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Tireless volunteer 'honored' to serve vets

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Raymond M. Fern, 79, of Bloomfield died Monday, Nov. 12, 2012.

Over the past 15 years, Raymond Fern went through treatment for several aggressive types of cancer, but he never stopped volunteering at veterans hospitals.

“He would go and see them the same day he had chemo. He just did not spend time thinking about himself,” said Janet Cercone Scullion, a longtime friend of Fern's and a retired VA nurse.

Raymond M. Fern, a lifelong Bloomfield resident, retired truck driver and Korean War veteran, died Monday Nov. 12, 2012. He was 79.

Over almost six decades, Mr. Fern spent at least 15,000 hours volunteering in Veterans Affairs hospitals in the Pittsburgh region. He did everything from organizing bingo games to going room to room to talk with hospital patients.

“He was a great listener. He was able to understand needs of veterans. He was low-key — not an attention seeker but an attention giver,” Scullion said.

Many residents of veterans hospitals have no family or have relatives who live some distance from them.

“They are the most forgotten people. We have people who have been in VA hospitals for 50 years and are separated from their families. Men like Ray Fern become their family. It gives meaning to their lives. It is a bonding experience,” Scullion said.

Mr. Fern served in the Air Force in Korea in 1953. He met his wife, Patti Donatelli, in 1956 in the Plaza Theater on Liberty Avenue, where she was selling popcorn and candy.

“I just thought he was cute. I was 18 when we got married. Everyone said it would not last. It lasted 56 years,” Patti Fern said.

She said her husband felt he got more of a benefit from volunteering at the VA than the residents did from him being there.

“He said they made him feel so fortunate. He really felt honored that he could meet them,” she said.

In 2006, Mr. Fern became the International Supreme Commander of the United States Military Order of the Cootie, a nonprofit organization devoted to service in veterans hospitals.

Mr. Fern was a member of the Korean War Veterans, the VFW, the American Legion, Merchant Marines, Knights of Equity and Catholic War Veterans. He was a constable in the city from 1995 to 1998.

He served on the board of directors of the Bloomfield Preservation and Heritage Society and served on several committees of the Bloomfield Citizens Council. He was on the board of directors of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum from 1997 to 2006. He served as hospital chairman for Sharing and Caring, Pittsburgh.

In addition to his wife, Patti, Mr. Fern is survived by his daughter, Ilona Fern Grenzig, also of Bloomfield, and by one grandson, Matthew Grenzig.

Family and friends will be received from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Walter J. Zalewski Funeral Home, 216 44th St. in Lawrenceville.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Maria Goretti Parish, 300 Edmond St. in Friendship.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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