Suzy DeFrancis is Chief Public Affairs Officer for the American Red Cross. It’s a busy job, overseeing all communications, government affairs and public outreach for the charity.
DeFrancis’ office is located on the ground floor of Red Cross national headquarters, a 1915 beaux-arts building dedicated to the concept of “Mercy” that sits across the street from the White House.
Displayed prominently in her office is a black-and-white photo of a young woman in a Red Cross Motor Corps uniform, standing on the front porch of the very building in which DeFrancis works. The woman is her mother, Billie Gruman.
“Mother was a very generous, giving person,” DeFrancis says. “She gave us all a sense of service to others.”
DeFrancis recalls that when she had the opportunity to work for the Red Cross, the first thing that came to mind was her family’s special attachment to the organization.
Motivated to Serve
Very much a patriot, Billie Gruman was drawn to politics and service to country. In the early 1940s, the American Red Cross offered women with such interests a way to serve.
“Even the uniform looks like part of the military,” her daughter observes, “plus mother really enjoyed supporting soldiers on the home front.”
At 23, Gruman was spending most of her time as a Red Cross Motor Corps volunteer with the District Red Cross Chapter in Washington, D.C. Gruman averaged more than 1,000 miles a month driving for the Red Cross and one month put in 72 hours of actual driving. She was on call 24 hours a day.
She spent a lot of her own money, too. Gruman bought her own uniform ($65) and most of the time she bought her own gasoline and her own food.
Sometimes Gruman drove one of the District Red Cross Chapter’s two ambulances and three station wagons. But only one of the five vehicles, an ambulance, was in good condition, so most of the time she and the other 60 woman drivers used their own cars to provide transportation services.
Volunteering for the Red Cross Motor Corps satisfied Gruman’s giving spirit.
Accepting a Wide Array of Responsibilities
As a member of the Motor Corps, Gruman became a jack-of-all-trades.
Drivers transported patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other government hospitals to the movies and other recreational activities, took children to the hospital, delivered supplies, drove Red Cross nurses and volunteers to appointments, and, generally, whenever requested, aided the needy and sick by providing transportation.
Red Cross ambulances were open for business at parades and other large public gatherings, and at stations where young men registered for the draft. During the time Gruman was a Red Cross volunteer, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first ever peacetime draft—conscription perhaps doubled demands on the Motor Corps.
Motor Corps volunteers did not answer emergency, rush calls. But they knew they would be among the first called to drive ambulances in the event of an attack on the homeland, and they trained accordingly.
Gruman learned first aid. She learned auto mechanics so she would be able to make her own repairs. She learned how to maneuver an ambulance in heavy traffic.
“Mother was an expert driver, she always loved to drive,” DeFrancis remembers. “On family trips, it was mother who did most of the driving.” She goes on to tell that when any dispute about driving arose, her mother would remind the family that she had driven for the Red Cross Motor Corps. “That gave her a good deal of credibility,” DeFrancis smiles.
Fundraising was another task Gruman took on. Her family has records of one occasion when she and four other uniformed Motor Corps members drove a working ambulance to a country club gala; proceeds from the event went to the District Red Cross Chapter to help purchase a new ambulance.
A volunteer all of her life, Billie Gruman was a very giving spirit. She always had some cause to which she was contributing. As a young adult, that cause was the American Red Cross.
Gruman valued her Red Cross service. She kept newspaper clippings and photos. She stored the Motor Service uniform. That uniform now hangs in the closet of her daughter’s Red Cross national headquarters office.
DeFrancis wore her mother’s Motor Service pin the first couple months she worked for the Red Cross. She tried on the uniform when a Red Cross costume party was organized; it fits.
As she walks the same halls as her mother did 60 years earlier, DeFrancis has a sense of her mother’s presence. It is a sense of pride and anticipation for the good that can be done when serving the Red Cross.
Billie Gruman taught her daughter to serve. DeFrancis did more than comply.
She has passed on her mother’s legacy of service to yet another generation—Gruman’s grandson, Will DeFrancis, is serving as a U.S. Marine. He will be deployed to Afghanistan in March.