Remembering Harley Nygren, Eagle Scout, Sea Scout and scientific pioneer with NOAA

Harley Nygren as a Sea Scout in 1941 and at the NOAA Corps' Centennial Celebration in 2017.
Harley Nygren as a Sea Scout in 1941 and at the NOAA Corps' Centennial Celebration in 2017.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

He sailed to the ends of the Earth — the Arctic Circle and Antarctica — to conduct scientific surveys.

And in 1970, he became the first director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, which uses state-of-the-art instruments to forecast hurricanes, respond to oil spills, manage fisheries and more.

But before Harley D. Nygren did any of those indelible acts for our country, he was an Eagle Scout and a Sea Scout.

Harley Nygren died on Nov. 17, 2019, at age 94. While his impact on NOAA’s scientific mission is well documented (there’s even a mountain in Antarctica and a canyon in the Atlantic Ocean named after him), the Scouting undercurrent to Harley’s story is lesser known.

His life and legacy demonstrate the value of Scouting to get young people outside, foster an interest in STEM and deliver hands-on lessons in leadership.

”There is a direct line from Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts to my dad’s career, culminating in his rank of admiral as director of the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corps,” says Matt Nygren, one of Harley’s six children. “In fact, it’s hard to imagine that he ever would have landed on his career path were it not for Scouting.”

It started in Scouting

Harley grew up in West Seattle, where the waters of the Puget Sound seemed to beckon any budding adventurer.

“From a young age, he wanted to get on the water,” Matt says. “His parents facilitated that at an early age.”

That zest for adventures on both land and sea led Harley to join the Boy Scouts and the Sea Scouts, the BSA’s program for young men and young women ages 14 to 20.

He was part of the Sea Scout Ship Yankee Clipper, which still operates today, calling itself Seattle’s oldest Sea Scout ship. Harley helped the Yankee Clipper become part of the National Flagship Fleet in 1941 and was elected the ship’s boatswain — the name for the top youth leader in a Sea Scout unit.

Matt says his dad talked about the Yankee Clipper often.

“I think his sailing skills and his love for sailing blossomed with the time he spent on that boat,” Matt says.

Badges of honor

While Sea Scouting was Harley’s primary passion, he also treasured his time in the Boy Scout program, Matt says. Like many young people, Harley was introduced to a plethora of skills, hobbies and potential careers through the merit badge program.

“The merit badges fostered his love for learning and helped him develop skills across a wide variety of areas that proved useful as an engineering student, a crew member, an officer, a ship captain and a leader,” Matt says.

Harley was two months shy of his 17th birthday when he received his Eagle Scout Award on Oct. 13, 1941, at a banquet sponsored by the West Seattle Lions Club.

To earn Eagle in 1941, Harley would’ve needed to be a Life Scout for at least six months and earn 21 merit badges, including:

  1. First Aid
  2. Lifesaving
  3. Swimming
  4. Personal Health
  5. Public Health
  6. Cooking
  7. Camping
  8. Civics
  9. Bird Study
  10. Pathfinding
  11. Safety
  12. Pioneering
  13. Athletics OR Physical Development

Right notes, right time

Bugling is the least-earned merit badge these days, and the skill was similarly rare in Harley’s time in Scouting.

Harley learned how to play the bugle as a Scout, Matt says, and volunteered as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars‘ drum and bugle corps in Seattle. In this role, he played at significant events in the city, such as veterans’ funerals.

Harley’s bugling skills proved to be a lucky break when he was applying to join the U.S. Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Washington.

According to NOAA, Harley “was chosen in part due to the need for a bugler in the ROTC Drum and Bugle Corps, a serendipitous fact [Harley] Nygren described as something ‘that couldn’t have been planned better.’”

Matt says that bugling prowess certainly moved his dad to the front of the line, proving that you never know exactly which skills you learn in Scouting will come in handy.

Harley Nygren on Alaska's North Slope in 1950.
Harley Nygren performed research on Alaska’s North Slope in 1950.

Making waves

Harley was commissioned into the Navy in December 1945, serving in the Pacific both during and after World War II. He told another son, Ernie Nygren, that learning Morse code in Scouting “was a huge benefit in his naval career.”

He later resigned his commission to join the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, a predecessor to NOAA.

This began Harley’s career in geodesy, the scientific field interested in studying the Earth’s geometric shape, orientation in space and gravity field. The role allowed him to travel the world, visiting places like Antarctica, Switzerland, Monaco and the northernmost parts of Alaska.

His work even reached beyond our planet as he used his cartography skills to build tracking stations for the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Harley’s success soon caught the eye of leaders in Washington, D.C., and he worked his way up the ladder until President Richard Nixon appointed him first director of the new NOAA in 1970.

Harley Nygren helps cut the cake during the NOAA Corps Centennial Celebration in 2017.
Harley Nygren helps cut the cake during the NOAA Corps Centennial Celebration in 2017.

Leading the NOAA Commissioner Officer Corps

There are eight uniformed services in the United States: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

All eight have values that align with those we learn as Scouts, and NOAA Corps is no exception. Its alliterative mission — “science, service and stewardship” — seems perfectly matched to what Scouts learn at meetings and campouts.

Once in charge of the NOAA Corps, Nygren didn’t stop breaking new ground.

He battled for funding for the agency when it was at risk of being cut. He created the National Hurricane Center in Florida. And he was the first leader of any of the eight uniformed branches to lift restrictions on women in certain jobs.

“He said there was no reason every job could not be open to women and began recruiting women on the same basis as men,” according to his obituary from the Military Officers Association of America.

Such an incredible legacy, shaped in part by the adventure of Scouting.

”Scouting developed his love for the sea,” Matt says, “as well as nurturing a love for learning of all sorts.”

About Bryan Wendell 3043 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.