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Friends Remember Col. Gerald Russell's Contribution to Country, Community

by on February 26, 2014 5:45 AM

Friends of retired U.S. Marine Col. Gerald S. Russell, one of two surviving battalion commanders during Iwo Jima, remember him as a kind, giving man.

John Padula, 92, became friends with Russell at Brookline Village, a retirement home where the two resided. Both Marines, World War II veterans, graduates of colleges in Boston and members of Our Lady of Victory Church, the men bonded while dining together each day.

Russell, who served in the Marines during World War II, died Monday after a brief illness. He was 97.

"He was a very great person. Reaching out to his family, his love of family. He was a great hero. Oh my, just amazing," says Padula. "All the things he did for humanity, for the community, after he retired, he did so much for the community."

While dining together, Padula had the opportunity to meet Russell's children and friends, like Sue Paterno, who volunteered with Russell for the Special Olympics.

"I got to know his background, I got to know his family," Padula says. "What I remember about him, he was just a great human being, he had a love of humanity, community."

Anissa Ilie, spokeswoman for Brookline Village, also got to know Russell over the last several years.

"When I first met him, I remember how distinguished, and even intimidating, he was. He was an individual who commanded a lot of respect," Ilie says. "But soon after getting to know him, I also found what a gentle, caring, genuine man he was. He was just a great guy. Very giving to the community, to his family and his friends."

After graduating from Boston College, Russell enlisted in the Marines. His military career included deployments on Guadalcanal, where he was wounded and contracted malaria, and at Iwo Jima, where he fought for all 36 days of that horrific battle. He was responsible for 1,000 troops and was one of the youngest battalion commanders in World War II.

Russell retired from the Marines in 1968 after 30 years of service. Afterward, he came to Penn State where he became assistant and speech writer to Penn State President John Oswald with co-appointment as assistant secretary to the board of trustees. In 1973, he was promoted to assistant professor and dean of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation College. He was promoted to associate dean in 1977 and held that position until he retired in 1987.

Russell was involved in various community programs including Toys for Tots and the Pennsylvania Special Olympics, holding various leadership roles.

Al Matyasovsky, a program manager at Penn State, got to know Russell, in part, as the result of the recycling program he created at Beaver Stadium, which benefits the United Way.

"The colonel approached me and congratulated me on the idea and we became fast friends," says Matyasovsky.

Over the last two decades, the two had dinner together often and supported the Special Olympics together.

"He was such a wonderful man, and I so valued him as a friend and a mentor. And I learned so much from the colonel," he says. "The thing that I really admired in the colonel was he really had a resume to die for, but he never bragged about it. When he met people he wanted to learn about them. He was a kind man, a gentlemen. ... He was always hopeful in the spirit of man ... that if we treated people well, we would be better for it."

Russell's accomplishments also includes helping to start the annual Centre County United Way Day of Caring, during which people representing area businesses, schools, service organizations and Penn State spend a day helping out non-profits, historical sites and municipal organizations.

"For as many amazing things as this man accomplished in his life he was always very humble and always concerned about others," Ilie says. "He was just very humble about it and cared about other people."

Tammy Gentzel, executive director for the Centre County United Way, says Russell's legacy will be his dedication to service.

"We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Col. Russell. He was an honorable and brave man who committed countless hours to making our world a better place," Gentzel said in a statement. "His love for our community will live on each year in the Day of Caring, an event he started 20 years ago. His service to our country and to Centre County is a remarkable legacy."

Russell received a track scholarship at Boston College. He was also the first alternate for the 1940 U.S. Olympic Team in the 800 meters race.

"He ran a great race, he crossed the finish line, and now he's in God's hands," says Padula.

A viewing will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday. A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church on Westerly Parkway in State College.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania. Click HERE to visit the organization's website.

Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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