In 1980, a young Diane Olejnik started her new job at the American Red Cross as an executive assistant. She saw thousands of volunteers and co-workers and a handful of executive directors and CEO’s, and she was there through it all for nearly 4 decades. At the end of 2019 she will retire after a lengthy and wonderful career at the Red Cross in a job she says she was proud to have.
“I come from a long family of loyalty; you die with the company,”- Diane
If there is a quality to describe Diane, it is loyal. Even as a child, her family impressed upon her the importance of loyalty and her longevity at both her jobs have proved she took that lesson to heart. She attended Moser Secretarial School, and Diane started her first job at the American Association of Hospital Accountants. It was February. After nearly 14 years there, that organization moved to Oak Brook and she found herself looking for her next job.
Through connections, she heard of openings at the Red Cross for an executive assistant and an accounting position. Diane interviewed and was able to start a new job in 1980 at the Red Cross as an executive assistant in Blood Services, and her friend Jan Sabaduquia came to work at the Red Cross as well. Once again, in the month of February- which is also Diane’s birthday month.
Upon receiving her new job with the Red Cross, Diane says her mother told her a story about how it was that with the help of the Red Cross in Germany after the war they located relatives that were living in America. The first time they located someone with the same name in Ohio .. but through a letter exchange it was not a relative. On a second attempt through the Red Cross, they located someone with the same name living in New Jersey and through a letter exchange.. it was the relative – an Aunt (sister of her mom’s father) who was willing to sponsor the family to come to America and make their future brighter after WWII Europe.
Diane pictured with current CEO Celena Roldan and past CEOs Fran Edwardson and Bill Braden
“I liked everything about it,” she said of her new role in Blood Services, though she says she knew “nothing about it.” Always a “worker bee” she was determined to learn as much as she could about the exciting things happening at the Red Cross. She loved interacting with the interesting people who filled the board, she loved seeing the volunteers, and she especially loved the fundraising events put on throughout the city including several black-tie fundraisers at the Drake Hotel.
“It was fancy, it was schmancy- it was everything you could have dreamed of!” she said. A stand-out favorite of hers was the “Chicago At Its Best” fundraiser; an event held for 10 years featuring jazz music, local celebrities and dignitaries like Mayor Jane Byrne and Walter Payton to name a few.
“I was in charge of watching the mink coats,” she said with a laugh.
The Red Cross is accustomed to changes and over the years Diane saw multiple down-sizings, office relocations, chapter reorganizations, closings, a steady stream of volunteers coming in and leadership changes. It was with the Red Cross she got to see parts of the country she may never would have seen otherwise. Trips to Colorado, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City and Richmond, Virginia were memorable.
Though she says knew nothing about the Red Cross when she started, soon Diane was learning more and more about the organization and loving all of it. “There was always a focus on meeting the needs of Chicago and we were always cognizant of diversity.”
Diane looked at life in “buckets.” One for your career, one for your family and so- forth. And in her case, this “Red Cross bucket” was being filled from many sources.
“I was really ‘rah-rah’ Red Cross,” she said punching the air. Diane was quickly homing in on her specific skills in the work place, and noticed she loved writing. She even submitted a script to “Bonanza” once upon a time. She was doing more writing and soon also doing board orientations and found herself speaking most compassionately about disaster response. “I was really good,” she said.
Diane with a bobble-head version of herself
A Polish-speaker, Diane also found herself occasionally helping the Services to the Armed Forces volunteers with a Restoring Family Links case, and even accompanied some Disaster volunteers visiting a Polish-speaking family who had just experienced a fire to help with translating. “I understood from the beginning these are wonderful volunteers, they are giving their professional time and money to us. I was just so happy to see them!”
Diane was loyal. She rarely took a day off and faithfully filled her desk’s multiple candy bowls, ensuring a regular stream of sugar-hunting co-workers passing through. She worked closely with everyone who held the CEO position of recent years from Margaret James, Bob Gilbert, Elizabeth Curtis, Bill Braden and more, all the way to Fran Edwardson and current CEO Celena Roldan. She says she dreamt of being the Della Street to Perry Mason and get to know her bosses well enough to anticipate what they were thinking or needing before they could say it.
Now Diane plans on resting and giving her home some TLC, but she says she’ll remain loyal to the Red Cross, “I have always said this, Red Cross is a great steward of your money.”
Looking back on her career, Diane said she hopes we don’t lose the personal touch of face-to-face communication as technology continues to advance. She says she feels like now is a good time for her to leave, though it will be the “end of an era.” She plans on picking up her other interests and hobbies and getting more involved in her church and choir, and maybe even learning another language. Possibly Spanish. And though she is closing the book on this chapter of her life, and says her buckets are filled and she is leaving nothing behind.
“I cannot give anything more…yes, I gave all that I had.”
Thank you for your 4 decades of service, and your loyalty to the Red Cross. We will miss you Diane!
Diane’s last day in the office will be December 31, 2019. Send your well wishes her way at Diane.Olejnik@redcross.org before then!
Written by Communications Manager, Holly Baker