By David HoyeAmerican Red Cross volunteer
Betty Grenig is, quite literally, a living legend.
The 98-year-old Scottsdale, AZ., woman began her career as an American Red Cross volunteer way back in 1939. And she still reports for duty every week at the organization’s regional headquarters in midtown Phoenix.
That makes Grenig the Red Cross’ oldest and longest-serving volunteer. And it’s quite possible she’s the oldest and longest-serving volunteer anywhere in the U.S. After all, few organizations have been around as long as the Red Cross, which was founded May 21, 1881.
“As a volunteer you give of your time but you are getting so much back,” she says of her long tenure at the Red Cross. “It’s not a one-way street. If you don’t do volunteer work you are missing out on so much.”
Grenig’s decades of service haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, as she marked her 80th year as a Red Cross volunteer, Grenig was honored by the organization and had an award created in her name. The first-ever Betty Grenig Service to the Armed Forces Award was presented to KD Kannenberg of Phoenix.
Such a momentous anniversary might have been a logical time to retire from volunteering. In fact, she attempted to retire several years ago. But she got called back into service when the Red Cross discovered her only reason for retirement: Lack of transportation to the office.
Now, with a little help from the kind folks who work at the regional Red Cross center, Grenig is working through her 81st year as a volunteer. Most Thursdays she can be found organizing and preparing information packets the Red Cross distributes to those needing services.
“They’re keeping me busy,” she said recently between stapling pages. “They’re very good to me.”
Grenig was born in Minnesota and raised in Long Beach, CA. In 1939, when Grenig was 17, word reached her mother that the local Red Cross needed volunteers. It was, after all, the year World War II began and helping hands were sought both at home and abroad.
Grenig recalled that particular day: “My mother said, ‘They need knitters. You can knit and they need socks. I think you better get working and help out!’ ”
Thus began more than 80 years of Red Cross volunteering that continued throughout her marriage to Robert Grenig and their journeys – thanks to Robert’s service in the U.S. Army – throughout several U.S. cities and countries such as Korea, Japan, the Philippines.
Grenig says she heeded occasional words of wisdom. One such directive came during the early 1950s while her husband was stationed at Fort Ord, a former military base near Monterey, CA. And it came from the wife of Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
“Mrs. Stilwell came by and saw us playing Bridge,” Grenig recalled. “She said Bridge was a lovely game but she didn’t think we should spend our days doing that. She said, ‘Go out and do some volunteer work!’ ”
In 1961 the Grenigs and their two children moved to Arizona. Her husband had retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and took a job as a bank auditor. They built a home in Scottsdale and she continued her Red Cross volunteering at both Luke Air Force Base near Glendale, AZ., and the former Williams Air Force Base near Chandler, AZ.
Throughout her years of Red Cross service Grenig has done much more than preparing information packets. She has organized and directed blood donation banks (donating more than 25 gallons of her own blood), coordinated volunteer programs and training and even helped teach knitting skills as a form of therapy.
Grenig has experienced a lot since first volunteering for the Red Cross some eight decades ago. When asked about lessons she might have learned along the way, Grenig thinks for a moment and describes working in a military hospital.
“When you work in a place like that,” she said, “there will always be somebody worse off than you are. You find out there’s no reason to feel sorry for yourself. You get to know people. You develop sympathy for others. And you get educated along the way.”