Volunteer continues legacy of service
May 24, 2013
- "When he was a paid employee, Mr. Wally would come in to accrue leave time just so he could donate it to people who are on the donated leave list." - Mina Dugger, director of Patient and Family-Centered Care at Blanchfield
- "…He loves to connect with all people, and serving others is his passion." - Maria McConville, former co-worker of Mendenhall and wife of Maj. Gen. James C. McConville.
- "I was brought up to help people. If you have a neighbor that's having problems, it's your responsibility. I think it's a good life -- a good way to do it." - Rufus W. Mendenhall
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- At Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, Tuesday and Friday afternoons are pretty good.
It is on these days that the unmistakable aroma of fresh popcorn permeates the hallways near the Patient and Family Medical Resource Center, where a rolling popcorn stand has sat for years.
Throughout the day, patrons and staff alike carry away treats in neat paper bags, always giving thanks to the man responsible for the entire popcorn operation -- the man most refer to as "Mr. Wally."
Rufus W. Mendenhall has been a part of the Blanchfield Family for nearly 27 years, working in patient records and as a patient resource clerk. Nowhere in his job description will one find the words "popcorn chef" -- it's just one of the many things he does, behind the scenes, to help boost the spirits of any person who crosses his path.
"He always made sure he had a bag put aside for special people, even the nighttime cleaning team," recalls Maria McConville, former co-worker of Mendenhall and wife of Maj. Gen. James C. McConville.
"Mr. Wally has an admirable sense of purpose that others his age do not have. He loves to connect with all people, and serving others is his passion."
"He just has a passion for giving and helping others," said Mina Dugger, director of Patient and Family-Centered Care at Blanchfield, who has worked with Mendenhall since 2009. "I was in awe -- am still in awe -- of his level of giving."
"I've always enjoyed helping people," said Mendenhall. "It's a good way of life and I was brought up with that."
It was in East Tennessee, between Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains, where he learned the values of hard work and the intangible rewards obtained from helping others. Facing adversity would be one of the first things he would learn when his Family lost their farm during the Great Depression.
"I was just a toddler, but I remember," said Mendenhall.
"They came in and took our house…set everything out in the yard, nailed up the doors and we had no place to go."
When his father became a sharecropper, Mendenhall and his siblings filled the hours between the end of the school day and bedtime cultivating tobacco, harvesting sugar cane for molasses and anything else that needed to be done.
"We didn't have time to get into trouble," Mendenhall laughed. "My father didn't let you miss a day, but we survived it."
After his football dreams were quashed by the head coach at the University of Tennessee because he "wasn't big enough," Mendenhall trekked north to Toledo, Ohio, where his brother got him a factory job at General Motors, operating a machine that dropped washers onto transmission yokes -- seemed simple enough.
Two hours into his first shift, he learned just how unforgiving factory equipment can be.
"That thing took off, and washers were going everywhere," Mendenhall said. "It was throwing them out just like shrapnel."
That was the end of his short-lived factory career. Mendenhall quickly sought less hazardous employment.
"The next morning at 7, I was on the steps of the courthouse, waiting on the recruiter," he said.
Mendenhall began his Army career in October of 1951 and took to life in the military like a duck to water, making his way up to command sergeant major. Between duty-stations that took him from Alaska to Georgia and points between, he served one combat deployment in Korea, three to Vietnam -- the last of which placed him in the A Shau Valley for the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord.
In 1981, Mendenhall was reluctantly returned to the civilian world.
"I would have stayed," he said. "I talked to three generals to see if they could help me. But I had to go because 30 years was the max."
Mendenhall began his civil service career at Blanchfield with the plan of opening his own business after a five-year stint at the hospital. The draw of working with Soldiers and Families kept him firmly planted.
"I like it here, and I'm content with what I do," he said. "It's rewarding."
Always one to do more than is expected of him, Mendenhall has become known as a man of excessive compassion -- giving rides to patients needing a way back to Clarksville, giving a few dollars so someone can have some food at the cafeteria and doing his best to make himself available whenever possible.
"When he was a paid employee, Mr. Wally would come in to accrue leave time just so he could donate it to people who are on the donated leave list," said Dugger.
"I was brought up to help people," Mendenhall said. "If you have a neighbor that's having problems, it's your responsibility. I think it's a good life -- a good way to do it."
Mendenhall officially retired from his civil service position in April, though few people would ever know it. Today, he can be found right where he's always been -- doing the exact same job, only as a Red Cross volunteer.
Mendenhall has led a busy life -- one he says he's live exactly the same if given the chance to do again. As a Soldier, he accomplished his goal of taking a rifle company into combat. His fruitful military life is one that is marred with a single, solitary regret -- he never got to have a crew cut.
"I saw Burt Lancaster with that nice flat top and thought 'Boy, if I could ever do that, it'd be the greatest thing in the world,'" he said. "But I could never get my hair to stand up, and that used to aggravate me to death."
The wavy hair that sits on Mendenhall's head is exactly the same as that in the photograph on his desk of himself as a young Soldier, albeit a few shades lighter. And like the young CSM who boosted morale by preventing an NVA soldier from flying the North Vietnamese flag over FSB Ripcord, he remains dedicated to being a constant ally to the Army Family.
"My job satisfaction comes from helping people," said Mendenhall. "I wouldn't want a job where, when I went home at night, I felt like I cheated or wronged somebody. The Army is a good life. It ain't all a bed of roses…but it's a good life."