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Boston Sunday Globe, Sunday, November 9th, 2003
USO acts of kindness

Actual Globe article may be viewed free for a short time here

By Sam Allis, Globe Columnist, 11/9/2003


Mention the USO and I imagine Bob Hope and Charo entertaining the troops at Da Nang. Or, a couple of wars earlier, Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed dressed in Hawaiian garb in ''From Here To Eternity.'' But what about now? And what about here? In this time of war, does Boston even have a USO facility?
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Try the second floor of Building 8 at the Coast Guard station on Commercial Street (US Coast Guard Integrated Support Command). It's a tiny affair -- a couple of rooms with a painted plate of Bob Hope and a snow globe of the World Trade Center towers behind glass in the lobby. There is a cybercafe, a TV, some books and snacks; a church and synagogue roster; and handouts on hotels, sporting events, nightclubs, tourist attractions. Most popular is the weekly ''What's Hot'' list of events, ranging from Blue Man Group to a Rickie Lee Jones show in Somerville.

All this is invisible to most of us. ''I just got a call from people in Washington, D.C., with some wrestling tickets at the Centrum in Worcester,'' says Alice Harkins, executive director of USO of New England. ''They said they didn't know there was a USO in New England.'' (USO of New England consists of this office and a room at Logan Airport for military and dependents to use between flights. A third facility in Massachusetts, at Westover Air Force Base, is a separate operation.)

Harkins, an Air Force veteran, puts in five days a week for 20 hours' pay. Stephanie Steoberl works part time out front, flanked by Jeannette Alfe, who helps with the phones as a volunteer. That's it, folks. So what do these women at headquarters spend their time doing? Arranging tea dances for our men and women in uniform?

''Getting a Ground Round gift certificate to a mother to have a nice night out,'' says Harkins. ''Getting mall certificates for school clothes and Christmas items. My focus since 9/11 has been on families.''

Harkins points to a poster. It's a photograph of three kids holding up a big American flag, and it reads, ''Behind Every Service Member Is A Family Holding Down The Home Front.'' (Simon Property Group, the mall outfit, paid for the campaign.)

USO of New England is an independent agency that depends on the kindness of strangers, and it could use a lot more kindness from a lot more strangers. ''I have 50 volunteers and I could use 500,'' says Harkin. ''Four hours a week would be great.''

Money would help, too. She operates on a puny $150,000 budget, fueled mainly by $15-25 donations from individuals, along with some corporate and foundation help. Last year, she steered $40,000 to families for the likes of auto repairs and heating bills. Harkins stretches the dollars: ''My goal is to give all but five percent of donations to the soldiers. I'm getting there. My operating expenses are 12.6 percent now.''

The USO needs people to canvas Boston businesses for contributions and tickets to match the generosity given last summer by the law firm of Gadsby & Hannah LLP: 100 passes to the New England Aquarium and accompanying $25 gift certificates to the Ground Round. Nice.

''We need people to approach corporations and say, `If you're not using your Celtics tickets, could we have them?' '' (Some tickets for the Bruins game against the Oilers on Tuesday night, Veterans Day, are half price for the military.)

And Harkins faces a huge challenge next summer, when Sail Boston and the Democratic Convention come to town. ''We're going to need a lot of help because there will be an awful lot of military on hand,'' she says.

The Masons of Massachusetts are USO heroes. Their Masonic Angel Fund pays for the critical items a parent needs for kids. In the lobby of the USO sit a new, blue crib and a stroller. They're for any military family that needs them. ''Take them away, no questions asked,'' says Harkins. ''There will be more.''

Harkins tells of a family where both parents are serving in Iraq and their autistic child now lives with his grandparents. The grandfather, who is a security guard, sought extra shifts to cover expenses.

The USO began with a different focus in Boston 62 years ago. There was a world war on, and uniformed men and women danced to Hoagy Carmichael and drank highballs in a two-story building on Boston Common known as the Buddies Club. Steoberl, the operation's institutional memory, says it moved from there to Tremont near the Little Building, then Hancock and Joy streets, before ending up at the Coast Guard station in 1986.

It needs a volunteer archivist to save and catalogue the priceless photos and memorabilia, including ancient reel-to-reel footage of Bob Hope, that document the history of the USO in Boston. There's a mail bin full of material in utter disarray. The pages of one scrapbook literally disintegrated in my hands as I gazed at cheesecake pix of starlets who participated in USO shows ages ago -- Yvonne De Carlo, Esther Williams, Ann Blyth. I was particularly taken with one woman in a bathing suit on snowshoes.

That was then. This is now. Thanksgiving looms and Harkins need grocery certificates so that military families can put a bird on the table. ''They're so strapped,'' she says, ''but they don't talk about it. A lot of it is pride.''

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.