Meet Rear Admiral Harley Nygren: First director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps

NOAA’s history is filled with stories of people dedicated to the agency’s mission of science, service and stewardship. One of the giants is Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren. From his childhood, through duty in the U.S. Navy during World War II, to a career culminating in being the first director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), Nygren exemplified commitment and leadership in his 38 years of service.

Meet Rear Admiral Harley Nygren: First director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

Meet Rear Admiral Harley Nygren: First director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. (Image credit: NOAA)

Born in Seattle, Nygren grew up with a close connection to the sea, and was a member of both the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts. Known in the Seattle area for playing bugle at veteran funerals and other events, he was selected for the U.S. Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Washington (UW). He was chosen in part due to the need for a bugler in the ROTC Drum and Bugle Corps, a serendipitous fact Nygren described as something “that couldn’t have been planned better.” 

Rear Admiral Harley Nygren pictured as a Sea Scout when he was younger.
Rear Admiral Harley Nygren pictured as a Sea Scout. (Photo provided by Matt Nygren)

Upon graduation, he was commissioned into the U.S. Naval Reserve, and served in the Pacific both during and after World War II. He also served as damage control officer on a destroyer, USS Hughes, during the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946, and participated in surveying and repairing blast damage.

Shortly after finishing an engineering degree at UW, he joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), one of NOAA’s predecessor agencies, as a civilian mate in the Pacific fleet and with hydrographic field parties, and was commissioned into the USC&GS Commissioned Corps in 1948.

His first duty station was USC&GS Ship Explorer, where he spent six months surveying the Aleutian Islands prior to transferring to a field party. His other assignments included serving as executive officer aboard USC&GS Ship Pathfinder, operations officer on USC&GS Ship Pioneer, executive and commanding officer of USC&GS Ship Surveyor, and a number of international missions.

Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren on duty in the Arctic in the Spring of 1951.
Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren on duty in the Arctic in the Spring of 1951. (NOAA)

His many other contributions included working to establish the National Hurricane Center, surveying in support of the Mercury and Gemini space programs, and participating in a wide array of international efforts, including a major project with the British Antarctic Survey. In 1968, he was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) and became associate director of what by then had become the Environmental Science and Services Agency (ESSA). 

In 1970, ESSA became NOAA, and Nygren became the first director of the NOAA Corps. He would go on to serve in this role for ten years, leading the organization through three presidential administrations, and championing a large number of major policy changes and organizational efforts.

Perhaps the most significant of the policy changes he undertook was his decision to have the NOAA Corps be the first service to recruit both male and female personnel using the same standards and criteria, a step that equalized opportunities in the NOAA Corps. His commitment to equality of opportunity for women in the NOAA Corps is enshrined in the documentary “Women of the NOAA Corps: Reflections from Sea and Sky.” 

It can be said without question that few directors of the NOAA Corps have been as influential as he was. Retired NOAA Rear Adm. Sam DeBow, one of Nygren’s successors, calls him a “consummate professional...who had seen and done it all.” 

His approach to leadership was described as very intentional, his philosophy best summed up by Nygren himself: “One of the principles of leadership requires one to take care of subordinates. Loyalty down generates loyalty up, and successful administrators unfailingly give this a high priority.”

Nygren retired in 1981, and pursued a wide range of interests in his later years. His son, Matthew Nygren, describes him as “an example of what a faithful gentleman should be” — a devoted family man, a devout Lutheran Christian who practiced “a quiet, stoic faith, demonstrated by example,” and an “excellent steward of his passions.” 

Rear Admiral Harley Nygren and his sailboat.
Rear Admiral Harley Nygren and his sailboat. (Photo provided by Matt Nygren)

Nygren remained dedicated to NOAA even in retirement, considering himself to still be on the payroll, and stayed in close contact with both future directors and others he had served with, including his USS Hughes shipmates. During his career, and in retirement, he was a prolific photographer. Many of his photos (especially of the Arctic Field Party) are housed in the NOAA Photo Library.

Nygren passed away on Nov. 17, 2019, but his legacy of service and dedication lives on. His unparalleled contributions to the organization are still felt today. He is officially memorialized by Nygren Canyon, an underwater canyon south of Georges Bank (located on NOAA’s Chart 13009 at at Latitude 40° 44' N, Longitude 66° 41' W), as well as Mount Nygren in Antarctica (Latitude 65° 9′ S, Longitude 63° 48′ W), named in his honor by the British Antarctic Survey in recognition of his efforts with them. As NOAA enters its next half-century, it will continue to carry on in his proud tradition.