By Christine Graf
When Denville Town Councilwoman Nancy Witte graduated from high school, she was interested in pursuing a career in the military. At the time, the U.S. Military Academies were not open to females. Congress did not authorize the acceptance of women into the academies until 1975. As a result, White decided to forgo a military career and entered college at Chapman University in Orange, California. She graduated in 1971 with B.A.’s in Health and Physical Education and American History. She also played on the softball and volleyball teams while in college. After teaching in Arizona for two years, she returned home to Denville where she taught for an additional thirty-six years. Before retiring nine years ago, she taught at Valleyview, St. Mary’s, and Lakeview schools.
It was when she was eight years into her teaching career that Witte heard about a new program being offered by the U.S. Army Reserve. Called the Split Training Option, it allowed new enlistees to attend basic combat training in the summer and return the following summer to attend advanced training.
“I’m not sure why, but I was always interested in the military. My father served in World War II, but he didn’t go overseas,” she said. “There just seemed to be a draw that I felt I wanted to serve the country in some way.”
Witte made the decision to enlist in the Army Reserve Split Training Option and agreed to a six-year commitment. She was required to serve one weekend a month and two to three weeks during the year. Witte was a member of the 78th Division at Edison’s Camp Kilmer.
“I joined in 1979. I had been teaching for eight years and when this opportunity came I was thirty years old at the time,” she said. “That’s not exactly when you join the service. But I though I would give it a try because I didn’t want to be in my fifties and say, ‘Boy, I wish I had given it a try.’ I didn’t want to look back and kick myself for not trying.”
Witte attended a 12-week basic training program at Fort Dix. For her, the most challenging part of basic training had nothing to do with the grueling physical challenges.
“Throwing hand grenades was one of my biggest challenges,” she said. “Holding those live things in your hands wasn’t the most comfortable thing I’ve ever gone through.”
When given the opportunity to choose what job she wanted to do in the Army Reserves, she said she wanted to choose something “that was totally different than what I did in the regular world.” As a result, she decided to be a technical draftsman.
“I went in as a technical draftsman. It was something I had never had an opportunity to do because girls did home ec
and boys did industrial arts,” she said. “I had never had the opportunity to learn and understand drafting and architecture. That just appealed to me. I learned to draw bridges, make roads and small buildings.”
Witte had numerous different assignments during her 20-year military career. She spent just one year as a draftsman after learning her opportunities for advancement were limited.
“Drafting is in engineer corps,” said White. “Females aren’t allowed to get promoted beyond a certain point in the engineer corps because it was a front line position. So then I went down to Huntsville, Alabama, and I became an ammunition specialist. Our unit was assigned to find places to store ammunition in Europe if we were ever to go to war. We were a conventional ammunition group which meant we didn’t deal with nuclear or biological.”
After a stint as an ammunitions specialist, Witte became a personnel sergeant. The job involved handling the files for soldiers in her unit. She enjoyed working in personnel and spent the majority of her military career serving in that capacity. By the time she retired from the military in 1999, she had worked her way up through the ranks from private to master sergeant. Early in her career, she did consider becoming an officer. The fact that she had a college degree would have made that possible.
“I think I would have made a good officer, but my age was very much against me; the cut off age was thirty-one. My unit encouraged me to do it, and the officers were supporting me. I did everything I was supposed to do and went before the board, but because of my age, I would not have moved up in the ranks of officers that easily,” she said. “So I decided on my own to forget it and try to be the best non-commissioned officer I could be, and that’s what I did. I was content with that. It’s just wasn’t in the books for me to be an officer. I was meant to be where I was.”
In 1981, Witte received the First Army Reserve Soldier of the Year Award. During her career, she also received the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Army Achievement Medal. She also traveled to Germany and the Netherlands on six different occasions. It was these overseas assignments that were the highlight of her career. She also enjoyed the comradery that exists in the military.
“Being a teacher, I was around children all of the time. It was nice to have weekends every now and then with adults. That was a side benefit I got after I joined,” she said. “I worked with a lot of good people.”
When Witte reached 20 years of service in the military, she decided it was time to retire. Since that time, she has remained very active in the community. She is currently serving out the remainder of her four-year term as an At Large member of the Denville town council. She ran for office after being encouraged to do so by the mayor.
“I’m coming to end of first term which will be my only term,” said White. “I’ve loved it. I’ve never done an elected position before, and it’s been a total learning experience from the very beginning. It’s an extraordinarily time consuming responsibility. I’ve tried to live up to the responsibility that’s been given to me, but right from beginning I said I was only going to be a one-term councilman.”
When asked why she agreed to take on such a heavy responsibility, she replied, “Growing up in Denville and enjoying all of the wonderful things it has to offer and being brought up by parents who were big on volunteerism, I felt this would be another way I could help Denville. I truly love Denville and I felt that this was something that I should do—that I could do.”
Witte has enjoyed serving on the town council, and although council members don’t always agree, she said they
always treat each other with respect. For her, the biggest challenge has been dealing with residents who may be misinformed about a particular issue. They often become very upset after receiving information that is inaccurate.
“They come to a council meeting all upset about something and don’t want to listen when it is tried to be explained to them,” she said. “We have to deal with people who are very, very upset and try to help them understand the real situation.”
After Witte’s term ends, she will have more time to travel and focus on her hobbies. Traveling is one of her passions, and she took a cruise to the Panama Canal to celebrate her 70th birthday. Witte has visited all 50 states and 29 different countries. She also plays the French horn in New Horizons Band, a band for people 55 years and older. In September, she attended an adult band camp in Maine. During the camp, she lived in a dorm and played with 170 musicians and instructors from all over the east coast and beyond.
Witte is also heavily involved with numerous volunteer organizations and is very active in her church, King of Kings Lutheran Church in Mountain Lakes. She served as the church’s youth director for 27 years. She is now the church’s fellowship director, she also plays in the bell choir. Witte has been honored with numerous awards for her volunteerism including the 2014 Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year Award.
She was also one of the founders of Lakeview School’s Veterans Day program which has been taking place since 1993. The event has grown tremendously over the years, and she continues to be involved in an advisory role. Witte also founded the Discover Denville Day walking tour which gives children the opportunity to learn about the city’s history. She started the tour around 1985 after one of her students said he didn’t know the town had a train station.
Although she is involved in many charities, the Joey Bella Memorial Fund is especially close to her heart. After her nephew was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twelve, the organization helped the family with bills and even bought him a new bike when his was stolen. Sadly, her nephew passed away at age fifteen. Witte never married and has no children, and she was especially close to her two nephews. After her sister’s divorce, she and her sons lived with Witte for many years.
When it comes to volunteering, Witte said she has no plans of slowing down. That’s good news for the residents of Denville.