Lois Bouton, affectionately and widely known as "The Coast Guard Lady," was laid to her final rest with full military honors on Feb. 7, 2022.
Though 102 years old at the time of her passing, Bouton was still writing the letters that earned her the famed title she was so proud of. She began her correspondence with coasties worldwide in the early 1970s, 30 years after serving in the Coast Guard herself as a radio technician during World War II.
Toward the end of the war, she married a fellow coastie and then went on to teach for 30 years. Following her career in education, she picked up her pen and paper.
Bouton began crafting handwritten notes filled with words of encouragement, hope and with the intent to make every person she wrote her friend. One of those recipients was 8th Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton.
"It was somewhere around Christmastime in 1986 when the XO [executive officer] handed me a letter and asked me to answer it," Patton shared. At the time, he was the chief yeoman underway during a long five-month Alaska patrol ---- away from family and feeling down himself.
Her flowing messages of holiday cheer lifted him before he even knew who she was.
Patton responded to her letter, having no idea he'd just begun a friendship that would change his life. "Fast forward maybe 10 years, and I am the command master chief of the Atlantic Area when this lady walks up to me at a Change of Command ceremony in Alabama with the biggest grin on her face," he said, smiling with the memory of meeting Bouton in person for the first time.
While visiting the unit later on, he asked the coasties to raise their hands if they'd heard of The Coast Guard Lady. "They said, 'Oh, yeah, we get Christmas cards and notes from her all the time,'" Patton added. "At that point, I sort of became her cheerleader. You talk about someone who really uplifted morale with her letters and then in person. Her cheery personality was just infectious."
It's estimated that Bouton wrote more than 100,000 letters.
So what was her reaction when Patton was named the 8th MCPOCG (Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard)?
"Tickled pink," he laughed. "By then, she definitely wanted to know all the things I was up to and what I was doing. During that time in her circle of friends, she became very good friends with a prolific author, Alex Haley."
As she heard the news of a Navy ship the Coast Guard would be acquiring, she suggested it be named after Haley. Multiple times.
"I walked into the Commandant's office to share the latest letter and request with him," Patton said. But Bouton had already gotten to the top leader, writing him a letter of his own with the request. The two shared an easy laugh, he added.
She got her wish.
Commissioned in 1999 and homeported in Kodiak, Alaska ---- the Alex Haley is proudly named after the Coast Guard's first chief journalist and its first Black chief petty officer. Haley served for 20 years before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," among other extraordinary books.
"She [Bouton] had this commanding respect that you just couldn't say no to. But she also had this sweet, almost child-like voice which made you say 'OK, whatever you want ---- you can have it'," Patton admitted.
Not long ago, Bouton sat down for an interview with the Coast Guard Museum, and Patton was with her. She was asked why she wrote all of those letters over the years and if it was some sort of mission for her. She responded, explaining she wrote the letters with the intent of turning every acquaintance into a friend.
"She saw writing as a lost art which was going away with technology and felt like letter writing really showed how much you cared about a person. She also said that making friends builds happiness," he said.
When she celebrated her 100th birthday, Bouton got a surprise of her own. "She received something very few people ever get and was named an honorary master chief. After being presented with it by Jason Vanderhaden, the Coast Guard's current and 13th MCPOCG, she had only one question," Patton laughed.
What was her number, and where did she rank on the list?
"We all cracked up about that. She really was something else," Patton said. "All joking aside, nothing she did was for recognition or awards. Honestly, she valued being called The Coast Guard Lady more than anything."
The church pews at her service were filled with a sea of Coast Guard dress blues as coasties from all corners of the country came to honor Bouton's legacy. Her loss was felt deeply and expressed by stories of love, laughter and impact shared over smiles and tears.
Later, as the gunshots echoed over the snow through the mournful taps being played, the sun shone on the American flag folded by the all-female honor guard she'd requested.
Just hours before her passing, Bouton called Patton for one last chat. Despite knowing she was at the end of her life, she still had the energy to implore him not to be sad and then demand he not dwell on her passing. "She asked me to continue to live her legacy of happiness. And that's exactly what I am going to do," he promised.
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