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Red Cross director likes a challenge
by Jeff Toquinto
When Don Hamm made his first appearance at the Harrison County Chapter of the American Red Cross in 1972, he was doing what any good husband would have done.
"My wife Phyllis wanted me to go with her to take a first aid class," said Hamm. "I went along to accommodate her. I had no idea what would transpire."
Today, Hamm is the executive director of the Harrison County chapter. He moved up from first-aid instructor, into disaster relief, became disaster chairman and served on the board of directors before assuming the leadership reins.
"A lot of people asked me why I got into this," said Hamm. "I guess in the short time that I was here part-time, I could see it as a tremendous challenge. It was totally different than anything I've ever done.
"I like a challenge. Working with Red Cross was the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life."
The challenge became a full-time job in 1981 when the chapter lost its director. After agreeing to handle the duties on an interim basis for four months, Hamm took over permanently in January 1982.
Long before taking the first aid course, Hamm had a career in retail floor coverings. The Beckley native came to the area in 1965 to open a carpet store in Nutter Fort.
"I helped that company open 14 stores and we had success, but this is the most meaningful thing I've ever done," said Hamm. "In this job, I feel that I've accomplished something worthwhile."
Hamm won't get any arguments from those he deals with. From the head of the United Way to the state head of the Red Cross, praise for Hamm flows easily from the mouth.
"His reputation is known statewide and, believe me, it's a good reputation," said Ken Moslander, executive director of the Harrison County United Way. "Everyone turns to this chapter during a disaster."
Jerrey Hoyt, the executive director of the Mountain Laurel Chapter in Morgantown, which is the coordinating chapter for the entire state, considers Hamm a gem in the Red Cross crown.
"I'm amazed at what he gets done. He's a wonderful representative of Red Cross," said Hoyt. "I'm somewhat envious because he can move mountains."
That gift has translated into an ability to raise money for the United Way agency and have nearly 250 people happily volunteering to work under him. Both Hoyt and Moslander said people have picked up on Hamm's sincerity, honesty and integrity.
"He's the genuine article," said Moslander of the 66-year-old. "He's personable and that's a key ingredient when you work with volunteers. He's just folks."
"It doesn't take long for people to take a liking to him," said Hoyt. "People seem at ease around him."
Perhaps it's Hamm's gravelly voice, which could narrate a children's tale as easily as it can recount the tradition of the Red Cross, that soothes people. Or perhaps it's his humble office, willingness to talk of his love for his two dogs or the fact that he's not doing his job for the money.
Hamm makes $20,000 a year. He's been right around that mark, said Moslander, for as long as he can remember.
"There are other directors who are doing quite well, thank you," said Moslander. "Many of them don't do half as good a job."
But, guess what? Hamm doesn't want more money and has turned it down.
ÒI talked with someone from the United Way the other day and the discussion centered on this chapter's low pay," said Hamm. "They compared it to other agencies and wanted to know why the pay wasn't higher. They wanted to help.
ÒI told them I had a career in floor covering. Here I'm working. My pay will never be any higher that what it is now, and I don't want it any higher," he continued. "We're not here for job opportunities or to erect monuments to ourselves. We have one reason to exist and that's to serve people."
The Red Cross, said Hamm, provides more than just blood to the nation. It issues health and safety certificates, communicates between separated military families and does disaster relief.
"The public has confidence in the Red Cross," said Hamm.
And, the Red Cross has confidence in Hamm. Harrison County is a resource chapter for the state, which means when major projects take place they will usually transpire on Pike Street in Clarksburg.
This past year, in fact, Hamm's office was turned into statewide disaster relief headquarters for those affected by the heavy snowfall in the southern part of the state.
"He offered to do that project," said Hoyt. "He offers to do a lot of projects and he does them well. There is never a problem and that's why so many go through that chapter."
In 1985, the biggest relief effort in recent memory was handled in Clarksburg and under the direction of Hamm. And, the long hours of work, sweat and tears needed to assist during the infamous 100-year flood remains as Hamm's most vivid memory.
"This represented probably the biggest challenge in disaster relief in the history of this chapter," said Hamm. "Harrison County was the headquarters for a three-state, $7.5 million relief operation.
"It was a significant thing and a lot of responsibility," said Hamm, who has been married for 42 years. "That's the reason I come to work."
Although past retirement age, Hamm has no plans on leaving. He'll stay, he said, as long as his board of directors will have him or until he can no longer do the job.
"Maybe they'll get tired of me and throw me out. Maybe 911 will come in here and pry me off of the desk," Hamm laughed. "I'm not tired of working. I don't think about my age and I don't think about quitting."
"It would be up to their board to get rid of him and I don't think it will happen," said Moslander. "They'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind because they couldn't find a person of his calibre for what they pay him. Even for more money, they couldn't find someone of his calibre."
For Hamm, a chance to serve his fellow man is payment enough.
"Serving each other should be the ultimate purpose of living," said Hamm. "Hopefully, we'll be remembered for the contribution we made for the betterment of humankind rather than what we've accumulated."
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