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Mary Ellen's Story

In these high-tech times of mass production and throw-away items, 89-year-old Mary Ellen Gorham sits peacefully on her living room sofa, surrounded by recycled cloth, using her hands to create keepsakes and pad a good cause.

“I just love it,” she said of the decorative potholders and pillows she makes and then donates to the gift shop at Pullman Regional Hospital. “To look at my hands, you’d think I had terrible arthritis. But I don’t have any pain in my fingers. I think it’s because I do so much needlework.”

Last year, Mary Ellen said she spent an estimated $2,000 on cast-away clothing, cloth and sewing materials to make her creations. “You can see this is made out of a tweed sport coat,” she said of a pillow. “I can sit and do everything by hand. They sell as fast as I can make them. I just give them to the hospital.”

The gift shop money, said hospital spokesperson Megan Guido, goes to the hospital Auxiliary. “Mary Ellen takes tremendous pride in her works,” Guido said, “and they’re a big seller.”

A 70-year resident of Pullman, Mary Ellen is the widow of John Gorham, a renowned professor of veterinary medicine at Washington State University. He died in October of 2011 and still maintains a presence in the couple’s Pullman home.

“There he is up on the mantel,” Mary Ellen said of John’s portrait. “He was a good looking guy.” His death, she said, left her in mourning but also opened the door to a renewed passion – volunteerism.

“I volunteered in the hospital gift shop at the old hospital quite a few years when it was on campus,” she said. About three weeks after John died, Mary Ellen phoned the new hospital and offered, not just her time, but her talents. “I’m a social person. And I’d given up most of my social life because I needed to be here with him as a caregiver.”

Now, in honor of her late husband and in hope of helping others, Mary Ellen volunteers one day a week at the hospital information desk and spends a big chunk of additional time making the potholders and pillows.

She credited her artist daughter, Katherine Gorham of Eugene, Ore., for lending her design expertise and encouragement.

“She was here visiting, making a couple potholders by hand to give as gifts,” Mary Ellen recalled, “and I said, gee, those are really good looking. So I started making them.”

Mary Ellen, who wrote a pet column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News for 28 years, holds a degree from WSU in home economics and business administration. She and John met on campus as freshmen in 1942. “However, I kind of wanted to go out with the older guys, so I didn’t date him,” Mary Ellen said. But the two were married in 1944 and, in addition to Katherine, they had a son, Jay Gorham, who is a cardiologist living in Wenatchee.

“My son was just about the first baby born in the Pullman hospital,” Mary Ellen said. “He’s now 62.”

Her husband, said Mary Ellen, became known and sought after worldwide for his work and she traveled with him to nearly 60 countries. It wasn’t until 1979 that she found time enough to go back and get her degree at WSU. The Gorham home in Pullman not only reflects the couple’s travels, with works of art from many places on display, but also lends testament to Mary Ellen’s needlework, with many of her creations decorating various rooms.

“I love to sew. When I was in the 7th grade, we lived out at a lake and I went to school in a little town. My mother bought me a doll and fabric and I started making doll clothes. I just loved it. It saved my soul. It was my recreation that whole year in school.”

Mary Ellen has been a patient in both the old and new Pullman hospitals. She’s had a total of 13 surgeries (some in other hospitals) and is a cancer survivor. She’ll be 90 next January and said that, for people her age, a good hospital is key to quality of life.

“I think Pullman Regional Hospital is absolutely wonderful. And the people who work there, without exception, I could not criticize any of them. They’re really nice to the patients.”

Making a few potholders and pillows is the least she could do to say thank you, Mary Ellen said.

“I suppose I enjoy having people say, ‘Hey, I bought one of your potholders today.’ But that isn’t really the pleasure. It’s because I’m helping a good cause.”

Mary Ellen Gorham was interviewed by David Johnson for Pullman Regional Hospital in April 2013.