by BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Florence Sarles was working the early afternoon shift at Princeton Community Hospital on Dec. 20, 1970 ... the community hospital’s first day of operation.
“They used a hearse to transport 46 patients from the old Mercer Memorial Hospital to the new hospital,” Sarles said. “Margaret Horton started early and helped patients make the move from the old hospital. I started working at 1 p.m.”
For the purposes of this article, Sarles’ ongoing commitment as a volunteer at PCH has been an important part of her life for the past 43 years, but in terms of service to family, community and nation her life has been steeped in history and filled with adventure.
“I was a member of the Massachusetts Women’s Defense League before I joined the Navy,” Sarles, 89, said during an interview last week in her Princeton home. “We were going to guard the houses along the Charles River. We didn’t have any guns. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I did have a gun. I wanted to be patriotic.”
Like most Americans, Sarles wanted to do her part to serve her country when the U.S. entered World War II. She explained that at the time, young ladies under the age of 21 could not volunteer for service in the military without the approval of their parents — and her father, George Cook, was opposed to her entering the military.
During her first 10 years, Sarles’ family moved around quite a bit. “My father was a private butler for a very wealthy lady,” she said, adding that the family lived in several nice homes during that period. She said that in addition to living in several homes in Boston and surrounding areas, the family lived at homes in South Carolina, Georgia, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Maine, just to name a few.
Her father’s employer died in 1934, and the family settled at a home in Brookline, Mass., a Boston suburb. “For the next 11 years, I spent all of my time in Brookline.” She said that on Oct. 20, 1944, the day before her 21st birthday, George Cook signed for his daughter to enter the US Navy as a WAVE — Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service.
“After I enlisted, I went to storekeeper’s school in Millersville, Ga.,” Sarles said. She trained for that post for three months, and after she and her 55 fellow WAVES completed their training they were given the choice of going to Miami, California, Norfolk or Cleveland.
“I found out that only two were to go to California or Florida, so I asked for Norfolk, and was sent to Cleveland,” she said. “They needed staff in photography so I worked with micro-photography at first, but then they put me on tracing the records of sailors to make sure they had their insurance premiums paid up. I also checked to see if they were keeping their payments up on their war bonds. A lot of sailors bought war bonds back then.”
During her tour in Cleveland, she met her future husband Raymond S. Sarles. “He was an apprentice seaman and I was a first class petty officer,” she said. The two were stationed at bases that were 13 miles apart, but after they got out of the Navy in the summer of 1946, their romance blossomed and they married.
“Raymond decided to get into forestry,” Florence Sarles said. “He went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mich., where he got his undergraduate and master’s degrees. Florence worked as a bookkeeper for Thermos when the family was living in Ann Arbor. He went to Iowa State College to teach in the forestry department, but that all ended when the Korean War started, and the newest recruits to the department got cut off.” The family relocated to Wooster, Ohio, where Raymond worked at the Ohio State University forestry experiment station.
In the meantime, Raymond and Florence Sarles started their family. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born in Ann Arbor in 1950, while their second child, a son, Randolph, was born in 1952, in Wooster. Raymond changed jobs and started working as a trouble shooter for Homelite, a company that produced home generators as well as their popular line of chain saws. Eventually, he was appointed to head up a 13-state region for Homelite, and was stationed in Elgin, Ill. The Sarles family was living in Elgin when daughter, Margaret was born in 1956.
According to Florence Sarles, the family lived in Illinois for two and one-half years, then moved to Omaha, Neb., where Raymond served as district manager for Homelite for the next six years.
“My husband said he wanted to get back into forestry,” Sarles said. “He applied for an opening here at the Forest Products Marketing Laboratory in Gardner, and we came here in March 1964. Don Cuppett Sr. hired Raymond. He loved working for Don.”
The Sarles family rented a home in Princeton for six years before buying a home and putting down roots. “We’re now going on the 40th year here,” she said, making reference to the fact that she and her children still reside in the area. Raymond Sarles passed away on Sept. 24, 1997.
By the time their daughter, Margaret, was in high school, Florence started volunteering at PCH. She counted hours throughout her career, and can now report with pride that all of the volunteers of PCH donated a combined 932,351 hours to the hospital between 1970 and 2012.
“I am no longer able to push wheelchairs,” Sarles said, however, she continues to work tirelessly to bring new volunteers into the fold. “If you write anything in this article, please try to encourage more people to get involved as volunteers. We need volunteers in every level. Volunteers can really make a difference.”
Anyone familiar with PCH knows that the hospital volunteers have maintained a significant presence through the years to assist patients and visitors and to operate the gift shop. However, the volunteers have also raised funds to make significant improvements to the hospital.
“Our first big project was to raise funds to put in another elevator at the hospital,” Sarles said. “Back then, PCH only had one elevator, and there was often a long wait for patients and visitors. I baked pound cakes for my specialty, but we all made things to sell at bake sales. That was 1973. We bought a new Ford Pinto from Andy Clark so we could raffle it off.
“When the time came for us to go pick it up, I was the one who went down to get it,” Sarles said. “Years had passed since the last time I drove a car with a clutch. I put it in first gear, went out on Courthouse Road and drove it all the way home without changing a gear. We raised $35,000 on that raffle for ‘Operation Big Lift.’ We raised enough to build the elevator.”
Sarles worked on several successful committees. She was on the Chapel Committee and traveled to Blenko Glass to see the stained glass possibilities. She served on several other committees.
“In the 1990s, the director of volunteer services nominated me as the Volunteer of Southeast West Virginia,” Sarles said. “I was selected and that was a great honor for me. In December, I will have been a volunteer at PCH for 43 years. As of 1996, we had donated $789,497.17 for the Health and Fitness Center as well as $200,000 for the chapel. We have been raising about $10,000 a month for the hospital.”
Of course, it wasn’t all just work and volunteer service for the Sarles family. In 1973, Raymond Sarles was asked to present a paper in South Africa. “It was a wonderful experience for us to travel to South Africa,” she said. “We were there for three weeks, and all of our bus, train and plane travel was first class. We stayed in five-star hotels. Spouses didn’t always travel with their wives, but my husband said he wouldn’t travel without me.”
Rather than fly straight back to the United States, Sarles said her husband took a four-week vacation so he could travel with his wife in Africa and Europe. “We stopped in Nigeria, and you wouldn’t believe the people who were on the plane with us. It was so interesting.” She said that when they flew to Rome, they had to avoid flying through Algerian air space and after visiting Rome, they went to Switzerland and traveled on to Paris where Florence Sarles celebrated her 50th birthday.
“Oh, I get so excited just thinking about it,” Sarles said. “We crossed over from France to England on a hover craft.” The Sarles stayed at Harlaxton Manor, and had to climb 75 steps to get to their room. They spent four days in Ireland where they rode in carts and saw 150-year-old rhododendron plants that were as big as trees.
“I said: ‘Ray, come out and see these trees that have flowers with so many beautiful colors,” she said.
But even after her husband passed on, Florence continues to travel. About three years ago, she and her daughter Margaret (Choate) traveled to Boston to visit her old neighborhood. “At the end of 1944, the city had planted trees in the parkway between the street and sidewalk where we lived in Brookline,” Sarles said. “They are 50 feet tall now.”
At the time, Sarles didn’t know it, but Margaret (Maggie) Choate had contacted the present owners and asked if it would be OK to visit. “A young woman came to the door, greeted us and said: ‘Come on in,’” Sarles said. “I thought to myself: ‘This is Boston?’ But she was very nice and even told us how much the house is worth now.
“My dad paid $6,000 for it in 1927, and five years ago, it was worth $980,000,” Sarles said. “I can’t believe that land is that scarce.”
Along with her volunteer work at the hospital, Sarles served as a Red Cross volunteer for 35 years, and worked the polls for county, state and national elections. “Please write that we need more volunteers at the hospital. There is always a need for volunteers,” she said.