Paul Willihnganz

Meet Paul Willihnganz, WACSC Board Member and Past President

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Paul has been active in WACSC for 10 years, and remains a key board member. Paul writes:

Growing up on Long Island, New York, during World II, I experienced neighborhood blackouts due to U-Boats off our coast. After moving to the Buffalo area during the Cold War, I volunteered for “Operation Skywatch” in a tower on top of our town’s municipal building. Our mission was to report on any Soviet bombers flying over Western New York. Thankfully, we never saw one.

But I had learned that world affairs were important.

As a teenager, my foreign travels consisted of ferry rides on Lake Ontario from Buffalo to Crystal Beach, Canada, where touring big bands regularly played in a classic ballroom. Somehow, this produced a desire to “Join the Navy and see the World.”

Another strong interest was the University of Notre Dame, where my father had earned chemistry degrees and had been a lab assistant along with Knute Rockne. Growing up, I heard many stories. The annual Notre Dame vs. Southern Methodist game was a family affair, since my mother was a devout Methodist. I learned at an early age that reasonable people can differ.

Accepted at Notre Dame with a scholarship from Navy ROTC, my course was set. I spent the summer of 1956 as a Midshipman on a heavy cruiser, which sailed from Norfolk to Sweden, Germany, and Cuba. I never looked back, except for the girl I left behind, the lovely and talented Gerry French who later became my wife.

After graduation, I served as Engineer Officer on a destroyer that was home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, and later as Executive Officer on a submarine based in Pearl Harbor. Needless to say, I became familiar with waters both friendly and unfriendly. To paraphrase Tina Fey, I could see Russia from my periscope.

After five years of sea duty, I became Program Manager for Submarine and Nuclear Power Training in Washington, D.C. Among other duties I designed and managed the training aspects of the SUBSAFE program, which the Navy adopted following the tragic loss of the USS Thresher in 1963. For this work I received a Secretary of the Navy Commendation. Yet something else beckoned — the law. So I attended the evening division of Georgetown Law School, where I received my law degree in 1968, and then joined a law firm in San Diego.

A 42-year legal career followed — first as a California trial lawyer then as in-house counsel for UNUM Life Insurance Company in Portland, Maine, and finally as Senior Vice President and General Counsel for American General Life in Houston, Texas. In 1989 I returned to California as a partner in a San Francisco law firm.

Then came the best part. In 1996 I reunited with Gerry French 41 years after Senior Prom. We had both married but were single again. Gerry and her late husband had three children, and I had two. Thankfully, the kids approved of us getting back together. We married and became a blended family.

When Gerry and I moved to Santa Rosa in 1998, I was a consultant to national law firms, testifying as an expert witness in life, health and disability insurance cases. It was here that I discovered the World Affairs Council of Sonoma County, which rekindled my life-long interest in world affairs.

It has been my privilege to serve our Council as a member of the Program Committee, Audio-Visual Chair, Vice President and President. I’m delighted with the continuing excellence of the programs that our all-volunteer Council brings to Sonoma County, even during the terrible pandemic which has interrupted our ability to offer in-person programs.  But thanks to Zoom, and our members’ flexibility, we’ll prevail.

More than ever, the fate of our democracy depends on well-informed citizens, and I salute WACSC for bringing us reliable information and fresh perspectives, month after month, year after year.

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