Imagine a platinum star. Now imagine 70 of them. Mary Lou Chapman would have all those stars for her work with the American Red Cross, if such a gift were given for each year of service.
Chapman has served in the Red Cross since she was 24 years old, as both a paid employee and volunteer. She is now 94, and still going strong.
She downplays the positive impact she has had on others, but she has undoubtedly helped multitudes of people, young and old, during her time with the humanitarian organization.
World War II Service
Chapman was a young teacher during World War II. A member of what many refer to as “the greatest generation,” she wanted to be more involved in the war effort, so she joined the Red Cross and went to England.
“I was teaching in Tarrytown, N.Y., and saw an article about the Red Cross sending women overseas,” she recalled.
Once in England, Chapman and other Red Cross women were in a Club Mobile program, which provided coffee, donuts and recreational activities to the military troops. Chapman was a member of a group affectionately known as the Donut Dollies.
She and her colleagues traveled with the military in jeeps and trucks, and it was not easy work. During World War II, many men and women served the American Red Cross in various capacities. Many were decorated. But some gave the ultimate sacrifice—their life.
Chapman recounted a special memory that took place during that time:
“In England, we would visit the airfields and serve coffee and donuts. One day, while serving on a flight line, a young GI gunner on a B24 came for coffee. He explained that he was going on a bombing run over Berlin, and he asked for my dog tags. Now, it was against the rules to take off your dog tags, but he was persistent. So I gave them to him. [He promised] to return them, but never came back. Later, our Club Mobile made it to Austria. We were there when the war ended.
The next day, we went to the Passau Prisoner of War Camp to give out coffee and donuts to the prisoners who had just been [released]. This same GI saw me. He had been a Prisoner of War. He told me [his plane] had been shot down. He said he was sorry he couldn’t return my dog tags to me. He had to dump them along with other items, so they wouldn’t be on him when he was captured.”
Establishing a Legacy
Chapman returned home and thought about what she would do. “I could have gone back to teaching, but I wanted something else, something very idealistic,” she said.
She found a job with the Red Cross in Long Beach, Calif., working with the youth program and hospital programs. “I told myself I would give it six months, and make a decision on if I wanted to stay with Red Cross.” She stayed.
Later, when several jobs opened up in San Francisco, she and a friend applied. They were both hired. At that Red Cross chapter, Chapman stayed on to become the director of youth services; later she became the chapter’s assistant manager.
Her story does not end with her retirement in 1984. “Instead of [giving me] a gold watch, they named an established fund called the Chapman-Holcomb fund after me and my friend, Florence Holcomb,” she said. Holcomb retired on the same date as Chapman.
“We had developed a youth program in the Bay area, but the Chapman-Holcomb fund really ‘institutionalized’ it and built on what we had started,” Chapman said.
The fund allowed the chapter to start an International Red Cross Youth Leadership program that brought several youth from other Red Cross Societies to the Bay area to develop their leadership skills with local youth. The first kids arrived in 1986 and stayed in the Bay area for three to four weeks.
The program has continued and developed. Now, the youth come to the Chapter Leadership Center, and select a project to work on. They live with mostly chapter board members and their families, and have a lot of activities along with their individual project. Youth from diverse cultures such as Norway, the Philippines and Kurdistan have participated.
Harold Brooks, Red Cross senior vice president of International Services and past CEO of the Bay Area Chapter, unreservedly said, “Mary Lou Chapman is wonderful!”
When Brooks recently left the chapter to assume his new duties in Washington, D.C., he asked people to donate to the Chapman-Holcomb fund, a testament to the importance of Chapman and her nationally recognized youth program.
“She has done, and continues to do so much for the chapter through her youth support, her financial support, and [her involvement in] chapter events. She inspires me!” Brooks said.