Jim Vajda was born in Washington DC to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Austro-Hungary in 1908. It was a large family with a total of seven children. His father first worked for the Dodge Brothers building luxury horse-drawn carriages in Detroit, Michigan then moved on to Inland Steel Company where he became an expert tool and die maker. He specialized in working with hard-to-work metals like Monel and stainless steel. Jim’s dad brought Jim’s grandmother to America from Europe. She got right to work setting up an ethnic beer garden in their home specializing in the foods of her native country. Jim still is fond of making Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage the way his grandmother made it from a recipe passed on to him by his mother. In 1938, his dad went to work for the Washington Naval Shipyard which was gearing up to build more ships for the expanding US Navy prior to World War II.
Jim Vajda attended public elementary school in Maryland where the family had purchased a home. He attended Archbishop John Carroll High School in Washington DC and graduated from the school’s first graduating class in 1955.
Following high school, Jim Vajda was offered an appointment to the first class at the new US Air Force Academy but turned it down. Instead, he earned a civil engineering degree at the University of Maryland. Upon graduation, he lost his college deferment and was then facing the draft. He enlisted in the US Navy at Anacostia Naval Air station in Washington, DC and within two weeks was in Pensacola, Florida. The next eighteen months he spent learning to fly airplanes and earned his wings in September, 1960. He was assigned to an F8U Crusader fighter squadron at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia. His squadron was assigned to the aircraft carrier Coral Sea. The Coral Sea had just been recommissioned in January, 1960 and rejoined the fleet. During September 1960, she conducted training with her new air group along the West Coast around Alameda, California. She then sailed in September for a tour of duty with the Seventh Fleet in the Far East on her first WestPac (Western Pacific cruise). The Coral Sea saw duty in the South China Sea.
Jim Vajda was one of 22 pilots flying mainly F8U Crusader combat air patrol fighter jets as cover for bomber groups dropping their weapons over Vietnam. Nicknamed the “Ageless Warrior”, the carrier Coral Sea served from 1947 to 1990. Her motto was “Older and Bolder”. Jim beat the odds and survived his four years of flying jets over enemy territory. Many of his classmates did not.
In 1965, always dapper, Jim began a federal career with the Unites States Public Health Service. He worked as a civil engineer involved in designing radiological health laboratories in Montgomery, Alabama; Winchester, Massachusetts; Las Vegas, Nevada and Honolulu, Hawaii.
Radiation contamination was becoming more and more of a problem as the fallout from testing nuclear weapons began to spread. Jim likes to tell the story of one of his many trips to Alaska at the direction of the Surgeon General Luther Terry to set up a radiation sampling program. There was concern after the 1965 earthquake that there were increased levels of atmospheric radiation. It was extremely cold in October in Anchorage, Alaska when Jim was sent to reach the remote testing site where he had to fly into the snow covered wilderness in a Cessna 180 airplane fitted with skis instead of landing wheels. Senator Robert Bartlett from Alaska was concerned that fallout from nuclear atmospheric testing being done by the Russians was reaching the ground and being absorbed by the vegetation. The contaminated plants were being eaten by the reindeer and caribou and in turn the Eskimos who live on their meat. Jim said that even for a combat pilot his flights in that little Cessna 180 were scary, especially when flying over other wrecks of aircraft that had crashed attempting the same flight. Jim said, “The worst part was the landings at the little village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska. We landed with skis in a blinding snowstorm.”
Once safely on the snow covered ground, Jim found that the old Eskimo in charge was connected to civilization by a shortwave radio setup they called the “Muck Tuck Telegraph”. Jim was told by the Radiation Health Director to obtain five pounds of muscle, hock bones and rumen from five animals in every identifiable reindeer and caribou herd in Alaska.
At first Jim thought, “how do I do this? I am an engineer not a biologist.” But he soon discovered that a gentleman who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Seward Peninsula was more than willing to help him set up the process of getting the specimens needed for testing. After extensive laboratory testing back in the Las Vegas labs, it was found that indeed the Eskimos had high body burdens of radioactive Strontium 90 which accumulated in their teeth and bones. They also found that Cesium 137 would seek out muscles, Iodine 131 would seek the thyroid and Potassium would seek out the kidneys. Jim said the Eskimos are fascinating nomadic people who live in an incredibly harsh environment yet seem happy to be there.
In 1970, Jim was called upon to be a part of the startup group creating the new Environmental Protection Agency. He did pioneering work in creating the EPA which addressed the growing problems of pollution on many levels. For his efforts, he was awarded the EPA’s first Gold Medal for Achievement on December 2, 1971. He was called by Alice Revlin to help set up the Congressional Budget Office. She was its first director. His next challenge was to help start up the Federal Energy Administration.
In 1973, he was called upon by Frank Pagnotta, VP Ford’s Chief of Staff, to be special assistant for the new Vice President. To further muddy the waters, the White House was trying to recover from the scandal discovered regarding VP Spiro Agnew. About that time, the feds were starting to look into allegations that VP President Agnew had accepted bribes from contractors in return for helping them get state government work in Maryland. The bribes were reported to have occurred when Agnew served as Baltimore County Executive, as the Governor and during the time he was Vice President. Agnew denied the charges but resigned on October 10, 1973. Agnew pleaded “nolo contendere” (no contest) to a single charge stating that he had cheated the government out of $13,551 on his federal income tax return. The judge said that was “the full equivalent to a plea of guilty” and fined him $10,000 and three years of unsupervised probation. When Spiro Agnew resigned, Gerald Ford was nominated and confirmed to take on the role of Vice President. The House Majority leader Gerald Ford was sworn in as VP on December 6, 1973.
Jim recalls that being a part of the staff at the Executive Office Building was quite an experience because of the turmoil swirling around the White House as a result of the festering Watergate scandal. Jim said he has a vivid memory of being called upon late one night to arrange for a government locksmith to change locks on the offices of the Watergate conspirators; Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Liddy, Colson, Hunt and Sengretti. When they arrived at their offices, they could not enter and were advised to check with Chief of Staff Frank Pagnotta to explain the reason and to learn how they might get into their offices. Eventually, Richard Nixon resigned and several staff members were fired, resigned or put in jail including the Attorney General John Mitchell. It is the scandal that made Deep Throat a household name and Woodward and Bernstein award winning journalists. The scandal resulted in the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Jim Vajda was an eyewitness to some of the darkest days in the history of the White House.
Telling the story of his involvement in the handling of the untimely and unseemly death of former VP Nelson Rockefeller brings a smile to his face as he relates the efforts to keep the scandal a secret. Rockefeller died of a heart attack late one night in the apartment of his young female assistant. Of course, the press had a field day with the story and was hungry for every morsel of scandal they could dig up. Happy Rockefeller, his wife, was understandably mortified by the whole affair and had Rockefeller’s body cremated within eighteen hours of his death ending any further inquiry into the cause of his death.
Jim remembers on one occasion he was in a White House Office conference room when VP Ford came in. Jim said VP Ford told him he wanted him to go over to Air Force One and make sure it was ready for a flight later that day to China. Surprised the VP would ask him to do what was clearly the job of the officer commanding Air Force One, Jim reminded Ford that there was an Air Force Major General in charge of the plane. VP Ford said, “I know that, now you get over there and check out my plane.” Jim did exactly that and in the process of checking the plane’s presidential bedroom discovered that it was being used for a romantic liaison by the ranking officer who had no business doing what he was doing in the presidential bedroom. That officer quietly resigned and was not heard from again. Possibly VP Ford had been tipped off about the sordid goings on aboard Air Force One. Jim’s impression was that Ford had a distrust for many of the people around him, particularly Nelson Rockefeller and James Schlesinger. Jim recalls VP Ford referring to Rockefeller as a “loose cannon”.
President Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford took over as President. President Ford appointed Dick Cheney as his Chief of Staff. Jim Vajda was a part of the transition team that interviewed Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for the position of Chief of Staff. Nelson Rockefeller was nominated as Vice President. Ford granted Nixon a full pardon. With all the staff changes that inevitably go along with a new President, it meant that Jim was out of a job. Jim then moved from the White House to the Department of Energy to serve under Secretary James R. Schlesinger who was at one-time head of the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission. He later became Secretary of Defense. In 1992, Jim was awarded the Presidential Achievement Award for Engineering given every four years.
Jim has fond memories of being a part of the workings of the US Government on the highest levels. Always impeccably dressed, he rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty. His pass to the White House is one of his cherished possessions. He considers being able to freely walk the halls of the White House and the Executive Office Building a very special honor and a privilege.
Jim retired in 1994 after serving in the highest levels of government for thirty-seven years. He can be seen often around Middlesex County wearing his flight jacket and driving his cherished with the top down and his familiar unlit cigar clenched in his teeth. Jim says driving that bright red Mercedes with the top down is the closest thing he could afford to flying jet planes. Jim now lives in Deltaville, Virginia with his wife Lynn. Both are active members of the Church of the Visitation. They have four daughters and four grandchildren.
Any veteran pilot will tell that landing a jet fighter on the pitching deck of a carrier at day or night takes a kind of courage and skill few men possess. Jim Vajda has given his life to the service of his country both in war and in peace. He served the Navy and in the highest levels of government through the turmoil of scandal and the birth of lifesaving programs that without question saved countless numbers of people from pain and suffering. One can say without reservation, Jim Vajda has the right stuff. He is an intrepid patriot.