Around Decorah, his name is synonymous with high school golf. His face is instantly recognizable at ribbon cuttings, board meetings, and military services. He is a constant figure around town, walking with his wife and cheerfully chatting up everyone he meets. How well do you really KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOR?
What do an Army Colonel, a golf coach, a high school marketing teacher and a Parks & Recreation chairman have in common? Rich Gaard!
From the fairways of Decorah to the shores of Germany, 77-year-old Rich Gaard’s curriculum vitae reads like a fantastical bucket list of occupations and accomplishments that have taken him to all corners of the globe, each chapter of his resumé more wondrous than the last.
Gaard, a Waverly native, found himself in Decorah in 1969 after graduating from Wartburg College with a degree in business. He was hired at Thomas Roberts Senior High School (later renamed Decorah High School) to teach and oversee the school’s brand-new Distributive Education Club of America. He also served as the school’s audio-visual director while juggling DECA and teaching. As a successful golfer in college, Gaard also began coaching the high school’s golf team, a job that would span the next 52 years.
As if being a teacher, DECA advisor, AV director and golf coach wasn’t enough, Gaard also found time to coach junior high basketball and football, and led numerous DECA groups, as well as golf, basketball and football teams, to regional, state and national championships.
In 1971, Gaard enlisted in the Army Reserves and received training in general carpentry, construction and engineering. He was assigned to Company B with the 389th Engineer Battalion at Decorah’s Army Reserve Unit, where his unit completed numerous community projects at local parks, schools and city properties.
In 1974, Gaard married fellow DHS teacher, Carol McClure, and soon after, he completed Army Officer Candidate School. As time passed and Gaard advanced through the officer ranks, his various talents and education made him an optimum candidate for a variety of specific and unique jobs. He continued to teach and coach while simultaneously expanding his military ecumen.
Gaard served as Iowa’s liaison officer for U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he later found himself part of special training team with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Germany. While serving as the liaison officer, Gaard also spent a year as a coordinator of that year’s U.S. team of reserve officers who participated in the annual pentathlon of the International Confederation of Reserve Officers in Belgium.
He continued excelling as state director of West Point and served as a combat arms officer and a unit commander. Gaard achieved full-bird Colonel while serving at the Pentagon as Deputy Legislative Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He retired from teaching at DHS in 2004, after 35 years. In 2006, Gaard retired from his Army service, with two Legion of Merit awards and an expansive 34-year military career to his credit.
Gaard continued his coaching stint, finally retiring earlier this year after 52 years. Gaard still volunteers with West Point Academy and was recently reappointed for his fourth year as a member of the Department of Veterans Affairs Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.
Closer to home, Gaard’s achievements span the gamut. He has served on numerous boards and committees and has interwoven himself into the Driftless military veteran community. As a former Pentagon officer, Gaard, with Carol, have locally donated flags that have flown over the Pentagon, with one flying at the Veteran’s Memorial in town and a second flag flying at Winneshiek Medical Center.
In addition to him serving on WinnMed’s Foundation Board of Directors, Gaard and Carol were large contributors to the Winneshiek County Veterans Memorial and the new picnic shelter erected at Mary Christopher Park. Over and above that, they set up an endowment for WinnMed’s American Flag Program as well as a family fund with the Winneshiek County Community Foundation.
Gaard, now fully retired from teaching, coaching, and military service, currently volunteers as an Iowa advisor for West Point Academy candidates and was reappointed earlier this year to his fourth year as one of twelve members chosen nationally to serve on the Veterans Affairs Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.
Get to know your neighbor, Rich Gaard:
Do you have a nickname?
“Boomer” is my nickname. When I first came to Decorah, I went pheasant hunting. I had just gotten back from Army basic training, and I purchased a new shot gun and I wanted to try it out. A few teacher friends and I got together to go pheasant hunting, and Mike Fitzgerald was in the group. Mike said, “You better try that shotgun out!” So, he and I go over to the side of a ditch, and I shot it — boom boom boom boom! The other guys didn’t know I was shooting it. They hit the ground, not knowing what was going on! After that, they started calling me “Boomer” and it has stuck.
What are you most known for?
Hmmmm, gosh, I don’t know! I guess partly maybe for my involvement in the community with various organizations. I am on the Parks and Recreation Board, the First Lutheran Church Council, and the WinnMed Hospital Foundation. I just wrapped up my time on the board for the Community Foundation for Northeast Iowa Board. High school coach? Liaison for West Point academy?
I think I am most known for my community involvement and having been a teacher — Teaching in the public school system, you are kind of well known, good or bad! Coaching different groups of kids! I like being involved with those things and meeting people and talking with people.
I like biking and walking, golfing, of course! Tennis and pickle ball. I really like to travel. I have two grandkids: a two-year-old, and a six-year-old. That’s a job!
What do you like most about living in the Driftless?
Golly! We’ve lived here a long time! Carol and I like the activities that are available here. We like the people and the lifestyle. We came here for the schools too. I am from Waverly and went to Wartburg, but I wanted to move to a town that also had a college — a college adds a lot to a community. We love our neighborhood; how close our house is to everything in town.
Favorite locations around town:
My favorite restaurant … Twin springs Supper Club! My wife likes salmon, and I order steak or salmon. That chocolate dessert is so good!
I do like Rubaiyat and I love Toppling Goliath. I am not a beer drinker, but I love their variety of foods!
My favorite park is Mary Christopher Park, with the beautiful VA memorial. Carol and I, along with Perry and Wendy Novak, donated to the shelter there. There is a picture of us in the shelter that tells the story.
The flag at the memorial flew over the Pentagon; I contributed the flag to the memorial. I have made it so there will always be an American flag flying at the memorial in honor of all the veterans of Winneshiek County and Northeast Iowa. At the hospital, near the entryway where you check in, that flag flew over the pentagon too.
What is your favorite book?
I’m not really a book reader. I read more short articles and magazines, so I would say Forbes, Kiplinger and Golf Digest.
I love “Top Gun”! I also really enjoy Jack Ryan and the Jason Bourne movies! I watch them over and over.
Favorite human being?
Besides Carol? General Peter Pace. I worked under General Pace for two years when I was at the Pentagon. His leadership skills and demeanor really impressed me. He challenged me when I retired from the Pentagon, “Rich, go out and try to help the veterans as much as you can,” so I have been trying to do that — with flags, with committees, with volunteer programs. I am hoping to give back as much as I can, nationally and locally.”
What is your hidden talent?
I’m still trying to find it! I enjoy talking to people. I talked to a random guy earlier today at the bicycle store, and it turns out he’s from Waverly! One of my strengths is if I don’t know something, I will find someone who does. You should always surround yourself with good people.
It’s possible that one could not swing a golf club in Decorah without hitting someone who knows Gaard or has benefited from one of his many contributions. But knowing all he has done and the numerous lives he has touched throughout his life, it’s doubtful.
Colonel Rich Gaard shakes hands with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2007. Gaard, who was stationed at the Pentagon and served two years as Deputy Legislative Assistant to Pace, cites Pace’s leadership skills and demeanor as reasons why Gaard considers him his favorite person.