Chet Somerville, 83: Former Red Cross administrator

Chet Somerville’s people-skills not only earned him a number of friends, they helped him navigate a career that included countless blood donors and volunteers as he worked with the American Red Cross.

“I think everyone who met him had an experience with him,” said Lloyd Wells, of Winder, a friend and former Red Cross co-worker. “I was talking to my sister the other day, and she’d only met him once or twice I think, and she had a memorable experience with him. He was just that kind of guy.”

Chester Raymond Somerville, known by most as Chet, of Atlanta, died Thursday at Northside Hospital while recovering from surgery. He was 83.

No services are immediately planned. SouthCare Cremation Society and Memorial Centers, Alpharetta, was in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Somerville was born in Dodge City, Kansas and spent time in rural Kansas and New Mexico, as a youth. He graduated from Washburn University with a bachelors in political science, and was preparing to enroll in law school, but was drafted into the Army. During his service, he was stationed in Korea and changed his mind about becoming an attorney. It was in the '50s, after his military service was complete, the he took a job with the Red Cross.

Mr. Somerville moved to Atlanta in 1960, while working for the Red Cross. Mr. Somerville’s career spanned more than 30 years and concluded in 1988 when he worked in D.C. at the national headquarters. Before going to D.C. he served as the administrator for the Metro Atlanta Red Cross blood program, where in the early years he had to deal with sensitive issues related to blood donation, said his cousin, John Latta, of Atlanta.

Mr. Latta said his cousin’s personality helped him through what could have been very tough, racially sensitive situations.

“This was in the 60’s and he was there during a time when people wanted to know where the donated blood came from, you know who donated the blood,” Mr. Latta said. “But he would very nicely, but firmly tell them, that blood was blood and there wasn’t any more he could tell them.”

During his tenure with the Red Cross, Mr. Somerville helped expand the blood donation program and aided in the transition from collecting blood in glass bottles to plastic containers and tubes.

“That was something that people were very resistant to,” Mr. Latta said. “But he went to hospitals and talked to nurses and helped get the job done. He was very proud of his role in that.”

One of Mr. Somerville’s proudest moments came in 1986 when he was recognized by then-President Ronald Regan for his work with the Red Cross and veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

While at the Red Cross offices in Atlanta, Mr. Somerville was a “pivotal player in the organization,” Mr. Wells said.

“Even when the Red Cross moved from downtown to Monroe Drive,” he said. “Chet had a role to play even then.”

He was transferred in 1980 from the Atlanta offices to the national headquarters in D.C., where he stayed until he retired. After retirement he moved back to Georgia, first to St. Simon’s Island, and then to Atlanta.

During his career, and in retirement, he touched a number of lives, his cousin said.

“So many have told me stories about how he taught them to enjoy life,” Mr. Latta said. “As we were going through pictures, in every one he’s got a huge smile on his face, or he’s laughing, just enjoying himself, but you can also tell by the photo that he’s making someone else feel good. And that’s a lot of what he did, made others feel good.”

Mr. Somerville is survived by several extended family members and friends.