Wednesday, July 18, 2018

My Red Cross Journey: Lynda Ellis

By Rose Ellen O'Connor, Volunteer

Lynda Ellis was 22, newly married and new to Japan, and was having trouble finding a job because she didn’t have a visa. She decided to volunteer for the Red Cross, a commitment that would begin in 1969 and continue on and off throughout her lifetime.

Abandoned by her mother at seven, Lynda was taught to work hard and give back to the community by her Irish-immigrant father. She rose to be a senior executive at several multi-million-dollar companies and go on to own her own multi-million-dollar business.

Her first assignment for the Red Cross was the casualty staging facility at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, where they brought the severely wounded and psychologically damaged from Vietnam. The men stayed for 24 hours at Yokota before being transferred to military hospitals in Japan or the United States. Lynda didn’t know what to expect at first. She didn’t know how she’d handle triple amputees and men suffering post traumatic stress disorder. Once she started volunteering, she was delighted to find that the smallest kindness could make someone’s day. She enjoyed her work so much that she went five days a week starting at 10 or 11 a.m.  and staying until 4 or 5 p.m.

“It didn’t take very much. They just wanted somebody to listen to them and be with them,” Lynda says. “I didn’t even think about the hours that I was spending there because honestly, it was more of a gift to me than it was to them.”

She recalls walking a young man in a full body cast up and down the hallway, with beds barely separated by curtains lining either side. He had crutches and was in pain but he told her he could do the walk if she stood by him. When they got back to his bed, he told her that this was the best day he’d had.

“My heart sang,” Lynda says. “To think that I could make a difference in his life even for a few minutes. How extraordinary is that?”

Lynda spent her days going from bed to bed, writing letters home, listening and just being there. The men wanted to talk about home. They were looking forward, not back, to the trauma they’d endured, Lynda says. She often saw incredible courage in dealing with terrible hardships.

She was talking to a man younger than she was, maybe 19 or 20, and he was reaching his right arm over to a drawer on the left side of the bed to get something out. He had lost his left arm and both legs. She told him she’d get it for him and took out a small box from the drawer. The young man smiled and said, “Look what I got. I’m so proud of this.” It was a Purple Heart.

“He was so proud and I thought, oh my gosh, your battle is just beginning,” Lynda recalls. “I will never, ever, ever forget him.”

On another day she talked to a young man whose face had been disfigured. He told her she looked at him like he was still good looking and asked her if she thought his girlfriend would still look at him that way. She told him that nothing had changed.

“You’re still the most wonderful person she has ever met,” she told him.

In 1971, the Red Cross hired Lynda full-time as a bookkeeper/secretary, but she still visited the casualty center when she could squeeze it into her schedule. By then, she was also working as the blood drive chair. The blood drive operated out of small activity center with a little cafeteria and sofas and chairs. Things were slow, but Lynda knew where to get volunteers. She went over to the NCO (non-commissioned officers) club and found her husband with a group of friends. (Her husband, Bill, was a manager for Mutual United of Omaha and sold life insurance to the military.)

“What the hell are you guys sitting here for?” she demanded. “Get your butts up. I will give you a free shot and a donut. But people are dying, blood is being spilled and you’re here in this stupid NCO club instead of going over to the activity center to give blood. So I’m going to stand here until you all go.”

The group got up and went to donate blood. From then on, whenever she went to the club, people would say, “Ellis’s wife is coming. We need to give blood.” Lynda used the same tactics at the stag bar and the officers club. She doesn’t remember how many gallons of blood she raised, but it was more than had ever been collected.

In 1976, Bill was offered a job as manager of the San Antonio office of Mutual United of Omaha and they moved back to the states. Lynda was hired as a case worker for the Red Cross field office in San Antonio. Every night from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m., phone calls would be transferred from the main office to her home line. She worked answering phones in the office on weekends. Lynda handled all kinds of emergencies but remembers one as the most harrowing.

A man called in and said he was holding his 18th-month-old baby and he had a gun to the baby’s head. He said he couldn’t handle it anymore and was going to shoot the baby and himself unless she got ahold of his wife, who was in the service overseas. Lynda immediately called the sheriff’s department and over the next few hours tried to calm down the man. She was able to locate his wife and arrange for her to come home and the sheriff’s department went to the man’s home and convinced the man to put down the gun.

“It was very, very scary because he was on the phone and I had to use every single skill I could drum up within my body and soul to help this person calm down and at least hear what I was saying so he wouldn’t hurt the baby,” Lynda recalls.

Lynda resigned from the Red Cross in 1977 to go to college. She studied management science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. While taking classes, she started a business selling custom novelty gifts and eventually sold her business to Neiman Marcus. She was an executive at several computer-based education companies before coming to the Washington, D.C. area in 1995 to work as vice president of marketing and sales for Loral Learning Systems, a division of Loral Aerospace. She convinced two colleagues to buy the company and they renamed it PLG, Inc., after their first names, Pierce, Lynda and Gary. They merged with a competitor and sold the company in 1997. She was hired to head Capitol Concierge, a multi-million-dollar company in August 1998 and bought the company, celebrating its 32nd anniversary this year, in November 2007.

Lynda returned to the Red Cross four years ago as a Tiffany Circle Donor. As a member of the Circle, she works to recruit women to the Red Cross locally, nationally and internationally, and commits to donating at least $10,000 a year. So far, she has contributed $50,000. Last year, she upped her commitment to contribute $150,000 in 10 years. That is known as the “Hall Pledge.”

Lynda grew up in Las Vegas. She had two older half-brothers and a younger half-brother. Her mother, Dorothy Gurrisi, took her two older brothers and left when Lynda was about five, returned briefly and left again for good when Lynda was seven. Despite that, Lynda remained close to her brothers throughout her life. The oldest just died recently.

Lynda was also very close to her father, James Daniel O’Connor, an Irish immigrant who came to America when the help-wanted ads frequently used the acronym, “NINA,” No Irish need apply. He became a butcher and opened his own shop. When it failed, he went to work for someone else. When he was 76, he started his own landscaping business and had his first stroke when he was 90 and doing 26 lawns. He has since died.

Despite his struggles, he loved his country and taught Lynda that she was lucky to be an American. He taught her that she could achieve anything she wanted if she worked hard enough. When she was 12 or 13 and asked for some money, he told her someone’s grass needed to be mowed or someone’s windows needed to be washed and she should go earn it.

He also raised her to volunteer, a lesson that would stick with her throughout her life. As a member of the Brownies and the Girl Scouts, she picked up trash in the mountains and at Lake Mead. As a member of the Mason’s Rainbow Girls, she visited hospitals and nursing homes. She also volunteered at her Episcopal Church.

“I learned that in any community you give back,” Lynda says. “That’s what the community is there for. I really relish those times because it taught me to be part of something bigger than myself. And that was truly my dad.”

Lynda lives with Bill and two cats, Denko and Taiho, in Glenelg, Maryland. The couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year. They have a daughter, Misty, four grandchildren, a step grandchild and three great grandchildren.


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