By Michael StrasserJune 28, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 28, 2019) -- Donna Orvis took a break from work today to turn in her government identification card. It officially marked the end of her federal service, retiring from a 35-year career with Fort Drum's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
Then she returned to work.
It was for Riverfest - the annual summer event where FMWR invites Fort Drum Soldiers and families to enjoy a day at Alexandria Bay, and Orvis had never missed one since FMWR began partnering with the Association of the U.S. Army on this event.
So she arrived on site early in the morning, making sure everything was in place for the thousands of Fort Drum community members who would show up. She was also there later that day to greet community members and thank the organizations that sponsored and helped make this event a success.
"I've always been that way," Orvis said. "As a whole, we all pitch in as a team because that's what we have to do. That's just the MWR way."
Orvis served as marketing chief for Fort Drum Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation since 1999, and she has been that kind of hands-on, team player from the start. She first arrived at Fort Drum in 1985 after working for New York State Parks and Recreation.
"I loved that job, but it wasn't full time," Orvis said. "I had just gotten out of college, and I was really looking for a full time position."
Her regional manager told her that Fort Drum was hiring, and she went to the civilian personnel office on post to apply for a recreational aide position in the Information, Ticketing and Registration (ITR) office.
Not long after, she was playing a round of golf when her father called the clubhouse to tell her that she needed to return a phone call from Fort Drum.
"I left right in the middle of my game, which was tough for me," she said.
She was interviewed by Charlie Rice, a U.S. Navy veteran who had managed the recreation center and the NCO Club. Orvis got the job, but she also intended to someday put her bachelor's degree in education to good use and pursue a teaching career.
"ITR was a full-time job, and I needed to get out of my parents' house," Orvis said. "I enjoyed it, and, honestly, I thought I'd hang out here for few years and see what happens. I never left."
In her immediate family, Orvis had a brother who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and her father and uncle both served in the U.S. Army.
"But I'm not a military brat by any means," she said.
Still, she would soon be educated in all things Army every time she drove onto post.
"I can remember when I first started, and I saw a tank go across the road," she said. "I was like, wow, this is real. Of course I was young, but the feeling of seeing that tank for the first time and then seeing Soldiers do PT (physical training) ... it really stuck with me early on that these are the guys and gals who are taking care of us."
In 1985, Fort Drum was still in the early stages of being built to accommodate the newly reactivated 10th Mountain Division (LI). Construction and renovation projects were scheduled between 1986 and 1992 that saw 130 new building, 35 miles of roads and more than 4,200 family housing units completed.
The ITR office where Orvis had worked was located on Conway Avenue, where the Army Community Service building is currently being renovated. It had been completed a month before she arrived, and Orvis said she could see nothing else down to the end of the road.
"When the construction started, we literally had to four-wheel it over these bumps of clay just to get to our building," she said.
There was no library, child development center, recreational shooting range or anything that FMWR is known for today - but then again, it wasn't known yet as FMWR.
"When I reflect back on that time I feel bad for those families who were here early on, because there wasn't any infrastructure here," she said. "It was all just being built, and they were coming from established installations and were used to having child care and used to having services. We barely had the paint dry on the walls."
In the ITR office, the hottest ticket in town at that time was to the Jefferson County Fair. Orvis also planned trips for Soldiers to Alexandria Bay and Kingston, Ontario.
Orvis said that her organization was known as Morale Services when she first started, and then it took on other names throughout the years - to include Directorate of Community Activities - before evolving to the familiar MWR and FMWR title.
"I've seen the changes to the name, but also the growth of our services that we offer," she said. "It grew exponentially as the installation continued to grow."
When the 10th Mountain Division supported Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, from 1992 to 1994, Orvis said that deployment defined early on for her what FMWR does to support families.
"We did everything we could to take care of families and support them while their Soldiers were away," she said. "We took them on trips to Washington, D.C. - all sorts of special trips for families - and I remember thinking that we've got to do our best to take care of them any way we can because this was a long deployment."
The division had also just supported disaster relief efforts in south Florida due to Hurricane Andrew, but seeing Soldiers leaving their families for a dangerous military conflict was new to Orvis.
"New for me, but then looking at the families, it was probably new for them, too," she said. "They don't know what to do, and we wanted to help with that."
After serving as ITR manager for almost 10 years, Orvis accepted a newly developed position in the marketing department as a special events coordinator.
"That's how I got into marketing," she said. "There were opportunities to learn, expand my horizons."
That summer, Grand Funk Railroad was going to headline Fort Drum's annual Dog Days of Summer concert. Orvis went to see them perform at another venue, where she recorded a video to promote their upcoming concert.
"That was my first big project, giving me many sleepless nights," she said.
One of her favorite events to promote was Army Entertainment's Soldier Show, which has only recently discontinued its annual performances.
"That was always great, because you got to work hands-on with the Soldiers," she said. "The Army has so much talent that it amazed me every year to see them perform. That was one of my favorite projects."
Orvis said that one of the biggest FMWR successes has been partnering with AmeriCU to bring headlining acts to Mountainfest every June.
"They really do all the work, and we just have to promote it and support in other ways," she said. "I think that is a real good thing we were able to do for the community."
Orvis has also been a huge supporter of the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program.
"I loved working with the BOSS program - lots of fond memories," she said. "I still have a Soldier who calls me Mom all the time."
Orvis said that she isn't the type of person to celebrity-gawk, but meeting Gary Sinise was an experience of a lifetime. The actor, known best for his role in the film "Forrest Gump," performed a concert with the Lt. Dan Band in April 2012 at Magrath Sports Complex.
"He was one of the best human beings I have ever met," she said. "What he does for the military is absolutely amazing. He is such a true American, and being able to do that concert here is one of the biggest highlights of my career at Fort Drum."
Orvis said that she had lunch before the concert with Sinise and then a post-concert pizza.
"He's just a regular guy, but truly a great American ... especially when he called me on my phone," she said. "I was like a high school teenager, oh my God."
Orvis said that the marketing team has the responsibility of reaching the Fort Drum community through all available mediums to inform them of FMWR services, events and activities. That effort includes traditional and new media, but also by being interactive. She said that FMWR representatives will work with command groups, attend family readiness group meetings, and set up informational booths at events to help get the word out.
She said that they have come a long way since the days when they were mostly "a flyer factory."
"Just like everybody else, we went from print to digital," she said. "But then we also went from a staff of 10 to a staff of four."
There was even a year when Orvis was a staff of one, handling all the duties of special events, commercial sponsorship, publicity and graphic design work.
Flyers still exist today, evident on billboards found in gyms, child development centers and other facilities, but now they reach thousands of followers instantaneously on social media.
"It's crazy to think about how we used to have a building distribution list for where we delivered our flyers, and the amount of labor that went into that," Orvis said. "Now it's like, we just got some tickets to Watkins Glen, put it on Facebook and they'll be gone in two hours or a day."
Michelle Winter, FMWR marketing and advertising specialist, has known Orvis since she hired her 12 years ago. She had been working closely with Orvis in the weeks before her retirement so that there is a seamless transfer of responsibilities.
"Michelle is a great leader already, and I have no qualms about her being able to take over," Orvis said. "But I also wanted to make sure that when I walk out the door that she is as prepared as she possibly can be."
Like Orvis, Winter began her marketing career as a special events coordinator, but she also served at Child and Youth Services, the Community Recreation Department and as adviser for the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program before returning to the marketing team.
"Donna has mentored me from the beginning of my career at Fort Drum," Winter said. "She taught me what worked for her from the mistakes that she made and she talked me through the mistakes that I made throughout the years. She was always encouraging me to grow within my career as well as my personal life. She never was discouraged with my million questions throughout the years."
Winter said that Orvis was affectionately known as "Queen Donna" because she is respected as royalty within the FMWR family, and for her vast institutional knowledge.
But that moniker doesn't imply that Orvis was above getting her hands dirty.
"Donna was always hands-on during FMWR events," Winter said. "Everything from working the grills at a Mountain Mudder, to tossing color at runners during our Color the Mountain event. She would drive around on a golf cart, handing out water to staff. If there was a job that needed to be done, Donna would be there."
Tina Thornton, AmeriCU assistant vice president of financial services, has worked with Orvis on countless projects over the past 15 years.
"Everything from Riverfest, the Haunted Hayrides, zombie runs, Christmas parties, sporting events, dinner and - our biggest event together - Mountainfest," she said. "Many of these events we grew over the years to become bigger and better."
The sheer number of people and organizations involved to create some of these events go unknown to many who attend, but Thornton said that she will miss having Orvis here to help pull all of those resources together.
"I enjoyed working with Donna a lot," Thornton said. "Donna was fun, easygoing and always there to help when needed. She helped create the signature events that this post had, and will continue, to bring fun times and memories to our Soldiers and families here on Fort Drum."
Orvis said that it has been her life's work and her life's joy supporting Soldiers and Families for 35 years, and it takes her back to Grand Funk Railroad, the first concert she helped stage for the Fort Drum community.
"There was a Soldier, who has since retired and I think still lives in the area, who came up to me during the concert setup," she said. "He asked me if there was any way I could get him in to meet the band."
The Soldier had been corresponding with the band's drummer for years, and he was hoping to finally meet the musicians for the first time.
"I said that I would do my best," Orvis said. "I not only got him backstage, but he got to sit on the stage for the concert. The next day he came to me and said, 'I cannot thank you enough.' You know, it's just something I needed to do - taking care of Soldiers. That's what it has always been about. Taking care of Soldiers and families, I'm going to miss that. I'm going to miss seeing them every day."