A lifetime of service and caring: Interview with Marla Patterson

Marla PattersonFor Commander Marla Patterson ('73, Nursing), service and caring for others has been a common thread throughout her life. Marla grew up in Billings, the oldest of six children. She joined the Civil Air Patrol at 13, and the served as a Citizen Patrol at 21. At 23, after earning her nursing degree at MSU, Marla joined the U.S. Navy as an OR nurse. She ultimately retired as a full Commander after more than 28 years of service.

In June, Marla worked with the MSU Alumni Foundation to document a bequest in her living trust. The gift, valued at $66,000, will be directed to the College of Nursing.

"I hope the money will give more young people the opportunity to go to college, and give them the skills to make the most of their life," said Marla of her gift.

Marla is now an active MSU Alumni Association member with the Puget Sound chapter. She lives in Arlington, Washington.

In a recent interview, Marla reflected on the Air Force nurse who inspired her career, her lifetime of service to others, and a memorable win for the lady Bobcats basketball team.

On pursuing a degree at MSU.

It was quite simple. I was the oldest of six children, and I had to go to an in-state school to be able to afford to go at all. However, MSU's Nursing School had a great reputation, even back then. I didn't think I was giving up anything to stay close to home.

On a memorable experience from her travels around the world.

Watching the sunrise over the Serengeti game preserve in Tanzania from a hot air balloon!

On a personal accomplishment that reflects her values.

My service with Habitat for Humanity. I have been a builder for 14 years and served as the VP of Construction for six years. We are currently working on the 14th house I have been involved with.

On the person who inspired her career.

In the summer of 1967 I was planning a career as a math and PE teacher and coach. But, I attended a Civil Air Patrol flying encampment to receive my Private Glider License. While there, I fell off a jeep, got a concussion and spent a lot of time with the camp nurse, an Air Force Reserve Major named Skip Passuti. I so admired her that I decided to become a nurse. She went on to be the commanding officer of all Reserve Air Force nurses in the Western Region, and we were in regular communication until her death five years ago. I never regretted the life change.

On service and caring for others.

Caring for others has always been a part of my life, beginning with my Mom when I was seven years old. She had a back fusion at a time when that procedure put you in a body cast and bed rest for six months. I was the oldest, and my two younger siblings were sent to Grandma's, but I was in school, in first grade, and stayed to help Mom. I would come home at lunch and help her up to the bathroom and fix lunch. Then, I would help start dinner until my Dad got home from work.

At age 13, I joined the Civil Air Patrol and spent the next 40 years helping with community projects, teaching and learning first aid and survival skills, and searching for downed aircraft or drowning victims in the river. I stood by for whatever natural disaster might arise.

At age 21, I was a member of the Sheriff's Posse, doing Citizen Patrol to help make our neighborhoods safer.

At age 23, I was commissioned at Ensign, Nurse Corps, United States Navy. I spent the next 28 years helping with humanitarian missions that included bringing everyone out of Saigon in 1975; counseling sailors who were still suffering from the Vietnam fallout; and taking the best possible care of our sailors and Marines. I spent 20 years in surgery in the Operating Room. During my last eight years I helped with a variety of administrative positions, including serving as Special Assistant to the Executive Officer for Strategic Planning.

On her favorite MSU memories.

Because of the way the nursing program was back then, my time at MSU was rather disjointed, and I wasn't able to be involved in the campus activities as I would have liked. But, I absolutely treasure my freshman year when I was a member of the lady Bobcats basketball team. I most recall a bus trip, that included picking up that "other" team in Missoula, and driving out to the Northwest Regional finals at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle. We finished second in the tournament to a Vancouver team—who all seemed six feet tall—it still brings a smile to my face.

My fondest memories are learning to ski at Bridger Bowl, sledding, using a lighter to unfreeze the tap (so you can pour one more beer), and the friendly camaraderie of the Newman Parish.

And, of course, who could forget being the only girl in the dish room of the cafeteria at Culbertson Hall. I worked my way to the top job, which was unloading clean dishes—it involved big gloves, hot dishes and being fast enough to not stop the continuous feeding belt—oh yeah, and no breaking dishes either!

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