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USO San Diego volunteers are a two-woman support system

By KARLA PETERSON | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 16, 2017

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — When military personnel and their families come to USO San Diego’s Neil Ash Airport Center or its downtown center on A Street, there are plenty of things they can count on. They know there will be beverages, snacks and free Wi-Fi. There will be places to rest, recharge and take a shower. There will be playrooms for the kids and an affordable shuttle service to local bases.

They might not know that no matter where they’re from or what they need, Fern Murphy and Pat Whalen will knock themselves out to make sure they get it. And the two longtime USO volunteers are happy to keep it that way.

“We really like to fly under the radar,” the 85-year-old Whalen said during a joint interview at the Neil Ash Center. “But this organization is so special, it’s hard not to do everything you possibly can to make it wonderful.”

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Murphy hails from Minnesota and Whalen is a native New Yorker, but when each of the women settled in San Diego, they made supporting their adopted hometown a priority. Both of them were married to men with military connections, so the local USO was a natural fit. It also turned out to be a challenge and a calling.

Pat Whalen’s husband, Bob, is in the defense industry, which kept the couple in the military loop. Murphy’s late husband, also named Bob, was a Navy officer who went to work in the aerospace industry. The Murphy family settled here in 1966, and after moving more than 25 times, Pat and Bob Whalen landed in San Diego in 1982 and decided to stay put.

“When we moved here, a friend of Bob’s took him to the old USO on Broadway, and I remember he came home and said, ‘I have just been to one of the worst facilities I have seen in my life.’ So he met with a bunch of people and said, ‘We have to get the USO some place else,’” Murphy, 81, said.

“If you are around the troops, you can’t help but want to do something. I have seen these young people come home wounded, and all they need is someone to talk to. Some of them will say, ‘What I did over there was good, and I would go back if I could.’ That astounds me.”

During and after the Vietnam War, the men and women of the military often found the USO was one of the few places they felt welcome. But many USO centers struggled for the donations and support they needed to keep their facilities up and running, and people like Whalen and Murphy had their work cut out for them.

But after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the tide began to turn for the military and for the USO. That year, Murphy organized USO San Diego’s first fundraising gala. She and her late husband were both USO board chairs, and Murphy is still doing everything from rounding up donations to finding items for the silent auction. Whalen joined the gala team in 2010, bringing with her many years of volunteer experience and a knack for persuading people to give what they can, and to keep giving.

“I’m a beggar,” Whalen said with a big laugh. “I’ve done it for so long, when people see me on the street, some of them will walk the other way because they know I’m going to ask for something. But it’s for a great cause, so I don’t mind.”

Murphy and Whalen are currently devoting their collective energy to USO San Diego’s “Stars and Stripes Gala,” which is Saturday at the Marriott Marquis. The theme is “Land of the Free … Because of the Brave,” which sums up the mission of the organization and the passions of the volunteers who keep it alive and thriving.

“Love of country is the reason Pat and Fern do what they do,” said gala co-chair Reena Horowitz. “The gala is responsible for raising unrestricted funds for USO San Diego. When I went to ask (local philanthropist) Malin Burnham if he would be this year’s honoree, he said the thing that motivated him the most was when he found out the USO does not get one penny from the government. It is all done through philanthropic contributions and grants. This gala is crucial for helping our military.”

For Murphy and Whalen, the giving back doesn’t stop with USO San Diego. In addition to being grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the two friends are both on the board of the Salvation Army and are members of the San Diego Zoo’s “Rendezvous at the Zoo” gala committee. They also support the San Diego Education Fund, which provides scholarships and support for first-generation and ethnically diverse college students to become involved in STEM professions.

Murphy, who lives in Fletcher Hills, is active in the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge youth education group and the University of San Diego auxiliary.

“I love it,” Murphy said. “I love the people I work with and I love the people I meet. I can’t imagine not doing this. I hope I can stay on my feet and continue to do what I love.”

From her nearby chair in the USO conference room, Whalen seconds that emotion. Whalen was raised by her grandparents, and she credits sympathetic teachers and people from the Children’s Aid Society with giving her the encouragement and support to make something of herself. She never gets tired of returning the favor.

“I’m a throwaway kid and my husband was a throwaway kid,” said Whalen, who lives in La Jolla and has volunteered with the UC San Diego undergraduate scholarship committee, the nonprofit Voices for Children and the University of San Diego’s grandparents program, which she founded. “Throughout our childhoods, there were people who saw something in us and helped us. We would like to do the same for other people.”

karla.peterson@sduniontribune.com

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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