For 73 Years, USO Volunteer Was Always There For Troops and Families

By Sandi Moynihan

From whipping up last-minute meals to driving 75 miles to Syracuse, New York, in the middle of the night to welcome a lone service member home, no task was too great for Mary Parry, so long as it benefitted the troops.

“She went out of her way to do a lot of things that I thought [were] a little risky,” said Barbara Webber, a Watertown resident and longtime friend of Parry’s. “And she did it on her own. “She just … loved soldiers, I suppose.”

Parry’s love for the military community started in 1941 when she signed up to volunteer at her hometown USO.

“The fellas were all joining the military,” Parry, a Geneva, New York, native, said in a 2008 American Profile story. “So we thought, ‘Hey, we’ll go down there and dance. What else are we gonna do?’ Were we in for a rude awakening.”

Parry, who was 18 when she first served at the Sampson Naval Base’s USO at Seneca Lake, New York, quickly learned volunteering at the USO meant much more than dancing with service members. She ended up serving meals, writing letters and consoling soldiers who were missing loved ones back home.

Parry realized she had a passion for serving the military community and continued volunteering at various USO centers in upstate New York after World War II. In the 1950s, Mary, and husband, Walter Parry, moved to Watertown, New York, where she took it upon herself to run the USO Council of Watertown out of her home after the official downtown USO building closed.

Photo credit Army photo

Mary Parry speaks during the 2010 Women’s History Month observance at Fort Drum, New York.

“Mary was that kind of person,” Webber said. “She liked being involved in community organizations and she especially had a certain love for military people, so she enjoyed doing the work that she did.”

Perry organized scores of events—like cookouts—for troops and families over the years. But lower-profile actions like welcoming the troops—even if it was just her doing the welcoming—became legendary in the upstate New York military community.

“She went to all the welcome homes, it didn’t matter if it was at three o’clock in the morning,” said Marsha Anderson, who knew Parry for several years. “If that plane landed at three o’clock in the morning she was there. She would get up and go to all of it.”

Parry also regularly headed to the Syracuse airport, the largest commercial airport near Fort Drum, to pick up soldiers and drive them back to base if they didn’t have a ride—even if it was just one soldier. Parry’s daughter, Barbara Miller, said her mother loved every moment she spent volunteering for the USO.

“The USO was her life. It was totally her life,” Miller said last year. For several decades, Parry led the USO Council of Watertown out of her home until 2007, when the USO re-opened its doors on nearby Fort Drum. In 2008, after the center underwent a series of renovations, Parry was invited to help cut the ribbon at the grand reopening ceremony.

What Mary Parry did for the USO Fort Drum was provide inspiration to our volunteers,” USO Fort Drum Director Karen Clark wrote in an email. “Her lifetime of selfless service motivated young military spouse volunteers to continue their volunteer work wherever the Army sent them.

Parry continued her volunteer mission with the USO until October 2014, when she moved to a nursing home in Canton, Ohio.

Serving the Community

Aside from her lifetime of service to the USO, Parry was also active in a number of Watertown community organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Rotary Club of Watertown and the American Red Cross.

“She was passionate and caring and selfless,” said Jeff Wood, who knew Parry during his childhood and later through his work as a Rotarian. “She just gave of herself to make the world a better place.”

Jane Gendron, the American Red Cross North Country Chapter executive director, still remembers meeting Parry as a young woman.

“She was such a positive role model for someone young and someone who had never really volunteered for anything,” Gendron wrote in an email. “Her attitude and willingness to share her knowledge made her one of the best mentors I have ever had.”

Anderson, who also worked with Parry at the Rotary Club of Watertown, similarly recalls Parry’s upbeat attitude and willingness to help anyone in need, especially if they were affiliated with the military.

“She was very passionate in everything she did,” Anderson said. “Mary was just a very loving person, and eager to help anybody and she was always there for the soldiers and their families.”

Mary Parry and Dave Clark dancing thru the decades at a Throw Back Thursday event.

Parry also worked at the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce and eventually served as the executive vice president of the organization. The chamber even named a conference room after her.

‘She Always Had a Laugh and a Smile’

Parry died April 11, just six months after leaving Watertown. She was 91. “The Watertown community was very sad to learn of Mary’s passing,” Clark said.

Although she left behind family and friends who will dearly miss her energy and bright smile, Parry will live on in those who remember her giving and determined spirit.

“If I had a memory of who she was, she always had a laugh and a smile, no matter what she did,” Wood said. “And I think that kind of rubbed off on a lot of people and made it much easier to work with her and to get things done.”

“Everybody fell in love with Mary,” Anderson said.

—Sandi Moynihan is a USO multimedia journalist.This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.