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Charlotte and Elmer Emerson.

Charlotte and Elmer Emerson started the FISH community service organization in Illinois in 1968.

Symbols of service

Member profile: Elmer and Charlotte Emerson

From M, summer 2005

The lasting legacy of Charlotte (B.A. '48) and Elmer (B.A. '48) Emerson can be found in the basement of the Downer's Grove Township Hall. There, food and clothing await the needy and volunteers organize rides, emergency financial help, and referrals to other agencies for more help. The Emersons started Downer's Grove Area FISH, Inc., outside Chicago in 1968 with a handful of volunteers and $25 donations from several area churches. At first FISH mainly provided a transportation network, but the community's needs have grown immensely. Today, 700 to 800 families a month visit the free food pantry and clothing closet run by an all-volunteer staff of between 125 and 150. FISH, which has never had a paid employee, now attracts about $60,000 a year in contributions from individuals, companies, churches, and other organizations. FISH offers the help "in the spirit of Christian service," Elmer says, but is open to all. Although capitalized, FISH is not an acronym, but simply refers to a Christian symbol. Charlotte and Elmer met as part of the postwar college boom. Elmer, a Montana native, spent eight years in the U.S. Navy and was aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Charlotte, from Illinois, left a college in Wisconsin to come to Minnesota and study physical therapy in a U.S. Army program under Sister Elizabeth Kenny and others, then served as a lieutenant in Army medical facilities in the United States and Europe. In 1946, they met on campus while organizing a political party of dormitory and rooming house residents aimed at gaining a voice in student government. Although Elmer says, "I majored in activities and minored in college," he did manage to graduate with a degree in industrial relations in fewer than three years. He went on to be active in politics and worked in personnel for several large companies. Charlotte began medical school in 1948, but left in her third year, realizing it was not the career for her. Many years later, the Emersons moved their family to the Chicago suburb of Downer's Grove. They were delighted to find congregations eager to get FISH started. Thirty-six years later, they're still involved. Both in their 80s, Charlotte helps produce a newsletter, while Elmer goes to the food shelf a few times a week to help unload donations, break down boxes, and "check that the Dumpster isn't getting too full," he jokes. "I started as the chairman and now I'm in charge of the garbage." FISH has also given back to the Emersons, Elmer insists. "Having worked in personnel for so long, I saw lots of people who had nothing to do after retirement and who died after three or four years," he says. "We're glad to still be able to be of use." To join the Emersons as UMAA members, visit, or call 612-624-2323 or 800-862-5867.

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