TOGUS — When Jeannette Chapman started volunteering for the American Red Cross at Maine VA Medical Center, it was still known as Togus. Soldiers injured during the war in Vietnam were beginning to stream in for treatment and mingled with the old veterans, one of whom had fought in World War I.

A lot has changed in the 51 years since Chapman arrived. All soldiers from the First World War have gone and are being followed quickly by those who won the second. The young men and women from Vietnam now have gray hair and grandchildren.

Chapman has remained a thread tying all of them together. For 51 years, at least once a week, she has showed up at the hospital to help out in any way she could. A few years after she started, she snagged a friend, Ann Guild, a new arrival to Chapman’s hometown of Cushing, to volunteer as well. That was 44 years ago, and Guild has been back with Chapman just about every week since then.

“She latched onto me in ’71,” Chapman said.

The American Red Cross on Thursday honored the pair for their combined 95 years of service during a ceremony at the medical center.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said Ryan Lilly, director of the VA Maine Healthcare System. “Longtime volunteers like them are really the life blood of our volunteer system. They’re really the backbone of the whole program.”

Chapman, 88, began volunteering in February 1964 when a friend in her Knox County town needed a driver to take a group of volunteers to Togus. Chapman made the drive and decided to help out herself rather than just wait around for the other volunteers to finish their work.

“I liked it,” Chapman said. “It was a whole new experience for me.”

Some of the patients at the hospital had fought in World War I.

“They were a little on the elderly side,” she said.

Chapman has two children, one of whom was just 9 years old at the time. The boy was alarmed at first that his mother wore the iconic gray uniform of Red Cross volunteers, which gave rise to describing the volunteers as Gray Ladies.

“He said, ‘Mom! You’re too young to be a Gray Lady,” Chapman recalled.

She began working in the hospital’s occupational therapy department, helping veterans recover life skills.

“I did everything there was to do down there,” Chapman said.

Some of the most memorable experiences involved making papier-mache creations with the soldiers. The men were supposed to help, but Chapman said many refused because they didn’t like getting their hands sticky. Chapman helped build items for different themes, such as “The Flintstones” cartoon show or Japanese gardens. That involved making a Buddha that was nearly 20 feet tall. Chapman said she could just reach the top with a ladder.

“I really enjoyed my years down there,” she said.

Some of the most satisfying projects involved helping the patients make items out of leather.

“They always said who it was for,” Chapman said. “They always made it for someone.”

She eventually moved to a hospital ward where long-term patients lived. She began a tradition of baking cakes for the veterans’ birthdays. She still does it once a month.

“I have seen how much joy and how much fun they get out of the cakes,” Chapman said. “It’s the fact that someone thought of them.”

Guild, who just turned 82, began working with the Red Cross in 1947 while still in junior high school in California. She was a member of the Glee Club that used to sing for the Red Cross. She met Chapman after moving to Cushing in 1971. A short time later, she was volunteering alongside her friend. Guild, a gifted artist, continues to help Chapman make display boards for the patients.

“We’re like Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Chapman said. “Ann does one part and I do the other part.”

Guild recalled the pictures she and Chapman used to hang on the patient room doors. Most were nature scenes or traditional Maine activities. The photos often would remind the patients of home or spark fond memories, as they did for an old man who recalled collecting sap with his grandfather during maple syrup season.

“It always pleased us when we found something that struck a chord with someone,” Guild said. “We had one doctor in the hospital say this was the only floor with joy.”

Patricia Murtagh, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine, said Chapman and Guild have carried out their work through the years with great love and compassion. Murtagh said that working with veterans gives the women’s accomplishment even greater significance because it reflects the organization’s foundation. Clara Barton started the Red Cross by tending to wounded veterans during the Civil War.

“The work you’re doing here is essential,” Murtagh said. “Both of you have represented the Red Cross and given your best to our vets.”

Chapman still lives in the house in which she was born because, she says, “you can’t stray too far.” She and Guild still make the trek to the VA hospital every week except for when the winter weather is too nasty. These days they are joined by the “youngster” of the group, 78-year-old Ellie Mills, who began volunteering with Chapman and Guild after moving to Cushing in 2011. Mills said Chapman scouted her for the service, just as she did Guild 44 years ago.

“She’s a very good instigator,” Mills said. “She’s my buddy.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


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