Volunteerism suits Englishwoman to a tee

An 82-year-old dynamo in jogging shoes, Joan Houghton spends Tuesdays volunteering at Carson-Tahoe Hospital.

Wednesdays are reserved for work at the Episcopal Church . And Thursdays, she volunteers at the FISH Thrift Store.

That's just the beginning.

She is direct and open and her pronounced English accent matches her dry, sharp wit. Born just outside of Boston in 1920, she was 7 months old when her parents returned with her to England.

"We lived in West Kirby, about a half hour from Liverpool, where my father owned a department store," she said. "He didn't enjoy it, though. He flew Sopwith Camels during WW I and wanted to be a pilot. He wanted to stay in the Air Force, but my grandfather wouldn't have it."

Her formal education ended with a year of finishing school in Switzerland when she was 16, an option she chose over studies at Oxford University.

"I was expected to study history and I didn't know what I'd do with a history degree except teach," she said. "I knew I didn't want to teach.

"We had to speak French all of the time in finishing school," she said. "They put me in a room with two other English girls and fined us every time we spoke anything but French. We were all broke, for the first three months."

Hitler's march through Europe began about that time and after her "matriculation" from finishing school in 1936, she became a nursing assistant with the English Red Cross.

She was stationed north of London in Yorkshire, at Berkenhead in England and remembers a group of French Foreign Legionnaires, who had resisted after France sided with the Germans.

"The Americans in France released them," she said. "They were put in a special open-air school, once a place for children with tuberculosis, on the Yorkshire Moors. They were very sick, with malaria and all sorts of diseases."

She said the war ended for them in 1941, after 11 days of bombing at the hands of the Germans. Hitler had invaded Russia and stopped the bombing in England, at least until 1944 or 1945.

"The Germans used buzz bombs," she said. "When the buzzing stopped, they would drop and that's when we waited for the explosion."

Houghton left England for the United States in 1946, spending time with relatives in New York and Long Island, San Antonio, and finally Luning, Nev., where she met her soon-to-be husband, James Vincent Houghton.

"I came to America because I couldn't settle into tea parties and walking dogs in England," she said. "Luning is a small town between Hawthorne and Mina. It had a population of about 30 then. I think it still does."

The young couple moved to Carson City in 1953 with their son, Peter and in December of that year had twin boys, Patrick and Roy. Husband Vince worked for Nevada's Highway Department, Carson City had a population 5,000 and they lived on Harbin Street, the last street in town. She said she shopped at a collection of small grocery stores, the social mecca.

"When you went to the store, you had to allow an extra half-hour for conversation," she said.

A widow since 1971, Houghton fills her hours doing service work.

In addition to working at Carson-Tahoe Hospital, the FISH Thrift Store and the Episcopal Church, she helps a family in Jack's Valley on Fridays, and every other Sunday performs communion at Nevada Cares, a local convalescent center.

Every other Saturday she conducts non-denominational services at Carson-Tahoe Hospital's Rehab Center.

"Volunteering keeps me out of mischief," she said with a smile.


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