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Passing on what he’s learned

A thirst for knowledge transformed Thomas Naughton's life. At 87, the former Navy pilot and educator is still passing on what he learned. Recently, he donated about 1,000 books on military history to the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

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Thomas Naughton with just a few of the books he’s donated to the Richard I. Bong Center in Superior. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

A thirst for knowledge transformed Thomas Naughton’s life. At 87, the former Navy pilot and educator is still passing on what he learned. Recently, he donated about 1,000 books on military history to the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

“He wanted to share his love of books and history with the many visitors to the museum,” said Naughton’s son, Tim.

The move more than doubled the number of volumes available to researchers through the center and led to the need for more shelving.

“I really think Mr. Naughton’s donation is going to take up most of our space,” said center executive director Bob Fuhrman. The books included a mix of topical text and narratives.

“It’s a terrific addition,” Fuhrman said. “There are a lot of books there we never would have had the money for.”

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The move made sense to Naughton, who lived in Wentworth and Amnicon for years with his 10 children. Many of them attended the Poplar Elementary School, which housed the Richard I. Bong Memorial. The family has a long history of military service, as well.

“I had a life I never would have imagined,” said Naughton, a former Navy pilot and educator. He grew up “back of the yards” in Chicago, a few blocks away from the stockyards. He cleaned the church on Sundays and did other jobs to pay for his tuition to Catholic school.

“I took as many opportunities to get an education as I could,” said Naughton at his town of Amnicon home. That began with enlisting in the U.S. Navy at age 17.

“I think that at the time it was a natural thing for a young, physically fit male to serve his country by being in the armed services,” Naughton said. It also carried on the family’s naval tradition; his uncles, father and brother served in the Navy.

Following his service, which included stints in intelligence and as a code breaker, Naughton married Olga Marie Plaza. The couple would go on to have 10 children. After earning a master’s degree in education, Naughton began a teaching career.

“I thought it was a noble occupation,” he said, and spent years passing on his love of learning.

Family connections led the couple to Iron River and Naughton began working for the Superior School District at Nemadji and Lake Superior elementary schools. To support his large family, Naughton worked extra shifts as baggage handler, night guard, bagging groceries at Pricefighter and bartending in Iron River. He managed a gas station for the O’Brien family in Superior’s Allouez neighborhood after his retirement and was a member of the local Civil Air Patrol. Through it all, his youngest son Jason said, Naughton taught his children respect, loyalty, family unity, chivalry and the importance of hard work. They carried on his tradition of service, as well - sons Kevin and Tim served in the U.S. Air Force; Jason and his brother Robert served in the U.S. Army. Two of Naughton’s grandsons have also enlisted in the service.

Jason called his father a cross between a Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Frank Sinatra. The elder Naughton’s talents run the gamut from VW maintenance to inventing and building anything the family needed; creating artwork “like you couldn’t believe” to solving trigonometry problems. He did it all with an Arthur Fonzarelli-cool tracing back to his “Top Gun” naval pilot days.

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Following a car accident that left him homebound, Naughton began to collect books. He couldn’t go to the library, so he brought the library to him. His children counted more than 13,000 books squirreled away in Naughton’s Amnicon home. Eventually, they were collected into a single basement area.

“It was a little overwhelming,” Fuhrman said of his first glimpse of the collection. “It blew me away.”

The titles reflect Naughton’s wide range of talents from mechanic’s manuals and military texts to art books, math books and a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. His children are in the process of handing them on to family members, friends and places like the Bong Center.

“They’re for everybody to read,” Jason Naughton said. “We don’t want them to go to waste.”

The research library at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is open to outside researchers and students by appointment. Center volunteers can check out the books, but the general public cannot. The volumes are used also for exhibit research.

“We’re always looking for more books” from the World War II era to the present, as well as items related to the military and homefront, said curator of collections Briana Fiandt. That could include uniforms, scrapbooks, flags, pictures and more. Upcoming displays will feature the Red Cross and signatures.

To make an appointment to view the research library or to ask about making a donation, contact Fiandt at the center, 715-392-7151.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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