Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring Participants in the Retired Senior Volunteer Program

April 26, 1985

The President. Welcome to the White House. Since Monday, we've been observing National Volunteer Week. And in the past few days, it's been my pleasure to meet different groups of volunteers. Yesterday, it was over a hundred fifty youngsters. It was enjoyable, but I have to admit I've been looking forward to today. Now I get a chance to meet some kids of my own age. [Laughter]

Allow me to begin with a story; and it's a true story. This past February in New Mexico, a school bus in the Navajo Head Start program got stuck in the mud. Inside were the driver, Willie Castillo, a woman who often served as a volunteer, and 10 preschool children. As Willie tried to free the vehicle, he smelled smoke. And a moment later, he saw flames. Willie shouted at the children and began to clear them from the bus. The volunteer remained calm and helped Willie carry to safety several of the smallest children, including one little girl who was sound asleep.

As the flames spread, Willie returned to the bus to make a final check and found a 3-year-old boy who couldn't unfasten his seatbelt. Willie freed the belt, scooped the boy up in his arms, threw him from the bus, then jumped clear himself. In an instant, the gas tank exploded, and the bus was engulfed by flames.

Willie and the volunteer had saved the lives of 10 children. The volunteer had also proved that heroes need not be young. You see, she was Willie's grandmother. Her name is Mae Chee Castillo, and she happens to be 72 years old.

Since my Navajo is a little rough, I'm sticking to English, and Mae is supposed to be listening to me through an interpreter.

Willie and Mae Castillo, thank you both for being so brave. And, Mae, thanks for showing that folks at our age still have plenty of spunk. [Laughter]

But the voluntarism that Mae Castillo and each of you represents has deep roots in American history. Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, discusses the topic in his book, ``The Americans, The National Experience.'' ``Groups moving westward,'' he writes, ``organized into communities in order to conquer the great distances, to help one another. They dared not wait for government to establish its machinery. If the services that elsewhere were performed by governments were to be performed at all, it would have to be by private initiative.''

Helping out became an American habit. Americans helped to rebuild a neighbor's barn when it burned down and then formed a volunteer fire department so it wouldn't burn down again.

I have to interject here, one of my favorite stories, back in an earlier day, when we began -- all of us who came or our ancestors from someplace else -- revisiting the motherlands of all of us, there was an elderly couple visiting in Italy, and they were looking at that great volcano there, and the guide was telling them of the terrible power that it had and the great heat that it generated and everything else. And the old boy said to his wife, ``Hell, we've got a volunteer fire department at home, put that thing out in 15 minutes.'' [Laughter]

But in that early day, those people harvested the next fellow's crops when he was ill. They raised school funds at quilting bees and church socials. After earthquakes and floods, we took it for granted that our neighbors would be there.

At the end of World War II, however, our volunteer efforts began to wane. Government was growing, and step by step, it took over tasks that used to be performed by towns, churches and synagogues, neighbors and families.

Why should I get involved? -- people asked. Let the government handle it. Well, this growth of government began to undermine our sense of self-reliance and erode our individual rights. No one understood this better than President John F. Kennedy.

Only by doing the work ourselves, he reminded us, can we hope to maintain the authority of the people over the state to ensure that the people remain the master and the state the servant.

``Everytime we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders,'' he said, ``and shift it to the government, to that same extent, we are sacrificing the liberties of the people.''

One of the chief aims of our administration has been to reemphasize the vital contributions which individuals, families, and private organizations make to our community life. As we've done so, we've begun to see a rebirth of the volunteer spirit. Today thousands of new private sector initiatives are making life better for millions.

According to a Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who volunteer their time has reached 92 million -- well over half our adult population. As volunteer efforts multi-ply, older Americans are playing a central role. Perhaps the most significant volunteer work by older Americans is that represented by the group to which each of you belongs -- the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, RSVP.

Founded in 1969, RSVP today has more than 700 projects coordinating the volunteer efforts of some 350,000 older Americans. RSVP projects are community-planned, controlled, and supported. And the RSVP program itself generates more than $7 worth of services for every Federal dollar that is spent.

Let me tell you about a few of the RSVP members with us today -- people who demonstrate the kind of volunteer work that our senior citizens are providing across the country.

Chester Turner, 77, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chester is deaf, but that doesn't stop him; not by a longshot. Each week, Chester visits the residents of a nursing home and those of a home for mentally retarded and handicapped children. In his own home, a senior citizen highrise, Chester acts as a handyman. Chester Turner, for making such a difference in the lives of so many, I thank you.

In Jamestown, New York, Dorothy Brooks is a professional pianist. Once a week Dorothy puts on a vaudeville show at a nursing home, a psychiatric center for the local VA hospital, where she has been volunteering for 41 years. Dorothy happens to be 82, and that makes her one of the few people around who can call me ``Sonny.'' [Laughter]

Dorothy Brooks, thank you and may you keep your show on the road for many years to come.

Fred Bonanno, 74, lives in Deerfield Beach, Florida, and volunteers nearly full time as a counselor at the Fort Lauderdale Vietnam Veterans Hospital. Fred has a particular bond with the veterans of the war in Vietnam -- his son was killed there. With immense courage, Fred has transformed his grief into gifts of kindness and understanding, helping Vietnam veterans come to grips with their lives a decade after the war itself came to an end. Fred, no President can pay you higher honor than to simply say: Your son would have been proud of you.

One member of RSVP has a national reputation. His name is Harry Morgan, and he is in his seventies. And Harry has been acting for decades on stage, screen, and television. Harry, you've been well known to all of us over the years, first in ``December Bride'' and then in ``Pete and Gladys'' and then in ``Dragnet,'' but it's for your ``M*A*S*H'' performance as Colonel Potter -- irascible, lovable Colonel Potter -- for which I suspect you will be best remembered.

And, Harry, you volunteered for the John Meekum Microsurgery Institute, served as a spokesman for the National Arthritis Foundation, and used your M*A*S*H role to draw attention to veterans' needs, making public service announcements and speaking at benefits and charities. Recently you were named honorary chairman of RSVP, a new and challenging role. And, Harry, I want to present you with a certificate of appreciation for accepting the honorary chairmanship and offer you my personal congratulations.

Mr. Morgan. Thank you, Mr. President. I will just put that down there and hope it doesn't break.

Thank you, Mr. President. That's a very great honor, and I am going to do my best to live up to it.

Now, I am going to spring a little teaser on you. You are probably not used to these. I have been in the Oval Office many, many more times than just this morning. And I once lived in the White House for 4 days in the Presidential quarters. Well, before I get arrested, I had better tell you that NBC did a sort of a maxiseries called ``Backstairs at the White House,'' and I played President Truman. [Laughter] But you've got a better set than we had, and we didn't have a Rose Garden. But then they never promised us a rose garden.

Now, if I could just take a few minutes to establish my credentials as a senior citizen by way of, I think, kind of a cute story. Years ago -- and not so many years ago -- when Prince Charles was visiting America -- of course, eventually he came to Hollywood, and they had a big luncheon for him in the commissary at Twentieth Century Fox. Well, practically every star in Hollywood was there, including Henry Fonda, who was an old friend of mine going back to summer stock days, and we hadn't seen one another in a long time, so we had a lot to talk about.

Well, in the commissary the people were seated at a U-shaped table, and Fonda and I were down here like this, and Shirley Fonda was seated next to Charlton Heston, some distance away, and she saw Fonda and me talking animatedly and she said to Heston, ``Harry was in Henry's first picture.'' And Heston said to Shirley, ``Harry was in everybody's first picture.'' [Laughter] Which wasn't really true.

You know, President Reagan, you and I did a picture together. Thirty-four years ago, in 1954, the President and I were in a picture called ``Prisoner of War,'' which was about some American soldiers who had been captured by the North Koreans and put in a prison camp. It wasn't the President's first picture, and it wasn't my first picture. It could have been our last. [Laughter] It wasn't, but even if it had been, it wouldn't have mattered because at least one of us would have found something else to do. [Laughter]

Just to finish this up, maybe on a little more serious note, which is what this is all about, after all: I was in M*A*S*H for 8 years, and I think that that is probably the reason that I am standing here. I've often said that being in M*A*S*H made me a better actor, but that's not very important. Something else it did, it made me a better human being, and I think maybe a little of Colonel Potter rubbed off on me. Thank you.

I have one very delightful task to perform. Mrs. Castillo and her son -- her grandson -- I beg your pardon -- Willie have a little presentation to make to the President.

Mrs. Castillo. Mr. President, I am honored and grateful to be here at this recognition ceremony. My grandson Willie and I were very fortunate to remove these children from the bus before it burst into flames. I risked my life to save these children because the children are the future of the Navajo Nation. I have traveled a great distance to be with you today. I see these children as my own children, and I want the best educational opportunities for them. Likewise, as an elderly, I see the many unmet needs of other Native American elderly, who do not have the basic necessities of life such as food, housing, electricity, water, and health care. I plead with you to recognize the needs of Native American children and elderly. Among the many needs we have are educational facilities, hospitals, senior citizen services, and policies for the aged.

We need to continue current levels of economic benefits such as Social Security, since many, many Native American elderly depend on this support for their only source of income.

We need funds for these services that I have mentioned because in the Indian country there is little or no private sector. I ask for your support and understanding, Mr. President.

We have no roads. The roads where I live are not paved. In your position, please help us. In appreciation for your recognition of my grandson, my tribe, and I, I am honored to present this robe to you to show my respect and heartfelt thanks.

The President. Thank you very much. And, Mrs. Castillo, I would like to say that I think most of those things that you were talking about here, those problems, come under what we have called the safety net and which we intend to continue. Even with regard to our battles to lower the deficit, these things will not be done away with or reduced. I thank you, and I'm very proud to have this Navajo blanket.

And to each of you out there, you're heroes of selflessness, making America better and warmer by allowing others to benefit from the wisdom of your lifetimes. So, on behalf of all Americans, thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:45 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. Mrs. Castillo spoke in Navajo, and her remarks were translated by an interpreter.