Gracious. Upbeat. Witty.
Spend an hour with retired Red Cross employee and volunteer Florence Tupper, and you'll want to spend two. She's a consummate story-teller whose Red Cross experiences keep you smiling long after you leave her presence.
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, visits his mentor and friend, Red Cross retiree Florence Tupper, at her Virginia home.
(Photo credit: Personal collection of Florence Tupper)
Her 97-year-old eyes twinkle with memories of supporting the Red Cross mission around the world for nearly three decades, serving veterans in military hospitals and involving volunteers, especially youth, in the work of the organization. Her affinity for mentoring youth is a well-deserved source of pride and satisfaction.
Florence began working with youth on her first job, as a teacher, following graduate school. She liked teaching but was drawn away by the U.S. government, which recruited her in the early 1940s to be a cryptographer. Like many Americans at that time, she wanted to make a contribution to the war effort.
While working for the military in the nation's capital, Florence became friends with a young woman employed by the American Red Cross. She decided that she, too, wanted to be a Red Crosser. But it wasn't easy getting released from her top-secret assignment so she could accept a Red Cross position—she had to appeal to the War Manpower Commission, whose members, after a hearing, granted her request.
In 1947, Florence began the first of what would become 27 years with the American Red Cross. Her initial assignment was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Hospital Service, a department that provided social services and recreational programs for patients in military hospitals at home and abroad. By the time she retired in 1974, she had risen to director of Services to Military Hospitals and had traveled to the Far East twice, to Europe once, and to several of the organization's area offices.
Mentoring Exchange Students
During an assignment at the area office in San Francisco in 1962, Florence was asked to serve as a mentor for 10 foreign youth volunteers who would spend a month in the United States studying Red Cross programs and the American community. The youths had been selected by their respective Red Cross societies as part of an American Red Cross program known as Operation VISTA.
"There were five boys and five girls who did not know one another," she says of the initial meeting. "That first night, I invited them to my apartment. We sat on the floor, ate popcorn and drank pop, and got acquainted."
Little did Florence know that over the bowl of popcorn she would begin a lifelong friendship with a young man who would become the Secretary General of the United Nations.
"A favorite topic of conversation among the students was what they wanted to be when they grew up," says Florence. "The girl from Panama wanted to be a dancer. The girl from Turkey wanted to get married and have lots of kids. The boy from India wanted to be a writer. And the tall, 17-year-old from South Korea wanted to be a diplomat."
The highlight of Operation VISTA was a visit with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Kennedy asked the young South Korean, Ban Ki-moon, what he wanted to do in life. Ban responded that he wanted to become a diplomat; Kennedy encouraged him to pursue his dream.
The president's words proved a catalyst for Ban. "My involvement with the Republic of Korea Red Cross, when I was 17," says Ban, "changed my life forever."
Staying Active in Retirement
Florence and Ban have remained in close touch in the years since, exchanging letters and visiting each others' homes when possible. Two years ago, while Ban was serving as South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade, Florence received a call from the Korean Embassy saying that Ban was coming to the United States and had requested a visit with her. At the appointed hour, an entourage of motorcycles and cars, with a limousine sandwiched in between, pulled up as quietly as possible in front of the assisted living facility where Florence resides.
Florence has also remained friends with other Operation VISTA students. When traveling to New Zealand, she visited the family of a young girl she had mentored decades earlier; the former Canadian youth volunteer now lives nearby in Virginia. Florence takes pleasure in disclosing that most of the students "followed through on their youthful ideas."
Like so many Red Cross employees, Florence became a Red Cross volunteer after retiring, serving as a volunteer training consultant for a number of years. But even in her nineties, she still contributes to the lives of young people.
This summer, for example, Florence was one of a few senior citizens who were the subjects of a booklet prepared by a class of high school students. One student interviewed her, another took photographs. During our interview, Florence pulled out a copy of the booklet, pointing out the mature writing style of the student who had written her profile and the promising skills of the student photographer.
"We got along very nicely," said Florence of the students. "I get along well with young people."
The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.