A complete life in the Red Cross
While Loretta (Miller) Heasley’s father, Arthur Miller, served in France during World War I, mustard gas caused severe, permanent damage to his lungs and heart.
After he came back from the service, Arthur worked at the Malleable, in spite of his poor health. When he needed help dealing with affairs concerning his military service and his medical condition, he would go to see Mrs. Matthews at the Red Cross. Sometimes Loretta, who was born in 1922, would go with him. She had no inkling, of course, of the central role the Red Cross would play in her life.
In spite of the hardships created by her father’s poor health and by the Depression, Loretta remembers having a great childhood. Electricity came to Pine Hollow, where the Millers lived, when she was about four, and gas came a few years later.
Loretta learned about the unique history of the area from her mother and others.
“Mom said that my grandpa mined this whole place here. He’d go down through a little hole with the coal miner’s lamp on his head, then crawl around and pick the coal out. He had different mines around here, and so did all the neighbors. The coal was just for their own use.”
Loretta had a good friend named Catherine.
“We used to go out and make war whoops all over the neighborhood,” Loretta said. “My war whoop would get answers from Farrell.”
Pine Hollow was just an unpaved country lane, but it provided them with occasional bits of excitement.
“The gypsies used to go by. I was scared. People told stories that Gypsies would steal children. I would run into the house and pull the curtain aside and peak out because I wanted to see them, with those big skirts on.”
One time a circus parade went up the road. The circus had come on the train to Sharon and was on its way to set up in a field by Route 18.
About the time Loretta started at Hickory High School, her father died of a heart attack. He was just 42 years old.
“Mom went to see Mrs. Matthews at the Red Cross to fill out the papers for the widows’ pension. In those days they paid $2.50 a month.”
When Loretta graduated in 1940, she was seventeen. Mrs. Matthews got her into the National Youth Administration, a program in which teens too young to get a job could get work experience. There were about five girls in the program at the Red Cross. After the program phased out, Mrs. Matthews kept only Loretta.
The first day Loretta was there, Mrs. Matthews left her alone with instructions to call her if anyone came in.
“Nobody came in, but the phone rang. I was so scared I jumped. I knocked the stapler off the table, and it flew all apart. I had never seen a stapler before because we didn’t have staplers in school and people didn’t have staplers in their homes. But I was good at fixing things, so I picked it up and got it back together. I’ll never forget that stapler.”
Loretta started out doing small jobs.
“Mrs. Matthews had me go through the old files and take out the paper clips because you couldn’t buy any. And I had to type. My typewriter was so old it didn’t have a back space on it.”
Gradually her responsibilities expanded.
“I worked with veterans and service people. When the guys started coming back from the service, the Red Cross was the only organization that did any veterans work. We had to help them fill out the paperwork to apply for their benefits.”
The Red Cross also served as liaison between the servicemen and their families.
“We had to call the doctor and verify any illness, or the undertaker to verify deaths. Then we had to send the information to Western Union. After the war broke out, sometimes we would get 50 telegrams a day. If you had a message to send, you had to write it down and call Western Union. They got tired of that, so they scraped up an old teletype machine and installed it in our office so we could just type the telegrams ourselves.”
During the war, Loretta met her future husband, Leonard Heasley, from Butler. He was assigned to Camp Reynolds for deployment overseas.
“My friend was going with a fellow who was a friend of Len’s at Camp Reynolds,” Loretta said.
Len was a hard worker who had quit school after eighth grade. He worked on farms, 16 hours a day for $10 a month. As he got older, he worked on a dairy farm for about the same hours, but got paid $20 a month. Then he worked road construction.
“I shoveled the cement into the forms on Route 8 from the top of the hill in Butler out to that stone house where it branches off,” he said. “I had to work fast, walking backwards, to keep ahead of the machine that smoothed the cement out.”
Loretta and Len dated while he was at Camp Reynolds. The soldiers were not told ahead of time when they would be shipped out. Len told Loretta that if he didn’t show up for a date, that meant he had been sent overseas. One Wednesday night he didn’t show up.
“I served in England, France, and Germany,” Len said, “in the Military Police Emergency Guard. We guarded the prisoners brought back from the front to a big stockade in Mannheim, Germany.”
Loretta continued to work for the Red Cross.
“We dealt with a lot of hard cases. One boy I went to school with, his plane was shot down over the ocean. They never found any of his remains. His poor people used to come in all the time asking if we got any news. They did that until the day they died. I used to feel so sorry for those people.”
The Red Cross helped with the families of soldiers assigned to Camp Reynolds.
“One little lady with three little kids arrived from the South, only to learn that her husband had been shipped out in the morning. She had no money because she thought she’d get some from her husband. We got her a bus ticket to go back home.”
After the war, Len went back to Butler for a while, then moved to Sharon to be closer to Loretta. He worked at Wheatland Tube for two months before getting a job at Sharon Steel. Len and Loretta couldn’t scrape up enough money to get married until 1951.
Len worked at Sharon Steel for 34 years, while Loretta continued to assist veterans at the Red Cross.
“It was a wonderful place to work,” Loretta said.
But it wasn’t exactly easy.
“We had to make 7 carbon copies of some of the forms. Of course you would always make a mistake. We had some stuff that was like white carbon paper. You had to put a piece in between each copy and type over it, and then take all those papers out. I was so tickled when a lady invented white-out.”
Loretta wore out three typewriters.
“One day, my boss came in and said, ‘Loretta, what would you do if I threw out that old typewriter and bought you a nice new computer?’ I said, “I’d go home!’”
The transition from typewriters to computers wasn’t the only change Loretta witnessed at the Red Cross. The name of her department changed from Home Service, which was like today’s welfare office, to Service to Military Families, then Service to Military Families and Veterans.
“During and after World War II, we not only had the Sharon office, we had a worker in Stoneboro, one in Greenville, and one in Mercer.”
For a while, the Red Cross had volunteers called “Gray Ladies” (because of the color of their dresses) to visit people in the county home who didn’t get visitors. Other volunteers drove vets to the VA hospitals in Pittsburgh and Butler. There was also a First Aid trailer that volunteers took to use as first aid stations at events such as fairs.. Eventually, volunteer fire departments took over that task.
“At one time we had an office radio to communicate with the guys who were away from the office. It was KIC-4735. I remember that because I had to say it all the time.”
There was no United Way back then to raise money for the Red Cross. They hired a company to do an annual fund drive.
Loretta retired officially in 1992.
“Then I stayed on to work as a volunteer helping my friend Mary Ellis, who was left with the veterans work.”
When Mary’s health began to fail, she made Loretta promise to clean off her desk if something happened to her. After Mary passed away in 1994, Loretta fulfilled her promise. She went back to work full time.
“Cleaning off her desk took me four years,” Loretta said.
Since she retired a second time, she has continued to work as a volunteer, even after the veterans section of the Red Cross was closed in 2002. In fact, at age 86, she still does what she can. She has worked with the Red Cross for 69 years, counting employment and volunteer service.
Len and Loretta never had children of their own, but they have always been very close with her sister Clydora Crispen’s three children, Clydene (now Stokes), Clyde, and Lori (now Huff).
“They were over here all the time,” Loretta said. “We’d have a whole houseful of kids.”
Loretta sums up their lives very succinctly:
“I think our age was the best age anybody ever had. We started out in the horse and buggy days. Then we saw airplanes, and even saw a man walking on the moon. Who would ever have thought of that?”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009