When retired Webmaster Thom Gibb talks about his 35-year Red Cross career, he spends much of the time telling about a series of women mentors, starting with his mother, Anne.
As World War II started, Anne graduated from high school and got her first job as a secretary for the Red Cross chapter serving Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Anne may have thought of the Red Cross as a place to work because her father, a coalminer, had been a member of one of the Red Cross safety committees in the early 20th century.
In her off-hours, Anne was a Red Cross volunteer at the Veterans Hospital, staffing the snack bar and organizing games and other recreation until the war ended.
Anne met and later married a chapter employee just returned from battle, Jim Gibb. A tank driver during the war, Jim had the skills needed to pick up blood from Red Cross donor sites and deliver it to hospitals.
Anne and Jim Gibb remained at the Pittsburgh area chapter until retirement. Jim rose to become the chapter’s director of general services; Anne became administrative assistant for the nursing department.
Service to Military Members and their Families
Thom Gibb grew up in the Red Cross, volunteering from the time he can remember, and working in the chapter’s accounting department during college summer breaks.
To the delight of his parents, after graduating Thom became an assistant field director with the American Red Cross Service to Armed Forces program.
Then, as now, Red Cross Service to Armed Forces links military with their families during a crisis. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the Red Cross quickly sends emergency communications such as the verification of an emergency travel, extension of leave, health and welfare messages, birth messages and reports done at the request of the military or the Veterans Administration.
For the next seven years, Thom provided military casework and communication services.
Initially, Thom was assigned to the Red Cross Station at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. McGuire was a hub for service members traveling on emergency leave, as well as for family members flying to the bedside of wounded warriors recovering in overseas hospitals.
Thom talks about the responsibility of making sure soldiers were on emergency leave within 24 hours of the request.
His supervisor, Helen Poff, helped him understand the role of the American Red Cross with the military. “Helen taught me how important the Red Cross is to military members and their families,” Thom says. “The first services the Red Cross provided more than 100 years ago were to soldiers. Over the years the needs have changed, but the commitment of the Red Cross to meet those needs has been constant.”
Assignments followed at Red Cross Stations in Mannheim and Wiesbaden, Germany, and then Fort Meade, Maryland. Thom processed health and welfare reports, provided military hospital volunteers, and more.
Putting Down Roots
Serving as a member of Red Cross Services to Armed Forces was a vagabond life. After working in four locations in seven years, Thom accepted the position of branch office manager with what was then the Prince George’s County Red Cross chapter in suburban Washington, D.C.
Thom Gibb was the face of the Red Cross in the southern part of the county. He provided service to military families, taught health and safety courses, scheduled training classes, managed instructors, recruited volunteers, and more. He remembers the job involved gathering a lot of information and making a lot of referrals.
Thom also remembers Sylvia Lewis, the chapter’s executive director. Lewis hired someone who knew about service to the armed forces, but who knew very little about other Red Cross lines of business: disaster services, international services, blood services and health and safety services.
At the time Lewis was expanding Red Cross services within a very large and diverse county, starting community services such as energy assistance. “I quickly had to transition from just doing work with the military to providing the full range of services that a Red Cross chapter offers,” Thom says
Getting a National View
One day Thom got a call from an old friend, Kathy Doyle, with whom he had served at McGuire Air Force Base more than a decade earlier. Doyle had been appointed Service to Armed Forces Director of Emergency Communications at Red Cross national headquarters. She wanted Thom on her staff.
One part of the job was to liaison with congressional offices, receiving case work inquiries from elected officials, investigating the situation and reporting back. Thom welcomed the opportunity to learn about this specialized service.
But more attractive was the opportunity to work with new technology. It was the mid-80s and Kathy Doyle was experimenting with sending military communications by computer over something called the Internet.
Thom participated in the development of computer systems allowing the Red Cross to send communications to military members serving on ships and in out-of-the-way places, places where Red Cross field personnel could not go. Communications started going to ship’s Chaplains, letting Sailors and Marines know about births, requests for financial assistance from their wives and illnesses.
Thom remained in the Service to Armed Forces department at national headquarters for the next eight years, supporting Red Cross services during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
He tells about another female manager who helped boost his knowledge and skills, Sally McDonald. Thom remembers McDonald’s determination to provide the latest methods in social work to the hundreds of Red Cross employees and volunteers serving America’s armed forces in communities across the nation and around the world.
Working under McDonald, learning about policy and the consulting end of service to the armed forces, led Thom to a new career focus.
The year was 1991. The world was changing, and, as it had for the previous century, the Red Cross prepared to embrace those changes. First, the Red Cross embarked on an organization-wide study--Service Delivery for the Twenty-first Century. Thom was selected to staff the effort.
The team of employees and volunteers gathered to figure out how to keep the Red Cross current included Sharon Ritter, a retiree who had been a Red Crosser since the 1930s. Her influence was such that the President of the American Red Cross singled her out as the one who had inspired him. She also inspired Thom.
Committee chair Betty Olson drew on 50 years of Red Cross experience to develop recommendations for the best ways to deliver Red Cross services in a changing world. “Betty was an unpaid volunteer,” Thom says. “I’d match the hours she worked with those of any executive as she laid out a plan to keep the Red Cross current.”
The approved initiative established a framework for chapter service delivery, prioritizing Red Cross services. At the Red Cross, modernization was in the air.
Thom got another of those unexpected calls that catapulted his career, this time from Deb Daley, the vice president of communications at Red Cross national headquarters. Deb had just returned from a conference about technology’s impact on communication. “We’re going to have an Intranet in six months,” she told Thom, “You better start learning.”
Six months later, the American Red Cross introduced what was one of the first Intranets developed by a major nonprofit. Thom participated in every aspect of its development. He talks about the exhilaration of knowing that they were doing something truly revolutionary, and how fortunate he was to work for someone inspired to develop an Intranet as early as 1996.
Thom served as Intranet Webmaster until his retirement in 2008. Then, like so many employees in the Red Cross Family, he continues working as a volunteer—albeit, with a more flexible schedule.
His supervisor, Laura Coleman, is the last in the long line of women who have counseled Thom. Thom’s closest colleague, he and Laura have worked together for more than a decade. Side-by-side they have maintained the organization’s internal communication system and implemented the changes needed for the system to evolve.
Change is a key word in Thom Gibb’s Red Cross legacy story. He’s good at change.
So is the American Red Cross.
“When I started working in Service to Armed Forces, members of the military didn’t have cell phones and the Internet,” Thom recalls. “It was a different world, even in the 70s and 80s. Someone couldn’t send an email to let a soldier know her mother was in the hospital.”
Today the Red Cross is adapting to modern needs, filling in different gaps for military members and their families. Service to Armed Forces staff might verify the details of a request for emergency leave, for example, or provide other reports requested by the military.
The Red Cross is also reaching out to members of the National Guard and Reserves and their families living in nearly every community in America.
Thom is quick to say that some things are timeless and should not change. During World War II, Thom’s mother volunteered at a Veterans Hospital, providing snacks and organizing recreation. Today at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in Veterans Hospitals across the nation Red Cross volunteers are providing the same services.
There’s another thing at the American Red Cross that is ageless—the organization’s reliance on Fundamental Principles such as humanity and voluntary service. Those principles translate into a deep respect for every human being, and work that is not prompted by a desire for gain. These are the very principles that foster mentoring.
Thom talks about the “really wonderful women” who have counseled him throughout his Red Cross career, and how fortunate he is to have learned from them.
Thom also recognizes what fortune it is that his mother and father provided him a Red Cross Legacy.