’ll be a pilot because you’re not going to drop out.
ONDIK: On what would have been my, or what was my last flight, I got a down check, I failed that flight. And I failed it because I was a decent field pilot, even though I’d never had any flight training before I went down there. And a lot of guys had put in some hours in training before they came, they went out and paid for some flight lessons. So, I was pretty good when I could look and do things, aerobatics and regular flying, because I was a diligent studier. It was pretty lousy, what they call “underneath the hood.” So, they put you underneath this hood, they close it over you. And now you’re flying the airplane on instruments. And you’re supposed to have a scan, of course, if I studied more, right? So, you go from your altimeter, as to how high you are to your speed and you keep kind of doing this and you bounce here, and it’s and it’s systematic so that you know what the airplane’s doing all the time. I wasn’t as good as I should have been at that. Nobody’s fault about my own. So, in the last flight, they put me under the hood, and I’m supposed to be doing a landing. You never land if there isn’t at least a place to get below the clouds, but you can fly most of the approach in the clouds. So, I caught this radar signal and it’s just a directional beacon. So, you pick it up and then you can kind of just fly along it. Well, when you fly along in one way, it takes you to the to the runway, and you get to go land and be happy. If you fly it the other way, as my instructor informed me, “That was a wonderful flair. You did everything, you went right ‘til the part where you killed us both in the mountain.” And I was like, “Ah, are you kidding me?” He said, “Yeah, that’s a fail.” And then I kind of, now we’re going back to the base, we’re talking over the radio back and forth. And I kind of said, like, “Rest of the flight went pretty good, right?” You know, “I got another chance here, right?” And he said, “No, that’s when you cannot make that mistake.” And I said, “Really? I hadn’t had a down check flying yet.” And generally, you get two or three in the program. So, you back to the base and he signs off the paperwork and they throw me out of flight school. But the Commodore, to his credit, said, “Son, you know, I think you could have been a Navy pilot, but I have only so much time and so much money to train somebody. And at each stage of your program, you got to competency, but it always took you longer than it took the next guy. And I just don’t have that.” He said, “But you were number one in your ground school class, you can go do anything else you want to do in the Navy, you’re just not going to be a pilot.” Called to seals back up. And basically, was told, you know, “Love to consider you, but we don’t know when we can get you into a budge class.” And I said, “Well, I’d like to get back in SEAL shape,” because I’m only in the kind of flight school shape, which was pretty good, but not where I want it to be. I said, “So, how about just move me out to Coronado and stash me there, and I’ll work out and then slot me when you get me in.” And the guy said, “We can’t move you until you get a permanent change of station.” I said, “Sir, you don’t understand. I’ve been thrown out of flight school. I am now the library officer at Naval Air Station, Corpus Christie.”
ONDIK: “Here’s your pub. Go learn and bring it back to me.” I said, “I cannot do this,” specifically from, you know, this undetermined amount of time. And so, he said, you know, “Sorry.” So, I picked up the phone again, I called the supply core. And they said, you know, “Great grades in your ground school, B-student of Villanova in business, good school.” He said, “We got a class starting in two weeks. Welcome to the supply core.” And so, I ended up in the supply core. Rest is history, best thing to ever happen to me, love the supply core, love being out at sea. I ended up starting as a ship’s division officer ended up, I fleet it up to the supply officer’s job, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had to this day in my life. I’ve worked for some world class organizations. But being a supplier on the ship and being in charge of inventory and financial management, and feeding the crew, and running the ship store and the library, all that support side. I basically showed up day one and said, “Guys, we’re not the supply department, we’re the morale department.” You’re floating around in the ocean six, seven months at a pop. All you got to look forward to is four meals a day, you know, counting mid rats. We’re going to do this laundry right. We’re going to have the store the best way. We’re going to have the food is going to be world class. And then and that’s all these guys need to hear. And to this day in my life, right, and I’m out of the Navy a bunch of years and I’m commissioned many years ago. And I actually worked at Aaronmark at one point as a guy there and I ran some food service business. I was never more impressed, the fact that my cooks could put out cooking in these you know, big ole cauldron with tons of food in front of them, on a grill that they could put out great meals three and a half times a day, if you count mid rats, for a crew of three to 350 when we had an air dead on. And feed all those people in like 45 minutes, and then go do it again. To this day in my life, it’s one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen.
BROWN: What ships did you serve on?
ONDIK: So, I was on the USS Moosbrugger, which is a Spruance-class destroyer. And it was unique at that time in the Navy. We had the first operational, my buddies would know, ANSQQ-89, I think it was. A brand-new sonar system that we had been the prototype ship for it. And then we went operational, and this technology allowed us to hear Russian submarines, which is basically why we existed, in a way that we never, no ship in history could ever do and no ship on the earth could do so. We had technology that would allow us to sit out in convergence zones. So, a ship makes noise over here. And that noise comes down through the water and bounces off the surface again and bounces off. So, we could hear from miles away, the quietest ships in the oceans. And because of that, I was on board the moose for 43 months. By the way, I married my college sweetheart, Liz, two years out of Villanova, right when I got thrown out of flight school. I spent seven months in supply core school, which is in Athens, Georgia, by the way. So, from Pensacola to Corpus Christi to Athens, Georgia. My first two years in the Navy were really sweet digs. Played a lot of basketball and Athens went to a bunch of events. The University of Georgia is right there. It’s just a great town. Then we got married. And we honeymooned, my throwing her in my car and driving across country to Pascagoula, Mississippi where, true story, I show up at the ship. I salute the officer on the deck. I said, you know, “John G. Ondik reporting for duty.” And he says, “Oh, great. Hey, yeah, you’re a new guy.” He said, “Oh, wait, hold on. These are some of your guys going off Liberty right now.” Remember, I’ve been bouncing around as kind of an individual contributor. Now I’m going to be in charge of a division, true story. The guy says, “Hey, you know, Smitty, this is your new division officer, Mr. Ondik.” And he says, “Oh, sir, great to meet you.” You know, “We’ll see you later.” He’s wearing a T- shirt that says “Pascagola, Mississippi. It ain’t hell, but you can see it from here.” That’s my welcome to the USS Moosbrugger.
ONDIK: And I’m going, I’ve been married for a week. And I just brought my wife to Pascagoula, Mississippi. And sorry to anyone from Pascagoula, who might be offended by that story. But true story. And I went, “Oh, God.” So, I go back, I tell her this story, half and half in tears. We lived in this little dumpy apartment for maybe a month or six weeks or so. And then the ship left the shipyard. And we went around. So, she drove to Charleston, which is where our duty station was again, talk about good Navy towns. I lived in all of them. It was Charleston was wonderful. We fell in love with it. But my point there was I was on the moose for 43 months. And I was away from home for 29 of those 43 months. And that is not a normal state of life for married people. It’s just not.
ONDIK: My guys could go to sea as much as we were at sea because of this new technology. Anytime some Russia submarine got picked up on a social station coming out of Black Sea, they sent us to go chases. So, we did two North Atlantic cruises. We did a Med cruise. We did a bunch of time in Caribbean. And we did a bunch of special ops where it was just us out steaming to chase down these Russia submarines. And so, I was going two-thirds of the first three and a half years that we were married. But, you know, that’s what you do because you’re in the Navy, right? And just one shipboard story that you will love, among the many things, still the greatest job I’ve ever had in my life. Hard, but the greatest. We were chasing this Russian nuclear missile submarine and, you know, they come over and they steam off of our coast, and they go around the med with their missiles just like we do with ours in case, you know, mutual deterrent. But what they didn’t know is that we could hear them and follow them, and they could not follow ours. So, one day we are told that we’re going to go do this. So, we chase this guy all around. And then our captain at the time, he was a bit of a wild man. And this was being reported back at like the CNO level of us doing this thing. And then he went back and asked for permission from the Pentagon to ping this guy with active sonar. And so, they came back and basically said, “Sure, what the hell?” So, he we blast the heck out of this guy, and before you know it, they come up to the surface. And the whole idea was that did they just happen upon us, or have these guys been tracking us all along? And so, when we left, and none of this is classified, obviously, but we knew all these roots because we followed these guys for weeks at a time. And then they either knew that we could now hear them, or they just wondered, “Did these guys get lucky and run across us?” So, being on a one-of-a-time ship, one of a kind shipping the world at that point was really cool. But it kept us at sea a lot.
BROWN: What was your wife’s thoughts on being in sea? Was she happy to have you out of the house? Or was she missing you?
ONDIK: So, that’s a darn good question! I think at the beginning, let’s say she was, you know, not happy. We’re young kids, we’re newly married, got married at 24. But then we lived in an adults-only community, we moved into these brand-new apartments; we’re the first tenants in a brand-new building. The tennis courts were lit 24/7, seven days a week, and people be out there playing at two in the morning. It was all like young couples. The places all had fireplaces and they gave you free wood to do this. So, it was kind of cool. So, by the time I got back once in a while, she’d be like, “Okay, we’re going to happy hour.” And we’d go to happy hour somewhere with all these other people that she nukes to live in the complex. By the way, a bunch of whom were Air Force guys, they’re because the big air station down there. So, they’re flying. I mean, they flew like, I’m flying out nine o’clock, they’re flying back one, you know, five o’clock, I’m coming back on Thursday. So, they were like always home. So, she introduced me to all these military guys that I had never met and all the other young folks in the neighborhood. So, at that point, the place had a beautiful pool. She worked downtown right on a point at in Charleston. It was really cool. When we first got there, she worked for Kelly agency. They’re still the staffing agency, at least call them Kelly girls back when. And this was pretty overqualified, had her degree from Villanova, been a very successful retail manager until we moved. So, I know that this wasn’t the typical candidate for Kelly girl temp, but they hooked up at this stevedore company down on the on the harbor. And it was just looking for like data entry or accounting stuff or whatever. And when she was there, they put in standing order. So, she did this because when I went to sea, she went to work for Kelly. When I came home, she would stop working so we could spend time, even though I was coming back and forth to the ship every day, obviously. So, whenever I went to sea she went to work and they put in an order for her that said, “anytime she’s available, you send her back to us.” And after about a year, they made her a permanent offer that said, “We’d love you to be an employee.” So, that kind of changed everything that she had, you know, office friends and the people back at the place. And so, it was good. Charleston was a good place. We had a chance to take the kids back later. And then, and I’m not going in any good order here, Mike. And I know that. The USS Moosbrugger, my ship that I was on, we shave with it in the morning now, but it came up to Philadelphia to be de-commissioned. And I had a chance to take my children and wife and go on and take a tour.
BROWN: Oh, that’s great.
ONDIK: And I remember showing up and the guy says, “Sir,” okay, you know, “we’ll have,” you know, “seeing so-and-so, to show you around.” I said, you know, need to, I said, “See that plaque right there? That’s me. I was the like second, third, whatever suppo here.” And they said, “Really?” I said, “Yes, so I can handle the tour.” So, took the kids all around, showed them the state room that I slept in, showed him the bunk where his godfather, my best friend on the ship, and I shared together. It was just really cool to go in, and be on this ship, and now have my three children. Liz had been there, but to show them was really a thrill. What’s the odds that they come up to Philadelphia active before they decommissioned it?
BROWN: That’s great.
BROWN: So, all the snide remarks about the Air Force are true. They serve from nine-to-five and get ice cream and air conditioning, while you’re out actually, you know, serving your country? [laughs]
ONDIK: So, my shore duty job after I left the ship, I had a pretty decent tour on the ship. And so, the detailer basically said, “Hey,” you know, “Where do you want to go?” And a friend of mine was in a detailer shop. God bless her. Ruth … good friend of mine from supply core days. She was now a detailer. And I said, “Look, I’ve been on the like the tip of the spear side. I like to see the contracting from like the back end, how we buy all this stuff. I’d like to do a joint tour to see what the other services are like. And by the way, I want to go to Philadelphia. I want a homecoming.” And the first detailer said, “Is that all you want?” [laughs] And so, and he was pushing me on it to go to take some better job, in his eyes, because I had done pretty well on the ship. And she said, “Look, he’s been transferred like two weeks. The other guy coming in is a great guy. You’re going to get the orders you want, so shut up and stop making waves,” because I’m really pushing this guy. So, the next guy shows up. God bless me, he said I got a joint contracting officer tour in Philadelphia. And so that was great. That was my final active-duty tour. Got to come home, still be in the Navy, and then learn about all the other services. And our joke back then – and no bad will guys – we used to joke that like the Navy and the Army, and to the degree of the Marine Corps, were like in the service. And Air Force guys, particularly on our side, on the logistics house, were businessmen in uniform. And they’d send guys to get their men. They’d send them to get their master’s degrees like two years in, and then send them to get another one because they want to get them in logistics. Like, you guys are killing to go to Navy Postgraduate School after you go to sea, you go back to sea afterwards. And so yeah, we used to beat them up pretty resoundingly. I was the contracting officer on a huge defense contractor across the river, whose name I will not mention. And we showed up for this big review. And I’m the contract administrator, the contracting officer is somewhere else. And I show up. And there’s also Air Force guys and Army guys at this event. And they put out a nice spread. And by the way, this is a big contract. There was a three-star Air Force General there. There was a two-star Navy Admiral there, and a bunch of big wigs as well. So, I woke up to the table where they’ve got a bunch of sodas, a bunch of coffee, and a bunch of donuts. And I grabbed my Diet Coke, and I grabbed my donut by the way. So does the three-star standing next to me. And this little Air Force wienie, contracting officer dude comes up, picks up the donut, takes 50 cents out of his pocket, and puts it down there because of conflict. Like, you know, “they can’t buy us lunch because we might award a billion-dollar contract to them because they had a free donut.” Honest to God, true story.
ONDIK: And I just looked at him. And then I looked up at the general, because it happened right in front of – and I don’t know if – and the general just went with his jelly donut and his coffee in hand. We went back to our seats. And it was just a different mindset. But those guys were, Navy officers are kind of Navy officers. There’s a little bit of “wahoo” nature in it because, you know, the most powerful position in the world is commanding officer of a Navy ship, right? Because you own everybody on there, and you know every bit of those 564 square feet. More than being an army brigade commander, any of those kinds of things. And so, the Navy tends to have that little bit of sense of wildness in us, and rule-bending maybe. Not that I ever did any of that. But the Air Force guys were just legit. They were squared away, and they were just kind of more like academic and maybe professional. We were more kind of well-rounded. It was just interesting. But I’ll never forget that. And when he slapped it down, I was like, man, am I supposed to be doing that? I don’t think so because he was like, but so – do you edit any of this? You don’t, do you? [laughs]
BROWN: Yeah, no, it’s good.
ONDIK: Oh, Jesus.
BROWN: [laughs] So, now that’s your last active-duty station. Philadelphia, you’re home. So, you know, what’s next? What’s that deciding factor to keep you either, do you stay in an active duty or like, “Hey, you know what, I think the reserves are,” what’s next? Or, you know, what’s pushing those buttons for you?
ONDIK: So, another true story, I would never lie to this assembled, incredible body here. So, I’m up here on active, my last tour, and I get selected to go to Navy Postgraduate School. And I also apply and get into the MBA program at Wharton. Even back through like, high school. And I’m really quite why, honestly, like I was fascinated with Wharton. It was the world’s best business school at the time. And I didn’t even know like how to apply to college, get a scholarship, but I always want to go to Wharton. So, now I get back up here, and I decide to apply to Wharton. And I get in. I’d been selected to go to Navy Postgraduate School. So, I had a very successful tour here. The beauty of this contracting job was it was a training position to get me qualified. And the colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, I worked for literally gave me the academic freedom to do anything I wanted to do. So, I rolled through different positions in there, which is what everybody did. But I attended 31 training courses in three and a half years. Some of those are four weeks long, some are a weeklong, a lot of them were away. But I saw – a lot of you had to take to get qualified – but they let me literally do whatever. So, and my average over those 31 classes, because I remember still putting it in my fitness, was like a 99.7 percent over 31 classes. I just did real well in the academic part, right? And I got great experience, and I had some really good roles as they rolled me around. So, I get into Wharton. And, and I go to the detailer and said, “Hey, I’m in the Wharton school. You’re going to get like 30 guys graduating from Monterey next year with a degree in contracting. Why don’t you send me to Wharton?” I mean, I’m kind of, so much just like sounds like bragging, but I’m kind of top of my year, I’m doing well. And I love the Navy. I’m never getting out, right? So, you got a guy who wants to stay in Navy, and you can send him to Wharton. And the detailer said, “You’re selected to go to Monterey, you’re going to Monterey.” So, I said, okay, so I go over his head to the head of detailing. Same story. He says, “Selected Monterey, you’re going to Monterey.” Head of Navy personnel, supply corps personnel. Same story. And he says, “Eh, you’re out.” So, I go to the chief of the supply corps, who I had done a little project on one time and met for an hour. And I’m talking to the Admiral. And he said – and I saw on this thing, it said, basically, look, “Monterey is on the West Coast. I’m an East Coast sailor. I always want to be an East Coast sailor. So, you’re going to have to move me to Monterey, move me back. I’ll pay for my own tuition to go to Wharton. You just, I’ll be on active duty. You keep paying me, I’ll pay for tuition. I’ll take the loans. This is an opportunity for me, and it’s an opportunity for the Navy.” The two-star general that I’m working for, who’s my boss’s boss, writes a letter of recommendation. My colonel, who’s an Air Force colonel, Donna Patten, what a wonderful woman. I had great commanding officers all along. Sends a letter, basically, said, “Best junior officer I’ve ever had worked for me in all my time. This guy should go to Wharton.” A guy who taught me a couple of these classes, he said, you know, “Academic, I never had anybody better. He’s going to do well there.” So, the Admiral says, “John, this sounds like a pretty good idea. Let me get back to you.” I’m thinking, I call my wife and said, oh my god, I think the Admiral’s going to make this thing happen for me. About a week later, I get a call back from the Chief of Staff. Admiral’s deliver good news. Chiefs of Staff deliver bad news.
ONDIK: And so, he gets on the phone, and he said, “So, I understand that you talked to the Admiral about wanting to go to Wharton.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Well, I also see you put your resignation letter in before.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “You’ll see I put it in because my class starts in September at Wharton.” The next day, I rescinded that while this process was going through. He said, “Well, you know what, here’s the way I see it. You want it to resign, you must not want to be in a Navy.” And I said, “Sir, you’re looking at the same thing I am, put it in.” And in those days, you could get away with kind of putting your resignation on hold as a negotiating tip for better orders. And in fact, a Navy captain, it was a good mentor of mine that I worked for, had said, “John, put it in.” He said, “My dad did the same thing: ‘I’m getting out.’ ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘Hawaii.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘I’m back in.’” And I only did it the day after. And I still tell this story to people because every word that he said was true. And it’s the same thing I’ve never forgotten in my life. So, he said, “John, let me tell you something.” He said, “I see the recommendation from the two-stars, the recommendation from here, you have had a phenomenal career, you are a leader for the future of the supply core.” He said, “But you have a decision to make. Do you want to stay in the Navy, or do you not want to stay in the Navy?” He said, “Because let me tell you something.” He said, “As good as you are,” and this is not supposed to be bragging, folks, he said, “as good as you are, every job you would have gone to for the rest of your career is still going to get done. Somebody’s going to get in there, going to do it.” And you guys have been in the military, and you know that’s the truth. And he said, “Might not be done as well as you would have done it, but it’s still going to get done. So, your decision is, do you need the Navy? Because the Navy does not need you” And he said, “Now, I’ll compromise. You’re going to Monterey.” He said, “But you don’t have to major in contracting. You can triple major, create your own thing. You can create your own degree out there, do whatever you want, but you’re going to Monterey.” And I said, you know, “Captain, thank you very much. I really appreciate this.” I’m still feeling this now. And I swear that when I hung up that phone, he thought I was staying in the Navy. I had two phones on my desk at that time because the other one called my wife said, “We’re getting out!” And she, you know, jumped up and went through the ceiling, I’m sure on the other end. And so, the rest is history. But I’ve never forgotten what that guy said. I’d still be in today if they hadn’t thrown me out. Like at some point, they wouldn’t throw me out of the Navy, I guess. But I loved every minute of it. Even the separation from family, and you heard from the beginning, I’m a family guy. First and foremost, every career decision I’ve made since then has always been about family quality. I never chased the big bucks; it’s just not how I’m wired. But I would still be in the Navy and still do all the moves. But what he said was absolutely true. Right? And so, when I looked at it, I just thought Wharton was too good an opportunity to pass up. And the rest is kind of history. And then once I got over the fact that I’m not in the Navy, which bothered me. I stayed in the reserves for 16 years, because I did love it. I said I’d stop when it stopped being fun, and it kind of stopped being fun for like 16 years or so. But I knew a lot of Navy brats from ROTC. And the one thing, you know, my whole family was in Conshohocken. We now live all the 15 minutes away from there. And I’m a big believer in roots. And so, the fact that I didn’t move my family every two or three years. And if you were a good supply core officer, you were running back to sea every other tour. If you weren’t so good, you could do one more ship tour and then spend the rest of your career on shorter. That’s the way the supply core is wired. But the best of the best, go back as a commander, go back again as a captain, like an aircraft carrier job. So, I knew I was going to go back to sea a lot. And I was okay with that. But once that didn’t come, kids grew up in Havertown, and had all that I had growing up. So, I say, I turned down a job one time. The first job when I was coming out of Wharton, I got a nice job offer to go work for a company up in North Jersey. And they really talked about it. They said, “Look, we’re giving you a little bit more than we’ve given. We’re hiring another one of your peer MBAs, giving a little bit more money, giving a little bit more signing bonus.” And the CEO said, “You’re to understand, you could run this business someday.” It was a $20 billion public business. And I’m talking to the head of HR. And so, they take my wife and I up, we go see the big houses. I said to the realtor, “I think you’re showing us the wrong properties.” And she said, “Mr. Ondik, I know what your incoming salary is. I know what your expected bonus is. I know what,” said, “This is a corporate relocation. This is where you could live.” So, we went up to Orange County, New York with these houses. We came back home, and I was like, Jesus, we never been like, go chase the Jones is kind of guy. But this is like a first job out of school. I’ve been a poor naval officer for 10 years. And now we could really step up. She said, “Yeah.” But I said, you know what, we’re in Havertown, the whole family is in Conshohocken. So, I picked up the phone, and I called this guy Charlie, whose son I then got hired at Wharton, by the way, after this thing was over. I called up, said, “Charlie, appreciate it. We’re not coming.” And he said, “What do you mean you’re not coming?” He said, “We told you can do like any job that you want to come in.” And I said, “It’s too far away.” And he said, “I’m sorry, you live outside Philadelphia, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That’s two and a half hours from here.” I said, “I know.” I said, “But, Charlie, my father will pick up the phone on a Thursday and say, ‘Son, the sauce is done. Just about to fill the pasta in. You guys coming?’” And we would take our three kids, who were all young, and throw them in and go. I said, so I’m talking to Charlie, I said, “My kids have never known a life when they didn’t see their grandparents almost every week.” And he said, “You understand what you’re giving up, right?” And I said, “Yeah, but you don’t understand what I would be giving up because we’ve never left Havertown.” And I’ve had different opportunities over the years, like go there, wherever there was for that next level of job where I would be happily retired now, rather than still working to keep the lights on. But that’s just kind of how I’m wired. So, that circles back to the whole Navy thing. I don’t regret not moving my family all that time, though I regret not having finished out an active-duty career.
BROWN: Sure. Well, it sounds like, you know, in reflecting on your story, you really were proud of your time in the Navy. You were able to go to and travel and be stationed at some really outstanding –
BROWN: And then, you know, the opportunity to meet with and serve with some fantastic folks as well.
ONDIK: Unbelievable, right? So, my roommate from my ship, my son’s godfather, I mean, still he’s as close as anybody I am on the planet. And I worked for Arthur Anderson back before the debacle in the consulting side, where it was, I mean, we only hired the best. If you were an undergrad coming into the consulting program, you went to Villanova or you went to Wharton. And you had 3.8 or 3.9 grades because they had the luxury to do that. Then I went to KPMG, another elite organization. Then I got recruited to go to Aramark, started a new business unit for them, which was the last like full-time job gig that I had. And I’ve told people across all those organizations, and Aramark was the best to this day operators I’ve ever seen. Those folks could rub two nickels together and get 11 cents. They could run an operation tight. I’ve never had the sense of purpose and the sense of camaraderie that I had in the Navy for all those years, over the 26, including reserves. And I’ve never had people work for me. It used to aggravate my clients and my colleagues, because I was an Arthur Anderson and KPMG out of clients. I would say to folks, “I’ll take my top three petty officers that worked for me on a ship who were 19, 21, and 24, and I’ll run this division with them.” And I believe that to this day, and it goes across this, right? My background is the Navy folks, but Navy sailors, I could beat the living hell out of those guys from the morning to night, because it’s a hard job out there, particularly at sea. And they’d come back the next day, and they’d keep coming back, and that sense of purpose and mission in it. You were doing something, and I don’t mean to slide in those other organizations, which are all great places, but I’ve never had that sense of purpose, that being in the Navy particularly gives you the military, and particularly on a ship, which is just a challenging life, even when you’re in port. But guys, just keep doing, and you do, and you do. It’s incredible.
BROWN: And now you have a son in the Navy following your footsteps and making you proud as well.
ONDIK: It is, it’s incredible. And it’ll sound like bragging, but John is, he is such a better naval officer than I was, and I thought I was okay. He’s a brilliant smart kid. He went to Georgetown ROTC scholarship, and then, I guess about four years ago now or so, the Navy restarted a program from the ‘70s called Warrior Scholars. Love that name. And they said, “We are going to send the elite of our surface warfare officers to elite universities to get MBAs,” because the chief naval education believes in that postgraduate education at this level. And so, he’d already gotten what was probably the most competitive billet in his year group when he was looking to leave. He was on, he was on the west coast, did two shipboard tours there, so two different ships, and then got selected to go to Yale, and teach ROTC, which had just come back on the campus. So, he was relieving the first division officer after Yale being kicked off, because it wasn’t good to have ROTC on campuses. And then when he was there, he got a call from his, one of his old skippers, and he said, “Hey, John, heard you got into the MBA program there.” And he said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “How are you going to pay for that?” This was, by the way, like a Tuesday night at home, 7:30 call. So, John was already wondering, like, “Captain, how are you doing, sir? I’ve worked for you a little while.” He’s like, “So, I’m going to pay for everybody else. I’m going to use my sign-on bonus for this next tour. I’m going to take student loans,” and the guy said, “Well, you could do it that way.” He said, “Well, what if I told you the Navy could send you to Yale?” And he said, “Sir, what do you mean?” He said, “We’re restarting, the CNO has tasked me with restarting this program. And we’re going to give three of our very best a chance to go do this.” So, they sent John to Yale, they sent another guy to Harvard and somebody, I think, out on the West Coast. And there were Navy Times articles with their pictures in them saying this thing, that was the front page of the Navy personnel page that basically, “If you think you’re the best of the best surface warriors, be a warrior scholar.” And I think the next year they ramped it up to, like, 18 guys or so. So, they sent him to Yale. And now they’re stationed over in, in Rota, Spain, which was another kind of prime set of orders.
ONDIK: And as he’s doing really well, and it’s so refreshing to see. And we’re blessed with three wonderful kids and now some grandkids. But John has said to me multiple times over the years, you know. Life at sea is hard, and he has put in a fair amount of time at sea across, now three ship tours, and has young kids just like I had when, when he was born. But it’s so cool to hear him say, “He doesn’t owe me a damn thing, dad.” He said, “I’ve been to two elite schools, courtesy of the Navy. I’ve had incredible experiences. They don’t know me squat.” In the context of, yeah, “I’ve been away a lot.” And, and as cool as it is, it’s easy to sit back and say, “We’re deploying again, I just came back in from sea.” But he really feels that way about what it did for him. And that, just to me, makes it really special.
BROWN: Well, great. Well, I appreciate you coming in today, John. I think it’s, you know, when we first talked about this, you were like, “Oh, my story is going to be boring.” I think your story was anything but. It was a great story. I’m glad you were able to tell it. I hope you felt the same way. Is there anything, as we part, you’d like to add before we leave?
ONDIK: No, I truly am humbled at this opportunity to have this kind of be there in perpetuity, a legacy like this. I still know that it was, there’s a lot more folks out there have accomplished a lot more than I have. But Mike, I really appreciate you folks giving me this chance. And I’m just thrilled to have done it.
BROWN: Well, great. Well, thanks, everyone. That wraps up our interview with John, and until next time.
BROWN (OUTRO): That concludes this installment of the Voices of Villanova’s Veterans, a joint project of the Villanova University Office of Veterans and Military Service Members, and Falvey Memorial Library’s Distinctive Collections and Digital Engagement departments. Thank you for listening. For more information and to listen to more interviews, please visit us online at veteransvoices.library.villanova.edu. Thank you.
 Inaudible phrase.
 Supply Corps Officers make sure the Navy has what it needs. Responsibilities for the job may include analyzing the demand for supplies and forecast future needs. They ensure all parts and equipment needed for ship maintenance and repairs are ordered and received on time.
 Surface combatants – or surface ships or surface vessels – are a subset of naval warships, which are designed for warfare on the surface of the water, with their own weapons and armed forces.
 MOI: Marine officer instructor.
 A warrant officer is a highly trained expert in the armed services. Warrant officers outrank all enlisted soldiers and performs duties involving technical and tactical leadership.
 A limited duty officer is an officer in the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps who was selected for commissioning based on skill and expertise.
 LDO: limited duty officer.
 USS Moosbrugger was a Spruance-class destroyer built for the United States Navy by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries at Pascagoula, Mississippi.
 In present-day American waterfront usage, a stevedore is usually a person or a company who manages the operation of loading or unloading a ship.
 Unknown phrase. Best guess: Kislaferson.