The Patriotic Pianist: Judy Gascon, Boring, Oregon
It’s Tuesday at 9 a.m. Dressed in an authentic World War II Army uniform and with her hair coiled in a 1940s-era liberty roll, Judy Gascon sits at a baby grand piano in the lobby of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Portland, Oregon. She begins with the songs from the five military branches and then turns to smile at the patients waiting for their appointments. “Any requests?”
For 12 years, she has played patriotic tunes and American classics—“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is a favorite—while wearing her late father’s ribbons and patches on her jacket. He was in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and though “he didn’t talk a lot about himself,” she says, she knew he was proud of his service. He moved in with her in 2001 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died shortly after she began volunteering at the VA.
With a chair on either side, she welcomes vocal accompaniment—“You don’t want to hear me sing,” she laughs—and conversation. “The vets feel comfortable telling me stories of the war, ones they wouldn’t tell their own families,” says Gascon, 67. “It’s a bit like being a bartender.” She looks forward to playing at the VA too much to consider stopping. “Other than raising my son, there’s nothing I’ve done that I like more than this,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to see the light in people’s eyes when they hear their song.”
The Birder: Walter Fuller, Ojai, California
Walter Fuller awakens at 4:30 a.m. every day to unlock the parking lot at Ormond Beach, where he has served as its unofficial (and unpaid) security guard, park ranger, custodian, and tour guide for 18 years. For Fuller, the work serves as its own reward: Fishers, surfers, and fellow birders greet him as he logs their comings and goings for his daily report; children marvel when he shows them their first up-close view of the Pacific Ocean; and white-crowned sparrows follow him while he refills their feeders. With about 250 avian species flying through every year, the two-mile strip of wetlands is a birder’s dream. (Until you can plan a visit, start with these stunning bird photos.) But it wasn’t like that when Fuller found it.
A lifelong bird lover, he first visited Ormond Beach in 1996 on a lunch break from his job at the nearby Navy base. He saw mallard ducks, finches, hawks, and herons—but barely any people around to enjoy them. The beach had become a dumping ground for trash and a hub of drug deals and gang activity, and Fuller realized if he didn’t take care of the spot, nobody would. He began going there after work, clearing the sand of old tires, mattresses, and sludge and patrolling the parking lot.
After he was laid off from the Navy base, he went to the beach every day, often sleeping in his truck in the lot to dissuade troublemakers from coming at night. The beach became a safe place, human visitors gradually began returning, and in 2008, Oxnard city officials took notice of the solitary widower and provided him with a metal shipping container to sleep in. Last year, they upgraded him to a trailer. His official title is caretaker, but he prefers the language on the metal sign outside his trailer: “Walter Fuller—steward of Ormond Beach.”
“In 1996, nobody felt safe out here,” Fuller says. “Now we get up to a hundred visitors a day. They say, ‘We’re coming back because you’re here.’ That makes my heart grow.”
Behind the scenes with GirlForward at our Washington D.C. cover shoot:
Profiles by Brandon Specktor, Alyssa Jung, and Katie Askew
Photos of GirlForward, Jay, Leary, Helle, Tidwell, Wartman, Gascon, and Fuller by Glenn Glasser