As the World Trade Center burned, Virginia Brown took a hit of her own.
Brown, who’s retiring as the executive director of the American Red Cross-Centre Communities Chapter at the end of the year, got a call from a local man the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Behind her, Red Cross staff members and volunteers watched a tiny TV in horror as smoke poured from the mortally wounded Twin Towers. The caller didn’t know anything about that. He wanted to enroll in a CPR course, and Brown did her saintly best to explain the options.
“Meanwhile, in the background, one of the towers was about to collapse, and of course people were standing around watching it and literally screaming,” Brown recalled. “He said, ‘Well, it sounds like you’re having a party there.’ ”
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Brown filled him in. But the man still was confused, so she suggested he turn on a TV or radio.
“He said, ‘Well, I think I’ll call back when you people know what you’re doing,’ ” she said.
She laughed at the memory — just one of many from 30 years of leading the chapter and, contrary to a cranky jab long ago, doing more than a few things right.
Brown, who will be honored with a farewell party Thursday at the Nittany Lion Inn, oversaw the growth of the chapter’s blood drives, disaster relief efforts, health and safety classes, and other services, such as contacting military personnel for families.
Under her direction, the State College chapter merged with its Bellefonte and Moshannon Valley counterparts to serve nearly 180,000 people from the eastern side of Clearfield County all the way to Woodward.
When she started, her chapter collected about 3,000 units of blood a year. Today, in large part because of partnerships developed with the Penn State Red Cross club, the annual figure stands at about 13,000 units, though it has peaked as high as 19,000.
During her tenure, Brown guided the chapter through local disasters such as the Academy, Bush House, Cadillac Building and Hotel Do De fires in Bellefonte, a huge Interstate 80 crash in 2004 and several floods. She has weathered the hectic aftermaths of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
And through it all, her management style has earned the admiration of Ruth Markle, the chapter executive coordinator who has worked with Brown for 17 years.
“She has a very calm, collected demeanor,” Markle said. “She looks at what’s the situation, if there’s a problem, and looks for the outcome that’s best for everyone involved.”
From Philipsburg, Brown studied art history at Penn State before working for the Child Development and Family Council of Centre County for seven years, helping families secure federal child care assistance.
In 1983, she answered a classified advertisement for her position. In a cramped basement office below Beaver Avenue, sharing space with the local United Way, Mid-State Literacy Council and the Red Cross’ Greater Alleghenies Blood Services Region, she started out as a one-woman show.
“I think it was more or less you were a jack of all trades,” she said. “You had to do everything. You did press releases. You did personnel policy. You did fundraising. You wrote a press release. You set up a blood drive. You responded to a fire.
“It was quite exciting, I think, because you never knew what each day would bring.”
Within a couple of years, she hired an office manager and then, eventually, a small staff. Her office also grew, first relocating upstairs in her original building before a grand move to roomier digs a block away in the Glennland Building.
But one thing has stayed the same.
“I always say, ‘Even though the services have changed, the continuing thread is our reliance on volunteers,’ ” Brown said. “That’s very true. I think that will always be so, because we are a volunteer organization.”
Volunteers, a small army of them, hauled the chapter’s furniture, computers and filing cabinets over a few epic days during Christmas week seven years ago.
Mostly, volunteers have helped the Red Cross help others — particularly after Sept. 11, when Brown and her staff worked with little sleep for weeks to process donations.
“We did have a tremendous volume of calls,” she said. “I think we had five phone lines at the time, and I think they rang constantly.”
Questions came nonstop. People couldn’t contact relatives. They wanted to go to New York and help. They offered contributions.
Often, they just walked in the door with money.
“It was a very busy time, and some of the volunteers who came in to answer the phone then stayed with us for quite some time after that, for a number of years,” Brown said.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Centre Communities chapter trained about 25 volunteers to go to Louisiana and Mississippi. Back at home, the chapter assisted about 30 families and individuals who had fled storm-ravaged areas and long relief lines to stay with friends or relatives in Centre County.
One day, Brown and her staff found their tiny reception room completely packed.
“We had never seen that many people waiting to see a caseworker,” she said. “And we were just so worried.
“We were trying to work so quickly, and we hated to see them wait, until one person said, ‘Well, this is much better than Louisiana where we stood in line all day and still had to come back the next day.’ He said, ‘This is really fast because you’re not taking so long.’ ”
Of all the disasters three decades brought, another also stands out for her — but not for its grand scale. One night during a Penn State break, a fire broke out in a State College apartment building, displacing a few students staying over the holiday.
But because of a huge youth volleyball tournament in town, the building owners could not find any hotel rooms for their pajama-clad tenants. At 2 a.m., they called Brown, who sprang into action.
She had the students bused over to the Red Cross office, then set up several cots, broke out the hot chocolate and snacks, and contacted parents if needed. In the morning, she fetched bagels for breakfast.
“That was kind of memorable, just because we were literally sheltering them right in our office,” Brown said. “But it worked.”
Now she’s leaving it all behind.
She’ll miss the office with the view of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity that gave the chapter a better TV to replace its rabbit-eared set after the Sept. 11 attacks.
When she moves on, she’ll also miss faces. Staff, volunteers, donors, board members, families: She’ll never forget the friends met on a long journey.
And though she’ll have no shortage of things to do in her retirement — reading; cooking; photography and researching her ancestor, James Deimling, an original Philipsburg settler, await — Brown will miss the action that comes with community service.
“Because even now,” she said, “you just never know what each day will bring.”