... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words
in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript was made by Bob Shuster and Kirk Haywood and was completed in July 2007
Collection 299, tape T1. Interview of Ruth Margaret (Hatcher) Thomas by Paul Ericksen on March 6, 1985. Her husband Howard was also in the room and occasionally spoke.
[Note: Throughout this interview there are references to Howard Thomas’ interviews in Collection 298.]
Ericksen: This is an oral history interview with Ruth Margaret Hatcher Thomas by Paul Ericksen for the Missionary Sources Collection of Wheaton College at the Billy Graham Center Archives. This interview took place at the Thomas’ home in Swannanoa, North Carolina on March 6, 1985 at 3 p.m.
[Tape turned off and on again]
Ericksen: I would like to begin our interview, Dr. Thomas, by talking about your...your growing up years. You were born in Scranton, Pennsylvania?
Thomas: That’s right.
Ericksen: And how long did you live there?
Thomas: Until I was about twenty-two, then I went away to school.
Ericksen: And, I see from the...some of the records I looked through, that you studied at a number of different places. Where did you go to school first? And...following high school, of course.
Thomas: Yes, it is called Nyack College now, but at that time it was Missionary Institute, under the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I was reared in that church, in Scranton. And I spent two years there, and was a graduate, and then went to work for the C&MA headquarters in New York as a secretary for three years. And from there I went on for my nursing and then on to college. Seems to me I did lot of things backwards. [laughs]
Ericksen: So you and your husband weren’t at the Institute at the same time.
Thomas: Yes, we were...
Ericksen: You were there.
Thomas: ...part of the time, uh-huh. That is where we met.
Ericksen: When did your relationship become other than an acquaintance sort of...?
Thomas: Seven years later. [laughs] We went together for seven years before we were married.
Ericksen: And so seven years later would have put you where?
Thomas: At Wheaton.
Thomas: We were the first students they allowed to marry, as students.
Thomas: And that was in ‘33.
Ericksen: So previously, you either had to be married when you came?
Thomas: No, they were not taking any married students at that time.
Thomas: As I recall.
Thomas: And we really did not start a fad because the...there were lots that said, “Oh, the Thomases got married and...and why can’t we?” But, they really had some restrictions.
Ericksen: Like? What sort of restrictions?
Thomas: Well, just because somebody else got married, did...did not give them licence. But Tom was starting his senior year and then I started my freshman year. And I thought I would take only the one year until he finished because...well I...we did not know what our future plans were. We were hoping we would go out as missionaries. And we...I had a job, I had a skill, a marketable skill. And he went to Ella Burgeson, who was Dr. Buswell’s secretary, and said that I was going to come out and we were going to be married but I had to have a job. There was not any opening in the infirmary for my nursing skills, but he said, “She is an awfully good secretary.” [laughs] And Ella used to say, if she had not given me a job she would have felt guilty the rest of her life. [laughs]
Thomas: Because she would have prevented us from getting married. And then I worked there the full four years because he went on to seminary close by so that I could stay there. And it was tough. We got married on half a shoe string. It was during the Depression, you know, and neither one of us had very much money but with my working...we both had a scholarship and then when he was at seminary he had scholarships there so, it was possible.
Ericksen: What sort of obstacles did you need to get over to have the College allow you to get married?
Thomas: Well, [pauses[ I do not remember. Tom took care of all that from his end, I was at Englewood, New Jersey, at the hospital.
Thomas: And, he gave me an ultimatum, he said, “It is going to be now or we going to break it off permanently.” And I did not want that [laughs] so I acquiesced and I said, “I’ll make plans.” At the hospital they were offering me a scholarship to go to a hospital in Jersey City to take up midwifery and then to come back and teach it, because I was supervising in obstetrics. And when the superintendent of nurses called me in to talk this over with me, and I said, “I’m not positive I’m going to be here next year, but I am not in a position yet to tell you definitely, but as soon as I know I will.” So, as soon we decided we were going to be married, I gave her the word. But, I think the fact that we were quite mature people entered into it. And I do not know who Tom had to see but we were able to tie the knot and went on from there. But it was a...it was a tough row to hoe for awhile.
Ericksen: Lets come back to Wheaton in a little bit...
Ericksen: ...and go back to your growing up years again.
Ericksen: You said you grew up in a...with a C&MA background.
Ericksen: Um, where in those years did you...where did your conversion occur?
Thomas: I was....
Ericksen: If you can...some people.... [unclear]
Thomas: Yes, it was.... I can’t give you an exact date, but I can remember it very definitely. And it was during a revival service that we had at our church. And I was in...in high school. And it was a very definite conversion. I had been brought up in a Christian home, that is my mother was a very beautiful Christian person, and my father had been reared as a Catholic and...but wasn’t following Catholicism at that time at all. And he never hindered my mother in any religious instruction she gave our children, or what she wanted us to do in going to church and Sunday school. He...he didn’t go, but he never interfered. And my mother was really a very beautiful Christian character, and a great influence, but I still felt a very definite need of Christ in my life. And I can see myself at the altar. We went to the altar in those days [went forward to the altar in the church to indicate acceptance of Christ as savior], and felt a real release of burden and the acceptance of Christ.
Ericksen: Did the church bring in someone from the outside as a speaker?
Thomas: Yes, we always had...had a special speaker. And incidently, Coach Coray’s [Edward Atherton Coray, coach and physical education teacher at Wheaton College 1926-1989] father was my pastor for many years. And Hal Boone’s father had been my pastor too, so I have...have a very fine heritage there in our church. But they would bring in a special speaker. Incidently, we have a home here in Asheville called Elida Home, and it is for children who are not only...not necessarily physically abused but handicapped in their family situations. And they are not orphans, but they go to this place. And one of the speakers we had one year at our church was the head of this orphanage here, - not orphanage, this home. A man by the name of Lucius Compton. And I lost track of this institution completely until we came here, and one day on the telephone...on the radio, I heard them asking for green stamp books. They wanted to get a swimming pool for Elida Home, and I said, “Tom, I know Elida Home.” And we’ve had a very vital part in that institution since we have come here. That is in contributions, not in working there. But he was one of the speakers, when we would have different ones.
Ericksen: Were they C&MA people?
Thomas: Mostly, yes. We had a man by the name of R.R. Brown, we always called him Railroad Brown, but he was not a railroad man, from Omaha, Nebraska. Of course, we’ve had Dr. [A. B.] Simpson who was the founder of the C&MA. And, oh, I can’t tell you who now all these different people were. But then we would support other services in Scranton. For instance, I definitely remember Billy Sunday’s campaign.
Ericksen: What do you remember about that?
Thomas: Oh! He was so dramatic! I will never forget him preaching on Naman and the leper. And he’d sit on a...the back of a chair in front of his pulpit. And then he...he’d be riding here and...and the servant would come and say, “Well now, this king wants...needs help.” And he wouldn’t look up and he’d say, “Go tell him to bathe in the river, seven times.” And then he’d get down and say, “Now he has to get down into the river,” and he’d come back up. Oh...oh and there were so many things. And chickens come home to roost, I can remember that one. He was very dramatic and very effective! And they’d have thousands of people come out. We’d always have a big tent that would be put up. And, in those days I think many, many of the churches went together for this, then of course when it was all over they had sawdust all over the floor of the tent. And we lived close enough so that we kids would go down there and we would sift through the saw dust and we we’d find money, you know. [laughs]
Thomas: We thought this was a great deal.
Ericksen: Do you remember what year that was?
Thomas: Well, let me see, I would say maybe about 1914, 1915. But he was so vivid. [Sunday was in Scranton March 1-April 20, 1914.]
Ericksen: Do you recall how you responded to...to the messages?
Thomas: Well, I think we thought this was really a great big thing, you know, a big deal. And.... [pauses] Well, it was so much larger than our church and we would see so many more people. And the music was beautiful, and all together it was just a great big deal for us.
Thomas: And I had friends living right close to me, and we’d go down together, you know. And I can’t remember that it made any impact on me spiritually at the time, because my religious experience came later, a little later, than that. But I didn’t see anything wrong with it, I just thought this was a great venture. I do not think I was used in any way, I do not think I ever took up the offering or anything like that, you know, and I didn’t sing in the choir. But it was a big thing that came to Scranton.
Ericksen: When did your interest in missionary work become personal?
Thomas: It seems to me I have never remembered a time when I didn’t want to be a missionary. This was a great emphasis in our church and we would have a missionary convention every year. And missionaries on furlough would come and speak. And I just adored everyone of them. And I can’t think that I wanted to go to the field that everyone had been working in, that specific place. But I did really have a want for Africa. And as Tom said, later when they approached us on China I said, “Any place but China, I can’t think of it.” Oh, when they would ask if we would consider another field I would say, “Any place but China.” And then when they said China, there I was caught. And I had promised the Lord I would go anywhere that he wanted me to go. And so, I really had to consider this and re-think whether I was prejudiced toward Africa and why. And whether I should be open to another place. But, really, I grew up wanting to be a missionary. I think I am the only one in my family that was, there were six children and I...I had it very strongly.... Because I think the emphasis was so strong in our Church. And then when I went and worked at their Alliance headquarters, I worked for a foreign secretary for Africa. He was secretary for Africa. And this sort of solidified my feeling and desire. He was a great man I worked for.
Ericksen: Were there any...you mentioned the influence of your mother in your spiritual life. Were there other people, perhaps in the church?
Thomas: Yes, we had a...a woman (she was an old maid) who took upon herself to have classes for the young people. And usually...I think it was always on a Friday afternoon, after school we would meet there at the church and she would have a religious service with us. A Bible study and talk and so on, and we liked her very much. She was not an attractive looking woman. I can see her very much...very plainly, but oh, she was such a good woman. And even though she...she always said she...“Debbie was an old maid,” she seemed to have great rapport with the young people. And I think Debbie really had a great influence on my life. And I always thought every minister we had, well, each succeeding one was the best we ever had, you know. And I...I seemed to warm up to them, liked them very much. Um, I can not even remember who any of my Sunday school teachers were. But, this woman got me at a very formative period in my life.
Ericksen: When in the progression from the...the Institute to the headquarters.... Where in there did you start thinking about going to...thinking about medical work?
Thomas: Oh, this was very prominent in my thinking. Well, I...I better back up a little bit there. Tom talked about the...Pierson Curtis and his wife. His wife was an MD. And I think she worked a bit on me, that if I were going out as a missionary I ought to have some background in some phase of medical work, because not knowing where I was going to be I might not have access to a hospital or any institution that would allow me to have care, so that I might have to be responsible for what was going on. And it was then that I really thought I better go and think about nursing. There was a...a girl who been in my class at Nyack by the name of Marian Burrow [?]. Her parents had been missionaries in China. She had a sister Agnes. And Marian went into nurses training preparatory to foreign service. And she went to this Englewood Hospital, and that’s how I got interested in Englewood, which was just about, oh, twenty miles or so from Nyack. And had...the hospital itself had a very good reputation of being a training school for people who, at teachers college, wanted work in ward management and things like that. They came out to our hospital. It was a community hospital, so we took everything, excepting communicable diseases. So, it seemed to be that everything was in such proximity that it wasn’t hard to make decisions because it seemed as if, well, this place was a place I could go. And again, I didn’t have very much money, but then I didn’t need much at the hospital because expenses were taken care of. And...but I had saved enough so I could get my uniforms and so on. But I kept this kind of a secret until I had to give some references. And I gave the reference of the girl I was living with, and she worked for the president of the C&MA. And came to me one day and she said, “Ruth, are you really deciding to go take up nursing?” And then I realized she knew. And I said, “Yes.” And so I went into hospital.
Ericksen: What...what was involved in your decision to go to Wheaton? Why did you...
Ericksen: ...decide to go?
Thomas: ...well, because Tom was there [chuckles].
Thomas: I think that.... Well, I knew something about Wheaton. Of course, in those days the C&MA didn’t go in much for higher education. The Institute, yes, and their Bible schools, which they had throughout the United States. But, the home secretary (they call him the home secretary) of the C&MA had a son who went to Asbury. And we just wondered, you know, going to college? This was something that not of many of my close friends were doing, but Ted did. And then I got so I did not feel that it was such an awful thing to do. But, I have a different feeling for Wheaton, from what Tom has. I am really a very loyal Wheaton fan. And....
Howard Thomas: May I interrupt long enough to invite you to have some...some coffee and a cookie or tea and cookie?
Thomas: I have...it’s not a perfect institution, but I look at it as a place where we both could have jobs and they helped us get an education that might not have been possible for both us otherwise. Now that’s not perhaps not the most important reason. But, I liked its standards. I had no difficulty fitting in to what they allowed and what they did not allow. That never bothered me. Because I...I think it was part of my background too because in my home we never had a deck of cards, we never went to movies. Our...my whole outlet as I was growing up was the church. So that some of the requirements were not irksome to me at all. I...I adored Dr. [J. Oliver] Buswell [president of the college], I had so much respect for him.
Ericksen: Anything particular...
Ericksen: ...for that?
Thomas: ...he was such a scholar. And there never any question as to what stand he was going to take. I remember when his little girl Ruthy was in...in school there in Wheaton, and they were going to have dancing in the school. And he went to bat on that. He said...and the..the principal said, “Well, she does not have to enter into it, she can be excused.” He said, “That is not the point. You are making her seem different, and making...setting her aside. And she is part of that group, and she should not have to take that stand for herself.” Since I said to him...I just thought he was so courageous. And then when he was going through this difficulty with the...with the presbytery [pauses]...
Thomas: ...and seminary. I could see his point of view, and I admired him so for taking his stand and...and standing up and being counted. I just thought this was not only a courageous thing to do, but the right thing for him to do. And I...I could see how he had to do this, because this...this was what he perceived as right. And then when Tom decided to go to seminary, his...Dr. Buswell’s secretary was very glad that he was, because I could stay on and work in...in her department. She and I fitted in very well, and I liked working there. And apparently I was satisfactory to her or she would have found another place for me. But then when we decided to go out as missionaries under the Presbyterian board, she said, “Ruth knowing all you know about them, how can you do this?” And yet he, Dr. Buswell, never talked to me, trying to change my position. I always felt he...he thought, “if after all she knows she still wants to do that, that’s all right.” But he was...he was very wonderful through all this, and as I say, never tried to change my position or my mind as to what I wanted to do. [pauses] Do you want to know when I became a Presbyterian?
Thomas: Tom had this small country church out at...near Rockford, Illinois. Did he tell you at all about this?
Ericksen: I think he talked about it briefly.
Thomas: Oh. Well, it was in a very prosperous rural agriculture community and half to three-fourths of the church members were college graduates, many of them from Wheaton. And my membership was in the Scranton C&MA church, and then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to join the Presbyterian church here while Tom is a pastor here.” So I did and I think I have been a good Presbyterian ever since.
Howard Thomas: You better be.
Thomas: But...and we still are in correspondence with many of the people out there, and that was back in the late ‘30s, can you imagine that? It was just a beautiful little church. I had such loyalty to that church.
Ericksen: The Presbyterian church?
Thomas: In Kishwaukee, out in Illinois. That when we went to live in Ithaca, you see, in the ‘40s then, and became very much involved with the...in the Presbyterian church there, but not as members. I...I hesitated a long, long time before I would change my membership to Ithaca. I...I just loved that little church out there in Kishwaukee. So when I finally decided that now I was living in Ithaca, my interests were there, then in the ‘50s I had my letter transferred. I felt the same way about Ithaca then, when we came here, it was a long time before I had my membership changed down here. But I was glad in each instance when I had, because my whole feeling toward the church itself was different, the congregation, the minister, once I became a member. And I became an elder in the Presbyterian church here [in North Carolina] and I have been very happy with my membership here.
Ericksen: What sort of role did the...the church in Kish...
Ericksen: ...Kishwaukee, have in your work overseas?
Thomas: Well, it was from that church that we went overseas. The people were...I always felt were right behind us. They were...were very proud to think that they had missionaries in China, from their church. Although, they did have people from their church who were in Africa as missionaries, a family. And so a small congregation with, at that particular time, two...or I mean two full-time families working in foreign countries. They were very proud of this. And they corresponded. One family sent us cookies one year at Christmas time. When they came they were nothing but crumbs, because [laughs] it...it had to come in by rail and then carried by a mail carrier, oh I forget how many days that was, something like thirteen days, he walked the road and carried this on a bamboo pole, you know, by the time the cookies got to me they were...got to us, but oh the crumbs were awfully good. [laughs]
Thomas: We scooped them up with spoons...the package was intact but they just were crumbly. And after we came back they insisted that we come and...and speak at the church, even though we...we were not anywhere near where it was convenient for us to do that, but we worked it into our plans. And we just felt they were behind us spiritually.
Thomas: We are sure they prayed for us constantly, because they were our home church now, you know. And their letters were just great sources of encouragement.
Ericksen: In the decision that you had to make when you were offered the station in China, [pauses] who held out the longest?
Howard Thomas: [softly] Can [?] I listen to your lines [?]?
Thomas: I do not know that we really held out. You see we had to make a decision in what we were going to be doing, because I had finished now with Wheaton, he had finished at seminary, and while he was considering...he had considered a church, but he taken this job in Aurora, at the first Presbyterian church there. That part had sort of settled. But as I think back, I think I was feeling it was a stepping stone...or a holding pattern rather. That we would be there until something else up opened up, and.... Not another church but a place on the mission field. And when the word came that there was this opening, I think my first feeling was “it’s China, that...[laughs] that’s not in my plans.” But, when we heard more about it and the need there, we...I do not think there was any question that we were not going to take it. I think we [pauses]...we never make decisions one...each by himself, it’s always a joint decision. And we all...we have to be unanimous on it before we do it. So, I don’t think one of us held out above the other. Did he tell you differently?
Ericksen: ..no, I was just curious...
Thomas: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Ericksen: ...about the dynamics...
Ericksen: ...of the decision. I just thought of a couple of other things, I would like to go back to Wheaton...
Thomas: Yeah, uh-huh.
Ericksen: ...for just a minute. Do you recall anything about the...the prayer groups, or whatever there were on campus for..... Were there groups on campus?
Thomas: Yeah, there were groups.... I don’t.... Well, you see, we didn’t live on campus.
Ericksen: Where did you live?
Thomas: We lived over on Washington Street, in a private home, that one year we were together. Then when he went into seminary he was home only weekends, and we had a small apartment. But you see, I was so...working so many hours, and then having to study, that I really didn’t do much...do very much socializing on campus. Um, they had prayer meetings, I think, everyday at noon in Blanchard Hall, didn’t they?
Howard Thomas: I don’t know.
Thomas: I think they did. But I didn’t go up to those, because, again, I only had this much time, and it wasn’t that I could [pause] eat and run. I...I ate and ran back to the office, or the study, but they did have them, and they also had the religious emphasis weeks, and we had chapel every day. And it was compulsory chapel, because they came and took the roll. And Doc...when Doctor Buswell was in town, he always talked, and he’d go through the Psalms. Every day, he talked on one part of the Psalms, and when he wasn’t there, there’d be other faculty members who took over. I was there when Pierce Chapel was built, and...
Howard Thomas: [faintly] Pierce?
Thomas: ...Pierce, uh huh. Yes, that’s what it was called first, Tom. Pierce gave the money in memory of his wife, for our chapel. I don’t know what it is now, what they call it now, but I think...
Howard Thomas: That was there when I was there. That was there when I was there. It was built before I went to Wheaton. That’s where we always had chapel. I think your talking about the new one.
Thomas: Not the new one, no...no. [pauses] Well, maybe it was named Pierce, I guess that was it. And then, there were the two churches, there was a Bible church, and the chapel.
Ericksen: College Church.
Thomas: College Church. I always went to the College Church.
Ericksen: Who was the pastor there when you were there, do you recall?
Thomas: Evan Welsh. Evan Welsh was pastor. Did you know Evan Welsh?
Thomas: He died just a few years ago [in 1981]. His widow [Olena Mae (Hendrickson) Welsh], I think, is still living there.
Howard Thomas: [faintly] He was a great man.
Thomas: Oh, he was a tremendous man. Had a brother who was a doctor.
Howard Thomas: [faintly, unclear response]
Thomas: He’d married...Evan had married a...a Mortenson, who had a daughter that became a missionary in Thailand, didn’t she? One that had a little boy that spoke Chinese, wouldn’t speak on the boats coming home.
Howard Thomas: [faintly, unclear response] Ken Landon
Thomas: Ken Landon, yeah.
Howard Thomas: He wrote (what was the name of the book) Anna and...The King and I. Ken Landon.. [Kenneth Landon’s wife, Margaret (Mortenson) Landon wrote Anna and the King of Siam, which was later adapted by others into the musical The King and I.]
Thomas: They were all people that we knew, at that time.
Ericksen: Now, getting back into line with the chronology, you...you then made the decision...decision to go to China...
Ericksen: ...[unclear] station. And you made the journey that your husband described in the interview [Collection 298, Tape T1]. And, I think he mentioned that you had a three-month...?
Thomas: No, we didn’t...we had no children.
Thomas: We have no children.
Ericksen: There was someone [unclear]
Thomas: A doctor and his wife [Kenneth and Margaret Landon] who were going out with us had this three-month ol...five-month old baby when we started, maybe turned six months on the trip, and he had to be carried in while we rode horses, and he was a delightful boy.
Ericksen: Do you recall any of your first impressions of China?
Thomas: Well, I think Tom spoke about these long [?] carriers with us, and how we..they had a service by themselves every night, and when we had heard about them, of course, we were told they were the headhunters, and I thought “Oh dear.” You know, “Do you...what do you do, do you kind of be looking out for instances all the way along?” But one thing that came to me, very quickly, and...and you learned some of these things the hard way. We had stopped as we were going up the mountain, and one of them had brought some coconuts, green ones, I mean, in the husks. And he would set these down, take them off his shoulder and put them down on the ground, and I had learned to say “What is this?” “Ni song?” [sp?] And I kicked it with my foot. He wasn’t going to carry that after that, because you don’t touch anything with your feet, and have them be happy about it. That was my first very crude awakening. And the missionary who was traveling with us told me very gently what had happened, and then he apologized for me. Then we came to a grove where they had tangerines. [Sighs] They were the most beautiful tangerines, nothing ever tasted like that, after that, and my first impression. And we went in, we ate as many as we wanted, and then we filled.... We had shoulder bags, we filled those, and then the missionary went to find the man who owned the thing so we could pay him. And we couldn’t find him. The next time we traveled down that way, there was a fence. [laughs]
Thomas: Around the orchard. [laughs] [unclear] so they didn’t have the chance to go and pick to their heart’s content again. But we really wanted to pay for them, but there wasn’t anyone to pay. And then as we.... Oh, I had never been on a horse before, and here we had to ride these ten days on a horse, and I didn’t want to get off, because I had to get on again. I didn’t want to get on because it hurt, and oh, dear, dear, dear. I really was very unhappy about that, but we managed to make it. Another thing was that when we stopped to eat, or make camp, or...at noontime, or make...I mean eat at noon, and make camp at the evening, we missionaries were always by ourselves. And I took for granted, “This is as it should be.” Later, we found ourselves that we didn’t like this. That was again, setting us off from these people. So our practice later became that we would buy the food. We would pay for the food, because we were afraid the people, the horse boys, and the carriers, and so on, would skimp on their food, and then wouldn’t be strong enough for the trip. So we would pay...buy the food, and then we would pay twice as much as anyone else paid, but we didn’t think we should give it to them for nothing. But so it would be more in line was what they would be buying, we had worked this little system out. And so, you know, we ate together, with the men who carried our burdens and took care of us. [clears throat]
Howard Thomas: [unclear] something about [unclear].
Thomas: And then the...we got in...we were sharing our space and then Mrs...Mr. Goodenberger, [sp], the missionary who was traveling with us, said, “Well, now, the last day, we will stop, and bathe and put on our nice clothes, and so we can ride into the village looking pretty nice.” So we all did that, and then he sent a runner ahead to say that in so many hours, we would be there, and then the people could come out and greet us, like they do when visiting dignitaries come to Washington, they give secretaries and people a half hour at lunch so they can go out and clap when they arrive. And Mrs. [Marie] Park [the director of the missionary station], of course, wanted to know if she could dismiss the school, and all of the schoolchildren were out, and so we did ride in in triumph. Well, little Eddie Nelson was only six months old, but his father put him up on his shoulder, I...I can see this, and rode in on the horse, with Eddie up there, and they all greeted us very nicely, and Mrs. Park had already decided where we would stay, which was a logical selection, I think. The doctors staying in what they called the Doctor’s Residence, and there’s the hospital, and Mrs. Park had her residence, which was another residence, not where...not where we were, and she had not hired any servants for any of us, but she had kind of, in her mind, made a selection who would be most appropriate for whom, and so, things went off from there. And we were very happy with our...with the arrangements, with our house. And the Nelsons, I think, were happy with theirs, and that situation was handled very easily. I think Mrs. Park had the most difficult part to play in our...the arrival of these missionaries. Here we were two young...youngish couples, who had never seen overseas work before, who knew all the answers, were smart as all-get-out. And she was the person who had been born in Thailand (of American parents), of course, and had spent most of her adult life in missionary work, knew the people very well, spoke their language like they did, and then to fit four new people into the work. She was the most gracious person, and had infinite patience, and I think she was a very remarkable person. But I look back now, and it could not have been easy for her.
Ericksen: Did she cope well with the change?
Thomas: Oh, she was fantastic. [pauses] Of course, we didn’t have any textbooks or anything, and...and then our teacher didn’t speak English, and this is the way we learned the language. And many a time we had to send notes to her, you know, “What about this?” and “What about that?” She...she was never too busy to take time to help us, and then [clears throat] she would take our tea...our teacher aside, and help...[audio cuts out briefly]...(okay?) help him prepare his lessons for us. She would make out flash cards, and from this, of course, it was a tonal language, we had eight tones, and it was not an easy language to learn, but it was easy to learn to read it, because once you learned your alphabet, you could...and knew what the tones were, for these different characters, you had no trouble, really, in reading it. But the...the tones, again, were another thing. After we...first we studied, the four of us together, and then we decided that we probably would do better if we were in smaller groups. So we broke up, and we got another teacher. And he helped one couple, and one teacher helped us. And then I wanted extra time so Mrs. Park got another man in the village to come and read with me in the afternoon. And the only thing, really, we had to read, was the New Testament. Which, you know, is not the vernacular, and it was tough going, but I...I wanted this to get the facility of being able to read, recognize the characters. And since it all had to be written, because there’s no...there was no printing press, when our Bible was transla...was written over there...it was written by different scribes, and you could tell when one scribe stopped and another one started, because the formation was just a little bit different. Then these plates were sent to Japan, and were photographed, and then printed, and bound, and this was the way we had our New Testament, and certain portions of the Old Testament. So, [name of Thai teacher] his name wasn’t [name of Thai teacher] anyway, he came and read with me every afternoon, and then I would try to translate, because I would have the English version right alongside, and see, again, if I could get certain words. We had a recurring word, (incidentally, it was a monosyllabic language) and this was at the end of...part of the word would be -kwam. So I said to my teacher “What is ‘-kwam’?” And, “Oh,” he said, “You have a word like that, in English.” (This particular fellow could speak some English, speak English.) So then I said...he said “It means ‘Ness.’” And then I said “Oh, we don’t have a word that ‘Ness’ would fit in with this.” “Oh, yes you do, Na-qu,”[sp?] (that’s what they called me). “It means well, you’ve got goodness, and kindness, and [laughs] loveliness.” And he went on and on, and the ‘-kwam’ was the ‘-ness’ part of...of the word. But as I say, it was easy to learn to read it, once you got your diacritical marks in there, and.... But eight tones to be...produce the language again, and say what you wanted to say, you found some problems. They talked about this Mr. Goodenberger [sp?] who accompanied us in. He was talking one day, on the 23rd Psalm [which includes the phrase “he [the Lord] anoints my head with oil.”] and people began to look a little puzzled, and then, finally he wanted to emphasize this, so he went on and on, but he saw that he wasn’t getting it across, and he thought, “Well, I’ll go on, find out later what’s the matter.” So he asks one of the men (or I guess the pastor) “What was the trouble?” he said. “Well, you were pouring oil on the cattle all the time, and they thought “What a waste of oil. Now the word for “head,” now notice my head, was [pronounces Thai word] and the word for cattle was [pronounces Thai word].” And, maybe it doesn’t sound different to you, but it is...does to me. And so he was putting the...the “O” in the wrong place. But, oh, you’ve heard many stories about [laughs] using the wrong word in the language, and the difficulties that follow. We had plenty of them. It was a beautiful language, and to hear them read or pray together in church, say the Lord’s Prayer, it was just like music. Because everybody said the same word, in the same tone, at the same time. Whereas, when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we put emphasis in one place, and someone next to us, in another place. But not in that language, because if you did, you weren’t saying what you thought you were saying. [laughs]
Ericksen: Now, could you say something in the language? You....
Thomas: Uh-huh. [pauses] This would be part of the Lord’s Prayer, just toward the end: [Speaks in Thai] Amen. That’s “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory”
Ericksen: Did the...did the people also have a music system?
Thomas: They...they sang the hymns very beautifully, and they would have certain songs that they could sing, oh, nothing like a national anthem.
Howard Thomas: [faint, unclear] songs.
Thomas: They had some songs, but they would be.... I think when I would see it the most would be at a gathering of some kind, or a wedding, or some festivity, then they would engage a singer. And this invariably would be a woman, and she would sing, and very often, hold a fan in front of her place...in front of her face, and they told us later that oftentimes it was a...not a nice song that she was singing, and to hide her embarrassment, she held this fan up. But, oh, when a boy was courting a girl, he would sing, or at the time of harvest, when the moon was full, they would get together, and always in the yard of one of the families where there were young people, the girls would work cotton there, and then the fellows would kind of stand around the fence, and they’d sing back and forth. This is often the time when the courting was done. And the boys looked the girls over, and saw the ones that were the most energetic and as well as pretty. And then the next moon night, he’s be sure to pay a little more attention to her, and eventually they would get married. But, there wasn’t a great deal of...of group singing, like we would say. Now they would sing as they walked along the street at night, simply because nobody walked the street at night unless he was up to some mischief. So you had to make a noise so that people would not be suspicious. If you were quiet, then they were suspicious, if they knew that you were abroad, or somebody was. But if you sang, why, that was...that was very legitimate, and they didn’t get annoyed because they didn’t need to be worried about who that was, or what he was up to.
Ericksen: You mentioned that they sang the hymns fairly well.
Ericksen: Were those Western hymns?
Thomas: Well, these were hymns that had been translated. But there were a number that they would use native tunes to. The people that got their hymn book together I think did very well, the...these were American missionaries. And they loved to sing these native tunes, and so they would sing those every Sunday if you gave them the chance.
Ericksen: What would a typical worship service be like?
Thomas: Oh, very American. [to her husband] Wasn’t it? But they put on dramas. They loved to act. And every drama, every play they put on, regardless of whether it was Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, would be an eating scene, and this was difficult for us to understand, anthropologically, because we were in an area where there was never known famine and yet there was always an eating scene. Now you would expect this in a place where they didn’t get enough to eat, but these people loved...oh, and could they embellish the scene! [laughs] It was just fun to watch. And they had such a good time at it. The Christmas festivities were very nice, and they would do things only when the moon was full, because they didn’t have lights. Now, if it was something special, a special occasion, then we would all light our pressure lamps, and take them, but the people didn’t like to walk abroad at night, but the full moon was all right.
Ericksen: Why didn’t they like walking out at night?
Thomas: Because they were scared.
Thomas: Well, spirits, and mischief and so on. But they would bring their cattle home, and put them under the house (their houses were all built on stilts) and then that was when they would begin to prepare their evening meal, they would close the gate, and they’re in there as...as a family. And unless something like, you’d have Christmas festivities, or some reason or other to go abroad, they didn’t do this at night. And we were...we were the same way. We went in, we closed our door, and one night a week, the missionaries got together, and...and well, we got together most every night to hear the BBC [British Boradcasting Corporation] News, then we went home, and nothing was planned for evening. You got your reading done then, and knitting, and crocheting, [laughs] writing letters.
Ericksen: Going back to the language study for a moment, between the two of you, did you progress at the same...[phone rings, HOWARD THOMAS answers, conversation in background] same rate as you were learning?
Thomas: No, no we didn’t. I had a keener ear for the tones, and Tom was getting very frustrated, he being the religious leader, he felt that he really must get this down. So he said to Mrs. Park one day, “I don’t know what to do about this, but I’m just not getting the...where I should.” So she said...I don’t know who made the suggestion, but the upshot was that he went to a Christian village, (he explained to you why we called them Christian villages) the farthest away from where we lived, which maybe took him two days to get there and had them build a little house for him. Nobody there could speak any...oh, maybe two or three words of English, “How are you?” that sort of thing, but not carry on a conversation. And he went down there, and they said they would help him. So he was there, working the fields, he went out in the fields and worked with them, and talked with them, he had a certain amount of...a certain number of hours every day of real concentrated study. But he got to know the idioms and more than just the market language. And when he came back at the end of three months, he was talking circles around the rest of us. And from that time on, there was a difference. He was the star pupil, because he had...he’d...oh, he was terrific! There was...I could differentiate between the tones a little easier than he could, but not after he came back. He was better than I was. We had a doctor in Thailand, [unclear] and he’d find a way to say “Do you know what the right word was?” He didn’t know the term. Where it had this kind of mark on it, he’d always go like this. [makes some kind of sign with her hands] Or if it was a falling sound, he’d go like that. [makes a sign with her hands] And so you’d have to make sign language, as well as the verbal language.
END OF TAPE