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As a radioman, Fred Siegel honed his boyhood fascination with electronics. As he advanced up the ranks he developed an interest in the emerging field of computer programming. His proficiency led to a stint at the Coast Guard’s computer lab, now the Telecommunications and Information System Command, and eventually a second career in computer consulting.
In the 90s, nearly 10 years after his retirement, Siegel launched a website for Coasties he called “Fred’s Place.” It was the early and heady days of home computing; the launch of home email accounts and dotcoms. At the time, Fred’s Place offered a rather unique connection reuniting old friends and comrades. Siegel talks about those days before the phrase “social media” had been coined. He still refers to it as “word of mouse.”
The crucial link he provided led to unit reunions, story swapping, discussion boards and the attention of larger dotcoms. Eventually, Fred’s Place was purchased by Military.com, although Siegel continued to run the site.
Yet after 17 years of operating the site, the 71-year-old will post for the last time on Sept. 1, marking the poignant end of an era.
Reflecting on the close of this chapter, Fred turns nostalgic. He can easily tick off the names of the first 100 members of Fred’s Place. It’s a special group for Siegel who says over the years have served as his informal board of directors. When he wanted feedback about the Military.com offer to those 100 people, 89 responded. He says their input has been invaluable. However, Siegel recognizes times have changed.
“Time and technology have overtaken Fred’s Place,” says Siegel, from his home in Bartlett, Tenn. “Now there’s Twitter and Facebook and other social network sites; but when we started, it was different.”
A bit overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging up his keyboard, Siegel prefers talking about his 62,000-member following as his crew.
“We’re a small service and I wanted Fred’s Place to be a comfortable gathering place with a real person behind it.”
Active duty members, reservists and retirees give Fred’s Place high marks for connections. In 2001, Lt. Eric Willis was a new reservist. He says the site offered an introduction to the Coast Guard culture.
“Fred’s Place offered a wonderful link between the Coast Guard and the civilian world and helped me understand the jargon, while giving me a feel for the military culture.”
Siegel has tried to answer each mail single handedly, adding a personal dimension to the site. Sometimes, the long hours cut into outings with his first-mate Mary, his wife of 52 years. Yet she always lent her support because for Siegel, the website has been a labor of love. He maintains a deep affinity for the Coast Guard since first joining in 1959.
With great clarity, he recalls working in the radio room on hundreds of search and rescue missions – and still gets choked up over an unsuccessful attempt to locate a family of four in distress off the coast of Boston. Siegel recalls attempts to keep them counting from 1to 100 and backwards hoping to get a good radio signal. One by one, each member handed the radio to another family member until the radio went silent. The memory still haunts him and it’s one reason he welcomes more precise and digital technology.
Yet Siegel began his career on a weather ship, working in Morse code and later, teletype. He did a stint as an instructor at radioman school. Back in the early days, he wore the flat-topped Coast Guard cap and then the “Dixie cup” hat, undress whites, as well as a uniform of dungarees, chambray shirts. Fascinated by the changes in vessel designs and configurations, he is most awed by the expanded missions of the captain of the port and the people the Coast Guard still recruits.
“The jobs are different now, but the dedication and devotion to duty is as strong as ever,” he says.
The value of technology
Even on the telephone, Siegel’s jovial, easygoing manner draws you in. He talks about the couple who met on his site nearly two decades after they’d met at a Coast Guard station. Each one, along with their spouses had enjoyed socializing at an assignment in Alaska. Over time, they lost their connection. Years after their respective spouses had died. Fred’s Place offered a chance to renew their friendship. Eventually, that led to wedding bells, and Siegel received a notice and a thank you.
In the late 90s, the expense of expanding the server began adding up. Siegel recalls getting a wadded up dollar bill in the mail from a single Coast Guard dad with a hand-scrawled note saying he wished he could donate more. That gesture stills impresses Siegel. He has also accumulated a stack of personal emails and hand-written notes over the years and they have fueled his motivation.
Over the years, Siegel has also picked up quite a few accolades. They include a trip aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle and being awarded the Meritorious Public Service Award from Adm. Thomas Collins. Although his site was once considered controversial for its open forums and frank discussions, former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton, recognized its value and became an early adopter. The two had first met when Siegel was Patton’s detailer.
“If there’s anyone who should be credited for ‘inventing the Internet,’ it would be Fred Siegel,” Patton said. “Clearly, hundreds, if not thousands of people learned firsthand the value of technology by communicating on Fred’s Place.”
Patton made Siegel an honorary command master chief. He credits Siegel’s ability to disseminate information quickly as the Internet became a communications reality. Patton also says the site revealed issues and concerns that made Siegel a key member of his team.
Unpredictable twists and turns
As a chief warrant officer, he became a victim of a stroke, landing him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Left-sided paralysis eventually led to a medical retirement. But a junior officer who recognized Siegel’s interest in computers fortuitously brought him books at the hospital. They were a bit dry, Siegel jokes, but right up his alley and taught him computer programming languages. During Siegel’s lengthy hospital convalescence, he pored over those books, attaining an impressive level of mastery.
“I have always found that if you sit back, as one door closes, another eventually opens,” he says.
During this final week of Fred’s Place, Siegel says he’s enjoyed “every daggone minute.” He’s also proud to have developed a way for Coast Guard members to speak to one another directly. But he’s awfully quick to credit the crew – his 62,000 site members. That’s the quintessential and humble, Fred Siegel.
“The reason Fred’s Place was successful is because of the crew,” he says. “I just don’t know how to adequately express my deep gratitude to each and every one of them.”