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Loved Ones Remember Col. Russell, a War Hero and Community Leader

by on February 27, 2014 1:34 PM

Family and friends gathered Thursday morning to remember the life of retired U.S. Marine Col. Gerald S. Russell, a World War II hero and community leader.

Russell died Monday. He was 97.

During a Catholic funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victory Church, loved ones remembered Russell's decorated military record and his service to the State College community once retiring from the Marines.

Brent Pasquinelli described Russell as a family man and a man of faith.

"You've heard the term 'full of life,' his life was overflowing,'" Pasquinelli says.

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. As battalion commander, he was responsible for 1,000 troops and was one of the youngest battalion commanders in World War II.

"We don't shape life, life experiences shape us as individuals," Pasquinelli says. "He had to step up and take care of 1,000 men when he was 29 years old."

From those currently serving in the military, to his children, to community members, Russell influenced many people during his life, Pasquinelli says.

"He's touched everybody in this room. He's made every single individual in here a better person," he says. "He's made this country safer, he's fought for freedom, he's been an inspiration to us all."

Pasquinelli highlighted a phrase from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

"(Russell) is an exception - his legacy will never fade," Pasquinelli says.

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 heavily involved in several community programs including Toys for Toys and the Pennsylvania Special Olympics, holding various leadership roles.

Russell also helped start the annual Centre County United Way Day of Caring, during which people from area businesses, schools, service organizations and Penn State spend the day helping out non-profits, historical sites and municipal organizations.

Ryan McCombie read a eulogy on behalf of Sue Paterno explaining that she recently suffered a broken pelvis. Paterno was a close friend to Russell through their work for the Pennsylvania Special Olympics.

Sue Paterno and her late husband Joe Paterno would have dinner at Russell's home. He even allowed Paterno to store her children's Christmas gifts in his home. That act allowed Santa to be part of their home for extra years "because all were magically surprised on Christmas," McCombie says.

Over the years, Russell also arranged for the Honor Guard, Marine Corps Band, and Marine Corps Silent Drill Team to participate in opening ceremonies. Despite heart surgery and broken hips, Russell remained active in Special Olympic preparations. While he aged, McCombie says, "he remained sharp as a tack."

On Russell's 93rd birthday, Sue Paterno took her grandchildren to visit Russell at Brookline Village, a retirement home. During the visit, one of her grandchildren asked about a photo from Iwo Jima, which turned into a history lesson.

"They suddenly were aware that there was a treasure in their midst," McCombie read.

The Rev. Neil Dadey emphasized Russell's dedication to his faith. His faith was so important that he would attend Mass at Brookline and participate in the sacrament of communion – consuming blessed bread and wine, which Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

"It's his faith that allowed him not to quit. It's his faith that kept him going forward. ... He kept giving of himself to his community, to Penn State, to the military," says Dadey. "He never quit. He truly loved his God, his country and his family, and now I would like to pronounce with complete authority, colonel, now you can quit. Your work upon this earth is complete. ... Now colonel, it is time for you to rest."

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. 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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