When Marlene Raffety received the VFW’s National Outstanding Hospital Volunteer award in Sacramento this summer, some people probably thought it was about time that she got some recognition.
Not Raffety. When she received the plate from VFW auxiliary national chaplain Peggy Haake at the VFW Department of California Auxiliary’s State Convention, “I was humbled to the point I had to make sure I didn’t cry,” she said.
The retired Fresno Unified health aide volunteers her time two days a week at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fresno, doing everything from escorting veterans to the doctor in wheelchairs and gurneys, setting up tables for celebrations and events, and helping veterans play bingo in the Community Living Center.
Raffety has spent the last 12 years volunteering at the veterans hospital, the longest of any volunteer. At 85, she also is the oldest volunteer.
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I was humbled to the point I had to make sure I didn’t cry.
Marlene Raffety on receiving her Outstanding Hospital Volunteer award
She is well-known throughout the hospital, wearing the same red uniform as when she began 12 years ago.
“They have a new one, but I like mine,” Raffety said. Patients would often jokingly call out, “The red coats are coming!” because of the blouse’s color, she recalled.
Besides volunteering at the VA hospital, Raffety has taken on other positions in the past. She was district president for the Clovis VFW Ladies Auxiliary for four years, as well as a historian, a patriotic instructor and a trustee.
For Raffety, volunteering is close to her heart. “I wanted to say thank you to those veterans and this country for what they did for me and my family in Germany.”
Growing up in Germany during the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Raffety wasn’t sure she would be able to survive World War II.
She was living in Berlin with her parents and her younger sister when Hitler came into power in 1933. Her father refused to be part of the Nazi party but was able to keep his job working on machines in preparation for war. Raffety said the years before WWII were comfortable enough for her family, and she even remembers going on vacation in Saxony and seeing the mountains.
The war started when she was 8, but she remembers a great deal, such as having to line up to receive gas masks. “All families had to line up,” she said, “no matter how old the children were.”
She described the preparations for bombings and the turmoil that families encountered during the time, such as the once-a-month rations families received. Raffety said food was the hardest to come by, and some items, such as bananas, were rare.
The war started when Marlene Raffety was 8, but she remembers a great deal, such as having to line up to receive gas masks.
She and her sister began college when they turned 10 and 11, and were taken to Czechoslovakia to get away from the bombings. The only contact she and her sister had with their parents were the letters they wrote to each other once a week.
After two years, the sisters were able to visit their mother in Berlin.
It was January 1945, and Raffety’s father, who was working in West Germany, told them not to go back to school because it was too dangerous.
The two stayed with their mother until the Allies arrived, Raffety said, but even after, there still were bombings.
Raffety said after Berlin was divided into sectors – their home was in the British sector – things began to normalize. They returned to school and finished college, but there were no jobs available afterward.
That’s when Raffety decided to use her six years of English and move to England, where she worked as a nanny for three years.
She was thinking about going back to Berlin when she happened to land a job at a sanitarium. That job got her interested in nursing, which ended up bringing her to the U.S. for a three-year nursing course in Boston when she was 19.
“The minute I came here, I loved the Americans,” she said. “They were so friendly.”
During Raffety’s last year in Boston, she visited California with another nurse, who also was German.
The minute I came here, I loved the Americans. They were so friendly.
Raffety remembers taking a Greyhound bus to San Francisco and passing through Fresno for the first time. After a short stop, Raffety told her friend that the heat in Fresno was “unbelievable” and she could never live in such a place. Not thinking much of Fresno at all, she continued on her trip.
Just 30 minutes later, after catching another Greyhound bus in Merced, Raffety changed her mind about the Valley.
“On the last stop (in Merced), I met my husband-to-be,” she gushed. “He was driving my Greyhound bus.”
After nine months of writing to each other, the two married in 1959. “And here I am!” she laughs.
Raffety and her husband Everett were married for 41 years.
The couple had a son and a daughter, now in their 50s, plus a stepson from her husband’s previous marriage, now in his 60s.
“My husband used to say, ‘I’m going to give you a life where you don’t remember the ugliness you went through,’ ” she said. “And he did.”
When her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1989, Raffety was grateful when he went into remission. But when it returned 10 years later, he was given only four weeks to live.
Raffety decided to retire from her job as a nurse and health aide for Fresno Unified to care for her husband. “I took care of him for nine months,” she said. “I was grateful I could do that.”
After his death in 2000, Raffety found herself lost. It was after caring for a friend in 2004 that she found the opportunity to volunteer, and found what she said is her calling.
Her first week volunteering, she was asked to join the VFW Ladies Auxiliary because of her husband’s service in the Navy during WWII.
Judy Jones, hospital chairman with the Clovis auxiliary, described Raffety in the nomination letter she sent to the VFW. “Her heart and soul is in everything she does for the veterans,” Jones wrote.
Jones said in the letter that Raffety often passes out gifts and handmade cards at Christmas and goes out of her way to help anyone in need by cooking, sewing, shopping and helping veterans get to doctors’ appointments.
Her heart and soul is in everything she does for the veterans.
Judy Jones, hospital chairman with the VFW Ladies Auxiliary in Clovis, on volunteer Marlene Raffety
Raffety has also recently taken a position as a recruiter for new VFW members, but she is finding it difficult to get younger members to join. “Our older members are not able to serve that much, and younger (people) are still busy working. Hardly anybody in that age group is entering our VFW.”
She is trying to change this by talking with teens around the Valley about her experiences in Germany. She participates in the Voice of Democracy, an essay and speech scholarship contest that promotes democratic principles in high schools, talking about the importance of democracy and the consequences of losing it. “Every year she loves to read me their essays,” said Raffety’s daughter, Carolyn Hogg.
Hogg, an information technology director for Alameda, is proud of her mother and happy others see her as she always has. “She sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger and yet is the most patriotic person I’ve ever known,” Hogg said. “She takes time to listen to the veterans … and it is important to her to work with the youth.”
Yet Raffety wasn’t always so open about her upbringing in Germany.
It was only after speaking to her granddaughter’s class in Los Angeles about her experience growing up did she think about telling her story.
She eventually was asked to speak at McLane High School, which is when Hogg heard her speak publicly for the first time. “That’s the first time she ever knew about the life I had over there,” Raffety said. Now all her children know, including her four grown grandchildren.
The last time Raffety visited Germany was in 1995 for a nephew’s wedding, but she hasn’t returned because she is worried about flying without her husband. Although it makes her happy to see the democracy there, she is adamant that Fresno is the only place for her. “I’ve seen so many places in my life,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Raffety, who lives alone with her two dogs, said she doesn’t see herself slowing down, especially because she is in good health. She stays active with her volunteer work and recently renewed her driver’s license for five more years. “I didn’t even miss a question, and I’m glad for that because I enjoy driving,” she said.
Raffety attributes her good outlook in life to what keeps her going. “I can only say that God knew what he wanted for me to do, and I am doing it.”
The plate Raffety was awarded hasn’t been put up in her house yet, but she said there’s a good reason: “I have to find a good spot in my house.”