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Building a Strong Foundation: The Inspiration for the Russo-Lafferty Scholarship

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Ron labrec web v
by Ron LaBrec
October 15, 2020

Seaman First Class Peter J. Russo and Signalman Third Class Walter E. Lafferty Scholarship

Peter J. Russo left school in the 9th grade to work several jobs and help raise his three younger brothers during the Great Depression. And when the United States entered World War II he answered the call to defend freedom from fascism by joining the U.S. Coast Guard. After spending his war years sailing on the attack transport USS Cavalier (APA-37) with the Pacific Fleet, Peter was honorably discharged. But the discipline and lessons he learned working at a young age and at war, fueled a successful career.

His financial success led to the creation of the Peter & Mary Russo Foundation, which is administered by his son, Peter Russo, and daughters, Marianne Nahin and Nancy McDevitt. The Russos established four Coast Guard Foundation scholarships for Coast Guard children to attend college, which were awarded this year.

Peter Russo explained the decision to invest in the Coast Guard Foundation’s programs, “My friend and financial advisor, Richard Lafferty, made me aware of the Coast Guard Foundation’s existence,” he said. “His father, Walter, was also enlisted in the Coast Guard during WWII and he has been supporting the foundation for years. Richard thought I would be interested in using the annual donations our family foundation is privileged to grant to also support the Coast Guard Foundation.”

Walter E. Lafferty enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1942 and first served as a Beach Patrol member along the Massachusetts coast. In 1944 he transferred to the troop transport USS Wakefield (AP-21), the largest ship manned by Coast Guard crews during the war. There he served as a signalman in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific earning an honorable discharge in 1946.

Attending college on the GI Bill, Walter became a civil engineer and later laid out the approaches to the Walt Whitman Bridge and other large Philadelphia projects. “My father made 16 crossings on the Wakefield,” said Richard Lafferty. Richard is a boater and remembers his dad telling stories about his Coast Guard service. “They usually crossed alone because the ship was too fast for German U-boats to catch, but one time they were approached by a German bomber. The anti-aircraft guns opened up right near my father’s head and he couldn’t hear for several days afterwards,” he continued, noting that Walter earned five campaign medals for his service.

When Peter and Rich learned of the Coast Guard Foundation’s scholarship program, they decided it offered an opportunity to help Coast Guard families and honor their fathers’ wartime service. “I was initially surprised that I could honor my Dad's wish to establish annual scholarships in his name,” said Peter. “I believe he would be greatly pleased that this goal was accomplished within the branch of the U.S. Armed Forces in which he served.”

The Coast Guard Foundation awarded Seaman First Class Peter J. Russo and Signalman Third Class Walter E. Lafferty Scholarships to Isabel DeSanno of Victoria, Texas, Caden Wright of Macungie, Pa, Maya Rubio of Dover, N.H., and Lucinda King of Silverdale, Wash.

The decision to create the scholarships had a big impact on awardee Maya Rubio. “In high school I was diagnosed with Leukemia,” explained Maya. “I finished treatment at the beginning of my senior year. My family struggled financially because of the cost of treatment. Going to the University of New Hampshire is possible because of this scholarship.” Maya is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in nursing. In addition to playing volleyball and basketball and singing in the choir during high school, Maya earned a licensed nursing assistant certification and volunteered at a local assisted-living facility.

Mirroring the formative experiences Peter Russo and Walter Lafferty lived through during the Great Depression and WWII, Maya explained how her challenges motivate her. “The experiences I had with the nurses who took care of me inspired and guided me to what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to help a patient laugh when they are feeling down, be there when they need a friend or need someone to take care of them. I want to treat other patients the way all the nurses in my life treated me when I was going through the fight of my life,” she said.

Another scholarship recipient, Lucinda King, is making the most of her scholarship. Graduating high school with her associate’s degree, Lucinda is a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University, double majoring in music education and piano performance. She hopes to become an elementary music school teacher upon graduation.

“As the daughter of a Coast Guard chief petty officer, it means a lot to earn a scholarship named for two WWII Coast Guard members,” said Lucinda. “Please know that your investment in my education has encouraged me to continue believing in myself and in my ability to attain my dream of becoming an elementary school music teacher.”

Serving as the president of the Peter & Mary Russo Family Foundation, Peter summarized his family’s commitment to philanthropy through the ups and downs of his 40-year career in the restaurant business. “The gift of giving has been perhaps the greatest inheritance I received from my parents,” he said, adding that he would encourage others with an affinity for the Coast Guard to provide “a hand up to a young individual in need and also experience the gift of giving.”

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