A Santa with a mother's heart
A Santa with a mother's heart
Her local newspaper describes Genevieve Riis as "the all-season Santa Claus." But to the vets at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Veterans' Hospital in Montrose, N.Y., where she has logged 25,000 volunteer hours, she's simply known as "Ma."
That's because 43 years ago Gen Riis lost her heart to the men and women serving in World War II, and afterward, to hospitalized veterans of all wars. And it turned out her heart was large enough to embrace many others.
It began when her son Richard joined the Army infantry in 1943. Genevieve had been widowed when her husband died in a car crash at the age of 21, leaving her to make a life for herself and their small son. When her only child became Pvt. Riis, Gen made a covenant with God. If Richard returned safely, she would devote her life to helping others.
Richard wen to Officer Candidate School; fought in Europe, was wounded twice and awarded the Purple Heart. He was on his way to the Pacific theater of operations in 1945 when peace was declared. Discharged as a colonel, Richard went to college, obtained a master's degree in education, and taught in Redding, Calif., where he rose through the system to become superintendent of schools.
Meantime, "Ma" Riis had undertaken her own war project. She joined her Harrison, N.Y. chapter of the American War Mothers, and was elected president. Richard and some other hometown soldiers asked her to write to men in their outfits who never received any mail.
By war's end, she was writing to 250 soldiers and marines, and sending them boxes of homemade cookies or candy-along with clipping from the local newspapers reporting on the whereabouts and doings of area servicemen.
Denis Donovan remembers Mrs. Riis well. He was about 10 when he was first sent on an errand to her tiny apartment during World War II. He found the floors covered with packages waiting to be shipped, so he pitched in to help.
Now a New York Supreme Country Justice, Donovan (like hundreds of others, their children and even their grandchildren), is still remembered each year with a birthday card from "Ma" Riis. This past June, he acknowledged her card with a letter that read in part:
"There are only two signatures I have ever saved-yours, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta's."
Inevitably, one of Harrison's fighting men became a prisoner of war. Mrs. Riis' letters and packages helped sustain Daniel Angarano for two years, until his release. After the war, Angarano became chairman of the annual fund-raising drive conducted by the Harrison Lions' Club to help Gen carry out her hospital work in Montrose.
Even before the nearby Montrose VA hospital opened in 1950, "Ma" Riis "adopted" by mail a ward of patients in the more distant Sunmount facility, since disbanded. She thought she was adopting 10 patients, but was shocked to discover there were 55 men in her ward. This meant sending hundreds of treats, birthday cards and "all the things a family member might send."
Once the Montrose hospital opened, the Red Cross provided a station wagon to transport Gen every Wednesday. The patients were always up early on Wednesday, because they knew that Gen would be waiting on the sidewalk, surrounded by cartons of food, clothing, and books. Often, she'd hitch a second or third weekly ride.
She has lived 55 years in the same apartment, with windows overlooking the Metro North commuter tracks. During the war, freight trains moved over these same rails, carrying servicemen.
"I could look out my window and see the soldiers on those trains," Gen reminisced recently, "and I would suddenly start to cry, wondering where they were going, and if they would ever come back. I said a prayer for all of them."
About 20 individuals and civic groups have been faithful sponsors of Gen's picnics and parties for the vets over the years. However, if ever funds were low, they were augmented from Gen's own pocket.
Magazine article about Genevieve "Ma" Riis.
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“A Santa with a mother's heart,” Harrison Remembers, accessed May 29, 2023, https://www.harrisonpl.org/harrison-remembers/items/show/395.