The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, largely responsible for the success of many U.S. Coast Guard missions, yet rarely put in the spotlight, continues to play a critical role in daily Coast Guard operations.
Coast Guard Auxiliary members, using their own personal watercraft, land vehicles, equipment and time, volunteer millions of hours and dollars in support of the Coast Guard each year.
Among these thousands of humble volunteers across our nation, there are individuals who go a step beyond passionate volunteerism, committing themselves to the Coast Guard in nearly all they do.
There can be no better example of such a person than Coast Guard Auxiliarist and Honorary Coast Guard Chief Larry Kellis, Special Assignment Photography Officer for Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Ore.
Kellis began serving in the Coast Guard Auxiliary 14 years ago, after learning that members needn’t own a boat or be expert mariners to join. Auxiliary Flotilla 64 members met Larry on a boat headed to Portland, Ore., and noticed his expertise with a camera. They asked him to join the organization as a photographer and Kellis eagerly filled that role.
“I have been a professional photographer for 45 years. I’ve always had a camera in my hand. That’s what I know and what I like to do,” chimed Kellis.
In addition to the thousands of hours he has spent taking photos of Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary operations, ceremonies, and special events, Kellis often takes the time to print those photos and personally present them to his subjects. The expense often comes out of his pocket.
“Taking photos of individuals is one of my favorite ways to serve,” explained Kellis. “It promotes morale. When people have high morale, they not only do their jobs and do them well, they work with a smile on their face. With photography, I give of myself with no motive but to see those smiles.”
Over the years, Kellis’ service in the Auxiliary has extended far beyond his skills behind a camera. Working as a public affairs officer at the flotilla, division, district and national level, his dedicated interactions with the boating public represent thousands of such annual interactions among Coast Guard Auxiliary members and boaters here in the Pacific Northwest. Larry is one gleaming example of how a person’s ability to talk to the public, to engage in everyday conversation about boating safety, has helped to save lives and prevent casualties out on the water.
"I have known Mr. Larry Kellis for more than 11 years,” stated Capt. Len Tumbarello, Sector Columbia River Deputy Commander. “I met Mr. Kellis in 2000 when I was the Surface Operations Officer and Auxiliary Liaison at what was then Coast Guard Group Astoria. That year I began to work side by side with Mr. Kellis to create Operation Buoy 10. We worked as a team in response to an alarming number of fatalities during the Buoy 10 fishery that year. During that time it became very apparent to me that Larry was a hard-charging, dedicated professional, more than willing to work extremely hard to make a difference in keeping boaters safe on the Columbia River.”
Buoy 10 is a popular fishing area near the Columbia River entrance where large numbers of salmon gather annually, attracting high volumes of fishermen. Each year, according to Kellis and Tumbarellos’ plan, Coast Guard active, reserve and auxiliary members are positioned at marinas, boat launches and on the water near the Columbia River entrance to educate boaters about the dangers of the area, emergency and radio procedures, PFDs and safe boating practices.
Since Buoy 10's inception over a decade ago, two lives have been lost directly related to Buoy 10 season. There is no way to calculate precisely how many have been saved. Costly and dangerous Sector Columbia River search and rescue operations during that time of year have been reduced by approximately 90 percent as a result of the preventative measures. Kellis’ outstanding organizational efforts played a critical role in positioning hundreds of auxiliarists from all over the Pacific Northwest, volunteering thousands of hours in support of Buoy 10.
“Kellis has dedicated many years of his life as a volunteer for the good of other people,” added Tumbarello. “That's what Mr. Larry Kellis embodies. He is a man that can be counted on to get the job done and the job done right. That is why I hand-selected him to be an integral part of our External Affairs staff at Sector Columbia River where he has been an invaluable asset."
Active-duty Coast Guard Public Affairs Specialists are few in numbers. As Coast Guard journalists, we are often forced to make difficult decisions about which Coast Guard stories to tell and when. Without the dedicated support of reserve and auxiliary members, people like Larry Kellis, we would fall short of meeting the growing needs of our critical maritime service.
Kellis’ photographic skills have helped tell U.S. Coast Guard stories not only at the local level, but across the country and around the world.
"In my opinion, Larry Kellis is one of the most talented commercial photographers in the Pacific Northwest,” said Jerry Ostermiller, community leader and retired Executive Director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. “Through his steadfast determination to photograph all aspects of U.S. Coast Guard activity, he has captured virtually every aspect of this service. His work is so highly regarded that in my travels throughout the nation, working on special assignments regarding Coast Guard History for the Learning Channel, History Channel and as a member of the scoping team for the National Coast Guard Museum, I have come to expect to see Larry's photographs not only in numerous publications, but proudly displayed in offices and public spaces in Coast Guard facilities coast to coast. His talent for capturing the essence of the Coast Guard, with both power and poetry, is precisely why the City of Astoria chose one of his most powerful emotive images as the cover photo for their successful Coast Guard City nomination package, resulting in Astoria being deemed one of only 18 cities in the nation an official ‘Coast Guard City’."
On Aug. 1, 2012, at a Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 62 meeting held at Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., Lt. Scott McGrew, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, presented Kellis with an award issued by the Coast Guard Commandant. Kellis received the Coast Guard Sustained Auxiliary Service Award, marking his eleventh sustained service award and earning him a Gold Hourglass. The award officially recognized his 15,000 hours of Auxiliary service.
Kellis has received a total of 37 awards for his service, inlcluding two Coast Guard Letters of Commendation and an Auxiliary Commandants's Letter of Commendation.
Despite the recent recognition and years of successful mission support, Kellis remains humble. He represents a fleet composed of thousands of quiet volunteers. His pride rests in our organizations rather than within himself.
“The Auxiliary is made up of all walks of life,” he explained. “All ages and backgrounds and professions are welcome to join. A wide variety of skills are required, not just boat driving. You don’t have to own a boat to join. Auxiliary members can do anything the Coast Guard can with the exception of enforcing laws. We have pilots, photographers and writers.”
On a recent rainy morning in Astoria, when asked about retiring, perhaps hanging up the responsibility slicker near a woodstove somewhere, Larry only smiled.
“The only force to lead me to my retirement from the Auxiliary will be my health, he assured. “I will retire when I feel I can no longer perform my obligations to the Coast Guard due to my age.”
Semper Paratus, Larry, and thank you.