Carmella LaSpada will spend a few minutes this afternoon at Arlington Cemetery with about 18 children whose fathers were listed as missing in action in Vietnam. A small remembrance ceremony will take place at the memorial markers that honor the memory of the MIAs.
Remembering the children of servicemen missing or killed in action was the reason, in 1970, that LaSpada founded "No Greater Love," a national nonprofit organization whose goodwill programs also include veterans and the elderly. LaSpada is not one who merely surfaces on holidays; She almost daily taps some Washington merchant, famous athlete, Hollywood personality or anonymous donor for some kind of help for children and veterans.
She has an uncanny knack of being able to extract donations for worthy causes. An example:
"Hello" she says on the phone to a local poultry dealer, my name is Carmella LaSpada and I need 15 24-pound turkey's free for . . .
"What?" interrupts an incredulous voice.
"Of course," she says, sweetly, "I only need one from you."
And before she's finished her calls, she gets the other 23, too, for a dinner for the elderly. Her persistent cheerfulness seems to help.
She estimates she has been given at least $100,000 worth of donations in seven years.
"I usually want something screwy, like a cylinder of helium to blow up ballons," she says.
In the beginning, she operated "No Greater Love" out of her purse, actually her apartment, using a friend's typewriter to crank out pleas for help, and college students to fold and stuff envelopes. She knew she needed a headquarters when "we ended up with 4,000 gifts in my apartment."
She talked the union officials at the United Unions Building into turning over a basement office to her. And when someone she's not eager to identify tried to evict her a couple of months later, she turned in a weepy voice to Frank Raftery, head of the painters union, who saw to it she stayed. "God bless Mr. Raftery," she says. The office is filled with photographs of such athletes as John Unitas, Larry Brown and Hank Aaron with servicemen's children.
Her career in charming people began at age 11, in Chester, Pa. She decided to round up her girl friends and collect money to send the local Little League team to the Little League World series.
A policeman stopped me and said, 'Don't you know you're not supposed to do this?' I said, 'Hey, we only need $3 to get to $100, and he gave me the $3."
A graduate of Pennsylvania State, LaSpada was Pennsylvania's Cherry Blossom princess in 1963. Her most recent regular job was as White House special projects aide from 1962 to 1971. One thing she won't talk about is age: hers.
She began trying to make Vietnam veterans happier after a visit to Walter Reed Hospital in 1966. "There was this guy there who said they wanted to talk to pretty girls and athletes, in that order," she says. And after she talked with him, she brought about a dozen of the New York Yankees with her following week. She simply rounded them up at local hotel when they were here to play the Senators. A USO-sponsored trip she helped organize to hospitals in the Pacific in 1967 heightened her zeal.
Last October she promoted an evening at the Kennedy Center to recognize Vietnam veterans for achievements in their communities. Her activities range from a national "No Greater Love" day on Valentine's Day to getting some well-known athlete to call up a dispirited child. She says National Football League charities, the AFL-CIO and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Associations support her organization. The Dallas Cowboy's Roger Staubach is president, the Dodgers' Steve Garvey vice president. Her "national advisory council" includes almost everyone who counts for something from Burt Reynolds to John Sirica.
"I told Judge Sirica, "We have something in common, our fathers being barbers." Her father still saves the tips he gets for his daughter, and her two uncles often drive to Washington with specialties from their delicatessen, "LaSada's Originals."
"My whole family thinks it's time I got married," she says. "But that would take a miracle.I'm still my family's favourite charity."