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World War I raged during 1918 when Charles Masters and a group of his freshman Harvard College classmates volunteered to drive American Red Cross ambulances filled with wounded soldiers in Italy.

He was one of 21 Red Cross ambulance drivers -- writer Ernest Hemingway was another -- who received the Italian Cross of War for Bravery.

Nearly 80 years later, the former Buffalo resident's decision is helping the Red Cross again.

The estate of his widow, Dorothy Lewis Masters, who died three years ago at age 93, has left $1.2 million to the Red Cross as a memorial to her husband and his contribution during the war, officials of the organization announced Wednesday.

The bequest, which will be shared equally by the Greater Buffalo Chapter and the American National Red Cross, is the largest ever received by the local chapter.

"We are extremely grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Masters for their lifetime of volunteer service and support for others," said Jennifer Dunlap, vice president of development at Red Cross national headquarters.

The former Dorothy McNamara, who grew up in Newton, Mass., married Masters in 1930. He earned degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, and in 1942 joined the National Gypsum Co., where he served as chief financial officer until his death.

National Gypsum, which was founded in Buffalo, moved its headquarters to Dallas in 1978, but the Research Division of National Gypsum's Gold Bond Building Products Division is located in the Town of Tonawanda.

Masters' decision to help the war effort brought him face to face with death and destruction during World War I.

"It was a crazy thing these guys did, but at the time it must have been very exciting," said Mark Lyon, a stepnephew from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who sorted through his aunt's belongings after her death, including a diary his uncle kept during the war.

"They drove rickety Model T's outfitted as ambulances and had many close calls. There was always stuff exploding around them," he said.

In one diary entry, Masters describes driving an ambulance when a dogfight broke out above him between Italian and Austrian airplanes.

He rushed over and pulled out the Austrian pilot after his plane was shot down and drove him to the hospital.

"Uncle Charlie wrote that the guy was arrogant and not thankful. And, he clipped off a piece of yellow canvas from the plane and placed it between the diary pages. It's pretty neat," Lyon said.

He described Mrs. Masters as a "tough nut" who considered herself a thrifty New Englander.

"They saved everything they ever touched. They kept daily records of everything they ever spent -- down to the penny," Lyon said.

Mrs. Masters volunteered as a Red Cross Gray Lady during World War II. After her husband died in March 1972, she remembered him every year in March with a donation to the organization.

"Charlie drove a Red Cross ambulance in Italy picking up the wounded in one of the many wars I have lived through," Mrs. Masters wrote in a note to the Red Cross. "A group of freshmen at Harvard went over as volunteers -- so I always think of my contribution in March as a memorial to him as he died very suddenly in March."

The Masters had no children.

Red Cross officials said they plan to use the gift to support such programs as emergency services, prevention education about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and health and safety programs.

Her attorney, E.W. Dann Stevens, said Mrs. Masters was an astute investor who handled many of her own financial affairs on the way to accumulating a handsome portfolio.

"She was a private person, an avid gardener who saved for a rainy day," he said.

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