A child of the Great Depression, Lillie Morrison didn’t have much while growing up on the farm in Oklahoma. Old photographs show her barefoot, her family too poor to provide shoes for their flock of nine children.
Those days on the farm are forever ingrained in Lillie, now 91. For all of her years, she has been grateful and appreciative of anything, big or small, that has come her way.
Lillie left the farm in 1944 when a U.S. Navy recruiter came knocking on the door where she worked as a switchboard operator. Lillie thought the Navy’s dress blue uniforms were attractive, so she volunteered and took a job as a switchboard operator for the Navy.
Lillie has always been a true-blue patriot. As part of the “Greatest Generation,” her eyes still sparkle with pride when she meets someone who serves in the military.
When the Central Valley Honor Flight in her hometown of Fresno, Calif., invited her to join other veterans on a flight to Washington D.C., Lillie was delighted. The Women’s Military Museum was hosting a luncheon for her and three other WWII women veterans on Thursday, April 28. Excited to celebrate her mother’s service, Lillie’s daughter, Vicki Morrison, assembled a scrapbook full of black-and-white photographs from a two-year naval career that showed Lillie dressed impeccably in her dress Navy blues. In every photo, Lillie is a knockout.
A few hours after the chartered Honor Flight left California, however, Lillie became gravely ill. A nurse on board asked the pilot to land in Colorado Springs. An ambulance rushed her to Memorial Hospital, which is named for the men and women who perished in World War II.
In Memorial’s emergency room, Vicki and Lillie – both shaken – were greeted by a nurse, Cody Wingo.
“She was so sweet,” Vicki said. “She kneeled close to Lillie’s chair and I told her what had happened. I had my scrapbook with me and I told her, ‘I don’t have anyone to show this to.’ So I opened up the book, and I showed her the photographs. Cody started to cry and so did I.’’
Lillie had suffered an event that deprived her of oxygen to the brain, and it made her thinking somewhat cloudy. She was admitted to Memorial. When nurses and doctors came in and out of her room to check on her, Vicki told the nurses how they arrived in Colorado Springs.
Terri Tuttle, the house nursing supervisor, heard the story and then enlisted the troops – Memorial employees – to figure out a way to celebrate Lillie’s service.
Tuttle called Robin Rogers, director of the Office of Patient Experience, to see if anything special could be done for the patient. It happened, coincidentally, to be Patient Experience Week at UCHealth, a time when employees were encouraged to do something extra for patients.
Rogers sent an invitation for clinicians and non-clinicians to meet in Lillie’s room at 11 a.m. on April 28 for an impromptu party. Jasmine Dal, who works in the Office of Patient Experience, made a cake with blue icing. Rogers purchased small American flags and balloons and passed them out to employees.
“Our heart breaks that you’re not able to be in Washington, D.C. I get emotional … so we are glad that you are here with us, and we have cake and we have goodies and we thank you for your service, we thank you for what you did and we thank you for coming to Memorial, even though we know you didn’t want to, but we are glad to have you here,’’ Rogers said.
Jarad Muasau, director of radiology, knelt on one knee before Lillie, held her hand, and offered an apology. He is a retired Air Force Staff Sergeant, not a Navy man.
“But my brother is in the Navy and we always say that you sail too much, and you say that we fly too much,’’ Muasau said.
Lillie appreciated the humor, and she smiled.
Those who gathered in Lillie’s room heard a few stories about her life, including how she met her true love – Robert, an Air Force man – at a gathering in San Francisco, where the two were stationed during the war.
Lillie Morrison in her Navy days.
Lillie Morrison with Navy Wave bunkmates Frenchie and Sue.
Lillie told how the couple had two children: Vicki, and a son who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55. A heartache showed on Lillie’s face when she spoke of him.
“My father flew planes before he could drive,’’ Vicki said. “He lied about his age during the war so that he could join the Air Force. Afterwards, he did not become a commercial pilot. He had a great job with Pacific Bell and he was able to buy a home in San Francisco and a new car. My mother, coming from Oklahoma, was always amazed that she could be so fortunate.’’
No matter what sort of challenge came their way, Lillie always taught her children not to worry, Vicki said. “She would always say, ‘This too shall pass. Say a little prayer, tomorrow is another day.’”
A day after the story of Lillie’s unexpected visit to Memorial Hospital appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Terrence Molidor from the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command stopped by to honor Lillie.
Ever humble, Lilly could not figure out why everyone was making such a fuss over her, though she was awed that a commander charged with keeping the American homeland safe was in her room.
“I was just a switchboard operator,’’ she said.
In every war, the commander said, every person and every skill is important. He thanked her for her service and wished her a speedy recovery.
The welcome that Lillie received from Memorial Hospital and Colorado Springs, Vicki said, was “a better tribute than she would have received in Washington. It was more personal, more intimate and more heartfelt.’’
Lillie, who has lived a life being grateful for all things, seemed overwhelmed by the attention.
“I feel I can’t express it,’’ she said. “It’s just beyond expression.’’