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American Red Cross: Director retiring after 15 years of service

George Stowe relaxes at home with Smokey, one of the family cats. Stowe has retired after 15 years as director of the North Star Chapter of the American Red Cross. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

George Stowe came to Minnesota to coach the Bemidji State University women's volleyball team.

He has stayed in Bemidji to lead the local chapter of the American Red Cross from a small volunteer outfit to an organization serving all of northwestern Minnesota.

Now, after 15 years of transforming the chapter into a professional organization and expanding the response area to nine counties as the North Star Chapter, Stowe has decided to retire for health reasons.

"The man was dedicated to the Red Cross," said Richard Lehmann, Bemidji mayor and local Red Cross board chairman. "The Red Cross was his life. He worked harder than anyone could imagine. Although he's retired, it's still his passion."

Lehmann said the board will meet March 17 with the state Red Cross director and decide how to move forward.

Stowe has earned several awards such as the 1997 Minnesota Volunteer of the Year and the 2000 Tiffany Award for excellence in management. But Stowe said the key to the chapter's success has been the support of the community and Red Cross board of directors.

"They set the example - I steered the ship," he said.

Stowe, 58, earned his Junior Red Cross First Aid card in 1963. He was serving on the local Red Cross board in 1995 when the chapter members decided to open an office in Bemidji for the Beltrami County Chapter.

"While Bemidji has been served by Red Cross since 1917, the chapter operated out of volunteers' homes," he said.

Stowe said he had been terminated as a coach because of "inadequate progress," so he volunteered as Red Cross director and to man the new office at 310 Fourth St. N.W.

"I wasn't doing anything, so I volunteered," he said. "We opened the office with a folding table and a folding chair and a borrowed computer."

The fixed assets were one training mannequinand $1,414. After two years as volunteer director, the board hired Stowe as a paid, full-time employee. Since then, the budget has grown to $280,000 and extended coverage to eight other northwest Minnesota counties covering about 11,000 square miles.

Local major disaster responses included 1997 Winter Storm Hannah and the subsequent 1997 Red River Flood. Stowe said the flood was the chapter's most extensive relief work because the North Dakota chapters that would normally have helped out in northwestern Minnesota couldn't get across the river.

He said the most traumatic response effort was the 2005 Red Lake High School shooting "because we knew people who were involved."

He added that the Red Lake disaster was also the most uplifting in some ways.

"The greatest gift I received was being able to observe the human spirit overcome adversity and triumph over tragedy," he said. "I have the greatest admiration for the people of the Red Lake Nation. The dignity and support of one another was inspiring."

The North Star Chapter also helped people during various local floods, dealt with victims of more than 500 house fires, made more than 1,000 military calls and trained more than 70,000 people in first aid and CPR.

He recalled a student in one of his Bemidji State University first-aid courses running to him on campus and hugging him and repeating "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

He said he asked her what she was thanking him for: "She said, 'Last quarter I took your class. Last night I saved my baby's life.'"

Stowe and his wife, Pam, who teaches early childhood education at Northwest Technical College, have four grown children, who are also highly involved in the community. He has served on the Bemidji Township Planning and Zoning Board, several state Red Cross councils and committees and is currently a member of the Voyageurs Expeditionary High School Board and the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Powers Commission. He is an adjunct faculty member at BSU teaching anatomy and physiology.

"I never saw myself as working for Red Cross," Stowe said looking back on his years of service. "I worked with the Red Cross for the people. My job was working for my neighbors within the structure of the Red Cross."