STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Gerald Russell looked off in the distance and saw history in the making.
As a Marine major in 1945, Russell had been talking to a grizzled gunnery sergeant during the brutal invasion to capture Iwo Jima from the Japanese.
When the firing suddenly stopped, the two men gazed at why: tiny figures on top of Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point, raising a rippling American flag in a moment immortalized by photographer Joe Rosenthal.
Cheering erupted among the Marines. In front of Russell, the gunnery sergeant wept, exclaiming, ‘God, that’s beautiful.’ ”
“Up until that point, we weren’t sure we would be able to hold,” Russell told former Centre Daily Times writer Ron Bracken on the battle’s 50th anniversary.
“But somehow, at that moment, we knew that the good old U.S.A. would not only survive but take every bit of that island.”
Russell, one of the most decorated Marines in the war and among its youngest battalion commanders, went on to serve for 28 years, teach at Penn State and become a respected pillar of his community, noted for his volunteer work with Toys for Tots, Special Olympics and Centre County United Way.
He died Monday at Mount Nittany Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 97, one of only two surviving Iwo Jima battalion commanders at the time of his death.
Known to many simply as “the colonel,” Russell led many lives packed into one.
In addition to his military service, academic career and decades of philanthropy, he was involved with the Olympics as a military representative to the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City and a member of the U.S. Olympic site selection committee.
His Olympic ties reflected a deep love for track. After excelling as a runner at Boston College, he was the 800 meters alternate to the 1940 U.S. Olympic team, though World War II nixed the games that year.
Following the war, he started and coached the Marine Corps track team and, as a USA Track and Field master level certified finish judge, officiated the Melrose Games in Madison Square Garden.
Through the years, he and his wife, Eileen, who died in 1999, raised two daughters over a long marriage.
“I couldn’t help but find myself saying Col. Russell was one of the greats of ‘The Greatest Generation,’ ” said Gene Weller, a retired Marine major and the local Toys for Tots campaign coordinator for 27 years.
Russell, who belonged to the Nittany Leathernecks detachment of the Marine Corps League, served as the Toys for Tots campaign honorary chairman — one example of his philanthropy.
For more than two decades on the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games management team, he helped organized the annual state games at Penn State.
But his greatest passion may have been the Centre County United Way’s Day of Caring, a community service event he founded 20 years ago and annually chaired afterward.
Last year, more than 1,000 volunteers worked at 62 projects for libraries, schools, social service agencies and nonprofit organizations around the county.
Tammy Gentzel, Centre County United Way executive director, said Russell’s “service to our country and to Centre County is a remarkable legacy.”
“He was an honorable and brave man who committed countless hours to making our world a better place,” Gentzel said in a written statement.
Kim Hacker, who worked with Russell for eight years as the Day of Caring coordinator, thought he was a “wonderful man who did so much for the community.” Russell’s zeal for the United Way inspired her, she said.
“It was in his heart,” she said. “He just really wanted to make a difference. He wanted to help people who were in need.”
Born and raised in Providence, R.I., Russell was a national schoolboy champion miler in high school. In 1940, he graduated from Boston College with a history degree — two masters degrees, from George Washington and American universities, came down the road — and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Two years later, he fought in the jungles of Guadalcanal, the first toehold for Allied forces in the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Wounded, he also overcame a bout of malaria.
On Iwo Jima’s black sands, he endured all 36 days of some of the war’s most horrific combat. Only 29, he found himself in charge of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Regiment, 5th Marine Division after shrapnel cut down the battalion commander.
Days earlier, Russell had also been hit in the face. He was stitched up at an aid station and, two days later, returned to the front.
“A doctor gave me a shot of morphine and a shot of brandy,” he recalled in 1995. “I felt like I had been hit by a real big baseball bat. And I couldn’t see because I was all bloody. I thought I had lost my eye.”
By the time the volcanic island was finally under American control, his regiment had been sliced to 500 men — a fraction of its original strength.
Brent Pasquinelli, a State College travel agency owner, said he thinks his longtime friend’s experience on Iwo Jima “defined him more than anything,” forging him as a leader for the rest of his life.
“There was something almost mystical about the man and his leadership style. He didn’t command as much as he inspired,” Pasquinelli said.
“He filled the room, and when you walked in, he had a presence and he drew people to him. He led with such grace and dignity. The more you got to know him, the more you wanted to measure up to his standards.”
After the Japanese surrendered, Russell led one of the early occupation units. He was among the first Americans to view the ruins of Nagasaki.
During the Korean War, he commanded another Marine battalion, was wounded again and served as an adviser for a South Korean marine brigade. He formed a lifelong friendship with the Korean commanding officer, returning for a reunion in 2004.
For the rest of the 1950s, Russell held several leadership positions at Quantico, Va.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and the U.S. European Command in Paris.
In 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, Russell found himself in the thick of it as the commander of U.S. ground level defense forces at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Upon his retirement from the Marines in 1968, his many decorations included a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, the Navy Commendation Medal and the U.S. Presidential Citation with four stars.
Soon after leaving the Marines, he came to Penn State and worked first as an assistant and speechwriter for then-President John Oswald and also as the assistant secretary to the university’s board of trustees.
In 1973, he received a promotion to assistant professor and assistant to the dean in the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. He became the college’s associate dean four years later, before retiring in 1987.
Afterward, Pasquinelli said, Russell launched a “third career embracing the community.”
He received several honors for his community service, including the United Way’s Kneebone Award and, as the first recipient, the Lt. Michael Murphy Distinguished Citizen Award named for the Penn State graduate and posthumous Medal of Honor winner.
The Nittany Leathernecks detachment of the Marine Corps League also created a scholarship in Russell’s name.
But at the 2008 Day of Caring, Russell praised his co-organizers and the legions of volunteers as the true heroes.
“We talk about this being Happy Valley — these are the people that make it a Happy Valley,” he said.
Penn State trustee Ryan McCombie, a retired Navy SEAL and one of Russell’s Day of Caring partners, said his friend “lived the life of wonderful service.”
Russell’s death, McCombie said, meant “a sad day for America.”
“When you talk about good men, this was a great man,” McCombie said. “It’s amazing what 97 years of a good life lived can do. He has affected this community in fantastic ways that very few people ever will.”
A memorial Mass for Russell will be held Thursday at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church in State College. He will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Pasquinelli said Russell’s life, more than simply full, was “overflowing in many respects.”
“He never quit serving his community. He never quit serving his country. He never quit serving his family,” Pasquinelli said.
“He never quit.”