Summing up a century in the San Juan Islands

Red Cross volunteers gather for a parade on San Juan Island

By Gordon Williams

The American Red Cross has had a presence on the San Juan Islands of Washington for more than a century. The first local chapter was formed in January of 1918 with the primary goal of aiding U.S. service members engaged in World War I.

Jan and Mike Hansen on San Juan Island

Now the history of the San Juan County unit is being put down on paper and it’s soon to go on display at the history museum in Friday Harbor. Red Cross volunteer Mike Hansen is the lead author of the work, with help from individuals on the many islands that make up San Juan County.

The idea for the history originated with Red Cross volunteer Arlin Rothauge. The Friday Harbor resident came to the Islands 20 years ago after teaching leadership and organization at a theological seminary near Chicago.

“I was seeking a new way to serve my community and the Red Cross had always fascinated me,” says Rothauge, who led the San Juan County unit for a decade. Anecdotal reports describe significant activity by local Red Cross workers in San Juan County during World War II and the Korean War.

“The history was my idea, but my skills are organization and leadership,” he says. “We needed someone who could collect the information and put it together.” That’s when Mike Hansen came along. A retired attorney from Oregon, Hansen moved to the Islands to be closer to a son in British Columbia.

“We saw all the development and traffic on the mainland and decided that the islands seemed like the right place to be,” he says.

Soon after moving to Friday Harbor, Hansen came across the Red Cross booth at a county fair, run by volunteer Bill Severson and wife, Laura Jo. Severson, who currently leads the San Juan Island unit of the Red Cross, ran a Safe and Well drill in Friday Harbor last November. The purpose of the drill was to make sure that island residents could use Red Cross facilities to contact loved ones elsewhere in the United States. Rick Wigre, another Red Cross volunteer, ran a similar drill on Lopez Island.

Rick Wigre at the 2019 Safe & Well drill.

Hansen says he always had an interest in history and had volunteered at the local history museum. To Rothauge, that made Hansen the perfect partner for the history project.

“We sort of found each other,” says Rothauge.

A word heard frequently in the Islands is “cooperation.” There are just 15,000 year-around residents on all the islands. Being offshore and away from immediate assistance, they rely on one another when help is needed.

“You know you are going to be on your own if something happens,” says Hansen. “You have to be ready to help on your own island.”

Alan Roochvarg volunteers from Friday Harbor

Hansen’s history is drawing heavily on research done by Lynn Roochvarg of Friday Harbor. Hansen describes Lynn’s husband, Alan, a retired business executive, as the “go-to guy for Red Cross financial matters.” Lynn is author of a comprehensive look at the first 100 years of the San Juan County Red Cross, published in 2017 on the website HistoryLink.org.

Still another resource is volunteer Brenda Asterino, a widely published author who lives on Lopez Island. She recently unearthed a copy of the 1919 diary of an Amelia Davis, who writes about millions of garments knitted for soldiers and refugees.

“Women knitted in groups or at home and knitting became a socially acceptable activity, even in church,” she wrote.

Volunteer Brenda Asterino and the view from her Lopez Island home.

Roochvarg’s history found the fledgling Red Cross group making its presence known in many ways. A dance introduced the Red Cross to Island communities and raised $250 to support war efforts. Volunteers on Lopez Island cut wood to heat a church building so a class in surgical dressings could be taught.

So, what is the story today with the Red Cross in the San Juan Islands?

Most Red Cross chapters need volunteers to respond to home fires and other local disasters.
Disaster Action Teams (DAT) on the Islands respond only a few times a year to local disasters, but Red Cross volunteers are also needed is at big disasters around the country. Local fire companies were deployed to Louisiana in 2005 in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Many of our volunteers have deployed nationally and some have deployed multiple times,” says Hansen. “We are very much a part of the Red Cross and very conscious of the Red Cross as a national organization.”

Join the Red Cross, start the process to become a volunteer today.

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