By D. Allan Kerr
Elizabeth Hurd was, by her own admission, a shy young girl from Fryeburg, Maine, in 1951, when two friends set her up on a blind date with a dashing ROTC cadet at the University of Maine.
His name was Richard Roy DesJardins, but everyone called him Dick. He majored in mechanical engineering and was a cousin of Elizabeth’s friend, Marguerite. Elizabeth met Marguerite through her childhood chum Amo Kimball.
Elizabeth attended Westbrook Junior College in Portland, but that winter she traveled to Orono to visit Amo at the University of Maine. Marguerite’s cousin Dick needed a date for the winter ball held by the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, so the girls set him up with Elizabeth.
They began seeing one another somewhat regularly, but in the early days it was always a long-distance relationship. The distance grew as Elizabeth got a job in Boston and Dick, earning a commission as a U.S. Army lieutenant upon graduation, wound up stationed in far-off Greenland. Eventually, Dick was transferred to Fort Devens in Massachusetts and what started as a blind date took a detour into marriage on Oct. 24, 1953.
“It was meant to be,” Elizabeth says now.
Dick was discharged from active duty after a two-year stint and eventually started a career at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where his father had worked for 27 years. They bought a home in Kittery for their growing family, not far from Dick’s boyhood home.
Then in April 1963, Dick and 128 other men departed from the Navy yard aboard the dynamic new fast-attack submarine USS Thresher for deep-dive tests 220 miles off the New England coast.
Elizabeth was five months pregnant when two shipyard representatives visited her home the morning after the Thresher’s disappearance to confirm all hands aboard had been lost in the worst submarine disaster in history.
One of the men who brought her the terrible news was DesJardins’ boss, a Navy captain. The other was her husband’s best friend and mentor, Randy Dow. Both men wept as they stood in her kitchen. In the weeks to follow, many tears would fall across the nation — and in the Seacoast especially.
“I’ve never seen so many men cry in all my life,” Elizabeth recalls now, sitting in the same room where she learned of her husband’s fate.
Elizabeth did not have the luxury of tears. She was afraid she would miscarry if she lost control, and believed she also had to be strong for her two daughters, ages 8 and 5.
“I just kept it inside,” she says now. “I think when tragedy strikes, you have a God-given strength.”
Dick DesJardins was a Kittery kid. He grew up quite literally across the street from the back gate of the Navy yard, where he would later work his way up to supervisory engineer and branch head in the Combat Systems Department. His father Amos had started working at the Yard in 1918 during World War I and stayed on through World War II.
DesJardins graduated from Traip Academy in 1948, participating in baseball and in the Model, Spanish, and Carnival clubs. The yearbook for that class features some of his signed artwork, as well as a tribute stating, “Richard’s laughing all the time/Graduation’s on his mind.”
His oldest daughter, Lynne, sits now at the table with Elizabeth, up for a visit from her home in Virginia. Mother and daughter share recollections of a man they describe as kind and laid back, but always on the go; highly intelligent, but with a tendency toward absent-mindedness. He had a signature smile that can still be seen in the faces of his kids and grandkids.
Dick wasn’t the kind to relax and read the newspaper, they say; he always had a project, whether it was working on a room upstairs in their home or on his widowed mother’s property. When he wasn’t working 12 to 14 hours a day at the Yard, that is. “He enjoyed a challenge,” Elizabeth says.
He was patient with his daughters — Lynne can’t recall him ever raising his voice to her. He would bring the girls with him on his trips to the lumber yard, and once made them a birdhouse out of scrap wood.
During the summer they would go up to the family camp built by his father and uncle in 1939 on Suncook Lake in Barnstead, N.H. They had a 15-foot runabout boat they would take out on the lake for waterskiing or fishing.
He served as president of the Supper Club at the First Congregational Church of Kittery Point, United Church of Christ, and also took time to go square dancing at Kittery Grange Hall with Elizabeth — even though he wasn’t crazy about dancing. “We didn’t have much rhythm,” she admits now.
His mother still lived in her Whipple Road home near the shipyard’s back gate, and Dick would often stop off there on his way home to help her out around the house. He was highly regarded at the Yard and liked by just about everyone for his happy, positive disposition, his wife recalls.
“He seemed to just give, give and give.”
But Elizabeth also worried about him working too hard. She recalls the day before Dick headed out on Thresher’s fatal final cruise, as a new double dresser was being installed into the home, she suddenly felt miserable and began crying.
“Here we’ve got everything money could buy, but Dick was never home,” she explains.
Dick was discharged from the Army Reserve as a first lieutenant in June 1961, only to die on a Navy submarine less than two years later. He had gone out on sea trials before that tragic cruise aboard Thresher, but Elizabeth never gave much thought to the potential hazards of his job. His loss at age 32 came as a cruel shock. But throughout the years, the family’s sorrow has been intertwined with pride.
“My mom always said our dad died for his country,” Lynne says.
Son Grows Up Like Dad
Elizabeth was no stranger to tragedy. An only child, she had lost her own beloved father when she was only 15. But in 1963, she was a 31-year-old mother of two, with another on the way. She decided she had to be strong for her young family. When her baby boy was born later that year, she gave him his father’s name — Richard Roy DesJardins. He grew up to become a mechanical engineer like his father, and inherited his looks and mannerisms as well.
Elizabeth shrugs off a visitor’s remark on the kind of fortitude it must have taken for a young single mother to raise three kids back then. “I felt like I had to step up to the plate,” she says, but adds, “I had the most incredible mother-in-law in the world.”
Even now she praises the courage displayed by Mary Louise DesJardins, a French-Canadian from Quebec, Canada, after the loss of her only son — ignoring for a moment the fact that this same son was her only husband.
Mary took an active role in helping Elizabeth raise the children, and in time the two DesJardins women became best friends. Just a few months after enduring the Thresher tragedy, they shared the anguish of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as well.
Grief counseling wasn’t in vogue in the 1960s, not even for children. Lynne recalls feeling like something of an outcast during local father-daughter events, and took certain songs like “America” to heart — especially when she got to the line, “Land where my fathers died,” which she perceived quite literally.
Elizabeth would assure her children their father had loved them and “didn’t go away on purpose,” but there was no one to provide professional guidance for the youngsters.
“It just wasn’t discussed,” Lynne says of growing up without a father. “You just sucked it up and got through it, like a New Englander.”
Lynne suddenly bursts into tears as she discusses her childhood, and takes a moment to collect herself. She seems surprised by her emotional reaction. Her mother reaches out and takes her hand.
‘One of Life’s Worst Moments’
After Dick’s death, a scholarship fund was established at Traip Academy — his alma mater — for students intending to go on to engineering studies. In 1981, the scholarship was awarded to Richard Roy DesJardins, the son he never knew.
Elizabeth remembers being in the hospital with her newborn son in 1963 and seeing the parade of proud fathers filing through to meet their children for the first time. Knowing there would be no father to greet little Richard, she says, was “one of life’s worst moments.”
Naturally, when the boy was presented 18 years later with the scholarship bestowed in his father’s memory, she wept. “I had no idea Richard was going to get it,” she says. “I hoped he would.”
The $2,500 scholarship is still awarded each year to graduates of the local high school, but the money isn’t awarded until after they’ve earned a grade of 2.0 or higher during their first semester in college.
“It has been truly an honor to be in a position to recognize the ultimate sacrifice made by Richard DesJardins and award a scholarship every year in his name,” Kenneth Lemont, a shipyard employee and president of Kittery’s School Committee, stated recently.
Lynne and sister Susan both graduated from Traip as well, and all three children went on to achieve success in their various fields.
Richard is vice president of the marketing division for General Physics Corp., and has traveled to about 38 countries all over the world. Susan, who attended University of Maine like her father and earned a nursing degree, now owns her own candy business — called Confectionately Yours — outside Seattle. Lynne, a former research assistant at Yale Medical School, later worked for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski as a subcommittee minority staff director and also handled government relations for nonprofit organizations.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ve provided Elizabeth with seven grandchildren to brag about, which she does with charming abandon. “I live for my grandkids and my kids,” she admits.
But she says her greatest heartbreak is that Dick was cheated out of getting to see his family grow, and grow up. He would have enjoyed seeing their characters develop, she says. And she laments that he never even knew he had a son.
She especially misses him now in what would have been their retirement years together. She’s traveled extensively, including 13 trips to the United Kingdom, and she’s still active in the Congregational church, but she misses her husband’s companionship.
She will turn 81 next month, and this week will mark the 59th anniversary of their wedding. As she sits at her table and recollects their too-few years together, Elizabeth states with wistful simplicity: “I wish Dick were here.”
A Letter From JFK
Elizabeth still has the letter she received from the White House in the wake of the Thresher disaster in 1963. In the letter, President Kennedy, who would himself die horribly just a few months later, expresses sympathy on behalf of himself and Mrs. Kennedy.
“The loss of Thresher was a great shock to freedom-loving people around the world,” Kennedy wrote. “It is a sad fact of history that this price of freedom must be paid again and again, by our best young men of each generation. Your husband has joined the other defenders of this nation who have given their lives for their country.”
April 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Thresher disaster. In Kittery, a group of local citizens are raising private funds for a 129-foot memorial flagpole to be installed at Memorial Circle, to represent the 129 men who died aboard the Thresher that day. It is to be dedicated on April 7. A local group of submarine veterans known as Thresher Base will also conduct a remembrance service at the shipyard on April 6 for surviving family members.
“I’ve never been bitter that he gave his life,” Elizabeth says of her late husband. She pauses and admits, “I guess I have to convince myself of that sometimes.”