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July 23, 2008 > Three Volunteers, 159 Years of Combined Service

Three Volunteers, 159 Years of Combined Service

In March of 1955, a group of 14 women gathered at the home of Josephine Walton, wife of former Washington Township Hospital District board member Allan Walton. They were there to discuss the creation of a Washington Hospital Service League to provide volunteer support and raise funds for the future hospital. On May 11 of that year, 75 women attended the organization's first official meeting in the Centerville, one of the towns later incorporated into the city of Fremont.

Three of those delightful, dedicated women continue to volunteer with the Service League today, 53 years later:

Laura Pessagno

Born in South San Francisco, Laura Pessagno moved to Fremont as a newlywed with her husband Gene, who was a brick and roof tile manufacturer. "His father had started the business there in 1914," she recalls. "My aunt lived down the street from him in Niles, and I met him when I would visit my aunt during summer vacations."

By 1955, she had two daughters - Joan and Janet - and was busy with volunteer work for the Catholic schools her daughters attended. But she wasn't too busy to attend the meeting at the Waltons' home.

"Our pharmacist in Niles asked me to help organize the Service League," she says. "He was a friend of Josephine's husband, who was a pharmacist in Centerville. So I went to the organizational meeting, and I was elected as a three-year delegate. We were all inexperienced, but we were all very dedicated."

One of the Service League's first fundraising projects was a secondhand store, opened in June of 1956.

"We opened the Cheery Budget Shop in the Irvington Library that belonged to the Hirsch family, who were prominent members of the community," Mrs. Pessagno says. "Later, we moved the shop to a home owned by then-Mayor John Stevenson, and we had the house to ourselves. We would do the sorting and labeling upstairs, and conducted the sales downstairs. When Peralta Boulevard came in 1957, the house was demolished, and we moved to another store on Fremont Boulevard. Before the hospital opened in 1958, we had raised $15,000, which was quite a bit of money in those days."

Once the hospital opened, Mrs. Pessagno began working at the hospital lobby desk and in the Gift Shop. She also worked at a caf? called The Meeting Place that was run by the Service League across the street from the hospital. These days, she volunteers from her home, doing the calligraphy on various posters and the certificates presented to young people who complete their school-required service hours at Washington Hospital.

Over the years, her husband and daughters got involved with the hospital, too. After her husband died at home in 1984 without the benefit of hospice care, the Washington Hospital Healthcare Foundation launched a golf tournament the following year to raise funds to create a hospice program. The tournament is now called the Washington Hospital Golf Tournament in Memory of Gene Angelo Pessagno. It is held in May of every year at the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton.

"In the first year, 23 years ago, the tournament raised about $10,000," she says. "In the second year, it raised $16,000. In 2007, it raised $74,000."

The hospice room at Washington Hospital named in honor of her late husband has provided comfort to countless families as they say goodbye to their loved ones. Five years ago, it was Mrs. Pessagno who bid farewell to her daughter Janet there.

"I was so impressed by the care and compassion of the doctors and staff that cared for Janet," she says.

Peg Tait

Peg Tait has always possessed an adventurous spirit.

Growing up in the northeast in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City, she ventured south to Jamestown, New York to attend college. After completing her business studies, she remained in Jamestown to work. It was there that she met a young accountant from New York named Andy Tait, who came in to audit her company's books.

Although she found the young man attractive, she was suffering from a lung condition, and her doctor advised her to move to a drier climate out West. So she quit her job and hopped aboard a train, heading to Arizona. She got sidetracked, though, when she stopped in Las Vegas.

"I ended up working in the office of the Flamingo Hotel, which was built by the mobster Bugsy Siegel," she recalls. "I joined the hotel after Siegel had been shot and worked there for about two years, handling the bank receipts and other accounting jobs. Then I heard that another mob gang was coming in to run the hotel, so I quit and moved to L.A."

During her stay in Vegas, she occasionally saw the young accountant she had met in Jamestown, who came to Vegas with his brother to visit and play golf. It turns out that he, too, had moved to L.A. and was working for Kaiser Steel. The couple married in 1948.

By 1953, Andy Tait had become an auditor for a lumber company in San Francisco. "The company sent us all over the country, from Seattle to Los Angeles, to Baltimore, to New York - you name it," Mrs. Tait recalls. "We'd stay in each place for a little while and then move on to the next one, driving everywhere we went. After a couple of years of that, I told him I thought it was time to settle down. We drove out here in 1955 and bought a house. I've been here ever since."

After spending most of her life as a "city girl," Mrs. Tait found the transition to life in a semi-rural area a bit disconcerting. "I didn't know what to do with myself," she chuckles. "There was nothing out here but tomatoes, apricots and cows. I was going stir-crazy. I had to have something to do."

So she attended the first meeting of the Washington Hospital Service League and found plenty to keep her occupied.

"I went to one public meeting where people were discussing the plans for building the hospital," she says. "They were talking about whether to increase the size of the hospital from 50 beds to 150 beds. One woman got up and protested, saying, 'Fremont will never be big enough to have 150 people in the hospital at the same time!' And now, of course, the hospital has 350 beds."

Mrs. Tait continues to volunteer through the Service League, coming in whenever her services are needed to produce birth certificates or to help with various Health & Wellness seminars. "I like to set my own schedule these days," she notes.

She also continues to indulge her spirit of adventure, traveling around the world, wherever her fancy takes her. When her husband died 20 years ago, she decided to travel on her own. "I like spending three or more weeks at a time in places like England and Ireland," she says. "I always went by myself - until the last couple of years, when I finally had a friend accompany me."

Stell Willard

When Stell Willard joined the Washington Hospital Service League 53 years ago, she went from gray to pink.

"I was a Gray Lady with the Red Cross during the Korean War, visiting injured soldiers as they returned to the States and helping them write letters home," she says. "Then, when we started the Service League, we were informally called the Pink Ladies, because our original uniform was a coral-colored pinafore. We've gone through a dozen or so different uniforms since then, and now we're simply called the volunteers because we have men as well as women in the organization."

Mrs. Willard grew up in Stockton, across the street from the man who would become her husband - who she always lovingly refers to as "My Bob."

"We became sweethearts at age 16," she says. "Then when we were 20, we made a quick decision to get married in Reno by a justice of the peace, just three days before My Bob was shipped off to World War II in the South Pacific with General MacArthur. We later had another wedding ceremony in the Catholic church."

The Willards moved in 1950 to Centerville, where he worked for a manufacturing company. When the company wanted to transfer him to Chicago, he opted to work for the Ford Motor Company and stay in the Bay Area. With no children of her own to keep her busy, Mrs. Willard sought opportunities for volunteer work.

"The women who welcomed me to Centerville - Josephine Walton, Elizabeth Grimmer and Pauline Alameda - encouraged me to help them start the Service League," she explains.

"I helped open up the first Gift Shop 50 years ago, and I still work there every other Monday," she adds. "On the opposite Mondays, I help make baby bonnets for newborns and puppets for older children in the hospital."

All the proceeds from the Service League's Gift Shop are used to fund various projects and services at the hospital. "We have donated more than a million dollars to the hospital over the years," Mrs. Willard notes. "You can make a lot of money in 50 years!"

Both Mr. and Mrs. Willard kept busy with various volunteer activities - as well as with their 14 godchildren and their families. They also traveled all over the world and played bridge and golf. When her beloved Bob died five years ago, Mrs. Willard decided to continue volunteering.

"Volunteering is what keeps me cheery," she explains. "I never get bored or lonely. My doctor tells me that I stay well because I have a good attitude."

Obviously, Mrs. Willard is still "in the pink."

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