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Local Red Cross leader prepares for retirement

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One of Bartholomew County’s prime emergency officials will spend the rest of the month sorting through a flood of memories before she ends her 10-year tenure in retirement.

That reminiscing for Mary Ellen Anable, executive director of the local American Red Cross, includes getting a call about flooding in Columbus the afternoon of June 7, 2008. She was busy that day in Brown County in the aftermath of significant damage from a tornado on June 3 when she hurried to Columbus to begin directing volunteers to establish emergency shelters.

Nearly 1,000 Columbus residents were displaced — and Anable herself found she was trapped late that Saturday afternoon by floodwaters that lapped within 5 feet of her eastside

Columbus office door. She made it to an emergency shelter at Columbus East High School late at night — only to find that building flooding. About 400 residents were forced to move overnight to another facility.

She made it home at 4 a.m. Monday for rest and a shower — with no complaints after more than 40 straight hours of work.

“I try to look at challenges as opportunities,” Anable said.

She has seen plenty of challenges as executive director of the local Red Cross chapter, a stint that will end with her June 25 retirement. The Columbus-based Red Cross is a nonprofit emergency and disaster assistance agency serving Bartholomew and five surrounding counties.

The 61-year-old Anable, who began full-time work at age 13 as a summer baby sitter in her native Kalamazoo, Michigan, has led the disaster-relief agency with energy and heart.

At a fire scene four years ago, she huddled in 15-degree weather to give a distraught homeowner a warm hug and hot chocolate, not to mention lodging options and other necessities.

When an anhydrous ammonia leak awakened and threatened Taylorsville residents before dawn one day four years ago, she was among the first to greet them at an Edinburgh church-turned-shelter — after driving through part of a chemical cloud — with breakfast snacks, assurances of safety and a smile.

What she considers her most embarrassing Red Cross moment might have been among her most touching.

An Indianapolis TV station did a live shot of her with Lucas Oil executive Forrest Lucas, a Columbus native, when the station discovered Lucas wanted to present the Red Cross with a check to help the 2008 local flood efforts. At the flood shelter, Anable was led to believe the check was a few thousand dollars, which she thought was terrific.

But when Lucas handed over the donation with the camera rolling, Anable glanced at the total — $50,000 — and froze. She was speechless for several seconds while a reporter’s microphone was thrust in front of her. When Anable assumed agency leadership, chapter funds had been hit by a string of relief efforts, so she knew to be grateful for out-of-the-blue financial boosts.

As Anable accepted Lucas’ check, another near-flood stole the scene — from tears in her eyes as she realized the hope it could give struggling residents.

In a halting, emotional voice, she said to Lucas, “The people of this county thank you so much.”

Sharing the credit

Anable loves to hear appreciation from clients but aims to remain low-key about her departure. She funnels credit for her agency’s disaster response, volunteer recruitment, you name it, to staff, board members and others. She accepts the spotlight but only if she can put the Red Cross’ mission center stage.

“I could be sitting somewhere like O’Hare Airport, and if you suddenly needed someone to address 400 people off the cuff about the American Red Cross, then I would be your girl and could easily do 55 minutes without a single note,” she said.

Anable always has been serious about her work. But her sense of humor is also evident on a sign above her office desk: “Be nice or leave.”

A banner on a side wall highlights a Helen Keller quote: “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.”

Amid all the Red Cross’ responsibilities — getting word to military members of a family emergency, storm follow-up, emergency shelters, CPR training, bringing a human touch to fire and related scenes — Anable said she realizes that one additional element stands as more significant.

“The most important thing you can do for people after a disaster is listen,” she said. “And listen. And listen some more. Because everyone has a story to tell. And they may need to tell it more than once.”

Dave Lynch, a Red Cross board member for all of Anable’s decade of service, calls her a great hand holder at disaster scenes and for more than just victims and family members. Lynch, a former volunteer firefighter, has seen her strongly persuade exhausted firefighters at scenes to take a seat, a breather and a bottle of water.

He also has seen her learn to look people in the eye and get tough the day after a blaze. Sometimes, unscrupulous residents have heard of Red Cross’ generosity for a fire family. So these people suddenly have shown up at Anable’s office, falsely saying that they also lived at the burned-out residence and need help.

“You should watch a professional like her protect the money donated to the agency by the good people of this community,” Lynch said. “She’s had to investigate and become a deputy sheriff.”

She’s also played encourager to people such as Amanda Blackburn, the Red Cross’ district disaster program specialist.

“What she has taught me goes well outside of just my disaster responsibilities,” Blackburn said, acknowledging she gets misty-eyed talking about Anable’s mentoring.

“She has always been so patient and calm with me when I go to her with questions and looking for advice. Mary Ellen has been available 24/7 for me to call her and get that question answered.”

The nurturer in Anable also readily surfaces when she pulls photo after photo off her desk or office shelf to proudly show off her grandchildren, to whom she is Nana.

The woman known to be both tough and tender swears that she will not cry at a small sendoff June 25 at the Red Cross office on Repp Drive. She will begin doubly a new life June 28 when she marries Columbus resident John Wyman, with whom she may travel briefly before deciding on life’s next segment in retirement.

“I feel so privileged,” she said repeatedly of the work she has shared with so many.

At her farewell, it’s a good bet that many others will tell her they feel quite the same about her.

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