First Person Singular: American Red Cross President Gail McGovern

By Robin Rose Parker, Published: May 4 

Rebecca Drobis/ - Gail McGovern, 59, of Washington is president and chief executive of the American Red Cross.

The very first report that I had to write was in fourth grade, and I really wanted to write about a woman. The only women I could find to write about were Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton. And so I actually wrote my very first report about the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton. So I kind of feel like there was some weird connection. In my office I have an original photograph that Clara Barton sat for, and I come in in the morning, I look at her and I think to myself, I want you to be proud of me.

The most amazing part of the job is the outpouring of generosity when people need help. It’s restored my faith in the human race. I see how generous Americans are — with their time, with their hard-earned dollars; they literally donate blood to us. I get letters from kids with donations; I got a note from a young boy, with a crumpled-up dollar bill, telling me it was from the tooth fairy and could I give it to the people of Haiti? I’ve just been so privileged to see this side of our country.

During Hurricane Ike [in 2008], I was in an emergency response vehicle. I didn’t tell people that I was the president and CEO of the American Red Cross. I just put on a T-shirt, threw on a pair of khaki pants and for about 2 1 / 2 hours, I was on that vehicle just dishing out chili. Right after that was over, I had to catch a flight back to Washington, D.C., and because I didn’t want to leave the volunteers, I didn’t have time to stop by the hotel room, and quite frankly I stunk. I smelled like chili and onions and body odor. My hair was plastered down to my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in the airport ladies’ room, and even my makeup had just sort of run down my face, so I looked sort of like a raccoon. I got on that plane, and I was in the last seat, center seat, and so I had to walk by all of these people, smelling to high heavens. All I could think of was, Oh, my God, they’re gonna evacuate the plane! I’m walking down this aisle thinking people are going to start gagging, and instead people were reaching out and touching my sweaty arm and saying thank you, ’cause I still had the Red Cross T-shirt on. They were saying, “Thank you for helping our city. Thank you. Thank you.” This followed me, literally, all the way home. The cab driver commented. The doorman at my condominium turned to me and said, “Mrs. McGovern, thank you for serving our country.” I have never been so proud to be part of an organization in my entire life.


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