By Max Seigle
At his home in Brookﬁeld, Bill Murgas still has his ﬁrst American Red Cross Membership Card from 1956.
There are more cards from the 1970’s, showing his Red Cross certiﬁcations to teach
Advanced First Aid and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, or CPR.
Above his ﬁreplace, the mantle is a white oak beam that was once part of a Dodge County barn destroyed in a tornado. The farmer gave the beam to Murgas as a token of his appreciation for disaster assistance.
These signs of service around his house are just a taste of a steadfast devotion to the Red Cross. This past March, Murgas, who is 85, marked 60 years as a volunteer and donor. “One thing that I’ve talked to kids about all these years and I live myself is that service is the price you pay for the space you occupy,” Murgas said during an interview with Red Cross Public Affairs.
Murgas started teaching that motto to kids after returning home in 1956 from military service in Europe. He became an advisor for an Explorers unit in Wauwatosa and formed his ﬁrst link with the Red Cross. “My goal was to make an emergency service post and that was the place to start,” he said.
Murgas said Red Cross instructors taught the Explorers Basic and Advanced First Aid and CPR. He recalled the volunteers as “very professional, very friendly (and) very knowledgable.” He would later become one of them, joining the Red Cross First Aid Corps (now called the First Aid Service Team).
“We provided First Aid at various civic events, like the South Shore Frolic (and) Summerfest,” he said. “Anyone who wanted Red Cross presence would contact the Red Cross and they’d be assigned to it.”
The First Aid Corps also served at the South Milwaukee Festival of Music and Milwaukee’s 4th of July parade. Murgas remembers setting up large tents with the Red Cross name on them. Volunteers helped marchers and performers with everything from heat exhaustion to cases of the jitters.
“If you’ve been to those things in the summer, if one of the ladies or the girls gets panicky and passes out, it’s amazing how it spreads,” he said.
As a certiﬁed First Aid and CPR instructor for the Red Cross, Murgas estimates teaching courses to several hundred people over the years. He also helped form and serve on the State Red Cross Service Council, which brought together chapter representatives for idea-sharing and developing state-wide projects. Loads of disaster response work marked his tenure, too.
“We had a nice system, we could make a telephone tree and in 45 minutes our group was on the road with all the equipment we needed,” he said.
Murgas was part of the Red Cross response after a deadly tornado in the Village of Lomira in Dodge County in 1996. His crew, of about 30 to 40 people, spent the day on a farm helping with clean-up and rescuing cattle.
“We got to this farm and a tornado went down three sides of (the owner’s) 40 acres, it was eerie,” he said. The twister “knocked down his barn on top of the cattle and we had chain saws, we had wenches and we raised the stuff off of the cows and saved (them).”
Murgas remembers the farmer in tears but grateful for the Red Cross assistance.
“He was so thankful, he gave me a beam off his barn, that’s a white oak beam that goes back probably a hundred years and we lugged that thing home and it became my mantle,” he said.
Now a part of his home, Murgas can’t help but remember that day in Lomira when he looks at the mantle. He also has vivid memories of an ice storm in Hartland in Waukesha County in 1976.
“Trees were all over the place, trees and wires,” he said.
“We went up with chain saws to clear the road because the whole place was blocked and the ﬁre department needed access, so we chain-sawed our way through the main street in town.”
These days, the 85-year-old admits he’s moving a little slower and can’t do the disaster response calls. But he remains active. Murgas is a Lifetime Honorary Board Member of the Red Cross and serves on the Finance Committee. He also helps out at events promoting the organization’s mission.
If you stop by the headquarters for the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter in Milwaukee, you’ll see some of Murgas’ ﬁnancial support. He donated the funding for an Education Wing there. Since it opened, he loves seeing the classrooms ﬁlled with volunteers and staff.
“It furthered the mission of the Red Cross and it was the right thing to do,” he said.
We asked Murgas what’s kept him going for six decades. He said it all starts with that motto he mentioned earlier, “Service is the price you pay for the space you occupy.” Then, there’s the personal gain he gets from giving back.
“The biggest reward is when somebody turns to you in times of distress and they’re hurting and say thank you, Wow, you know that’s big,” he said.
Murgas encourages people to get out there and give back to organizations, like the Red Cross. He says, not only can you make a difference, but life-long friends with fellow volunteers along the way.
“Plus, you get to know so many people, and they are all good people,” he said.