I had a lovely conversation with Heifer International’s World Ark editor Jason Woods earlier this week. Here is Jason’s blog post from that interview.
This post will be more personal than my normal posts. My husband Rex and I are currently nearing the end of a two-month stay at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, where I’ve been sequestering myself to work on my book-in-progress about the first decade of the Heifer Project (today’s Heifer International) while Rex has been volunteering in the maintenance department. Quite by coincidence, and fortunately for me, the Heifer International Board of Directors and the Heifer Foundation Board held their meetings at the Ranch this week. The Heifer Board invited me to sit in on Monday, and I am filled with admiration for the incredible talent of Board members and staff alike, appreciation for the work that Heifer is doing both here and abroad, and anticipation of the wonderful things to come.
A highlight of the meeting for me was hearing Senior Vice President of Marketing Christy Moore tell of the marketing team’s visit to Honduras to see for themselves the impact of Heifer’s work there. Today, Heifer is so much more than just giving an animal to recipients, as it was in the beginning. It’s about building sustainable communities, achieving living incomes for community members through their small farms. At the dairy plant the team visited, Heifer has assisted a small business on the verge of closing by providing the owners with help in how to market the cheese they were making, teaching them good manufacturing practices, and providing capital for needed equipment. Heifer’s signature “Passing on the Gift®” value is achieved when the owners are able to pass on the knowledge of hygienic dairy practices to their small farm suppliers. The business has become so successful that families who had migrated to the United States for work are able to move back home because there are jobs for them there now, from the supply end to the marketing end of the cheese business.
In front of every Board member during the meetings, on the back of their name card, was Heifer’s mission statement. Another highlight for me was hearing of Heifer’s plans to expand their efforts in working at the last part of that statement: taking care of the earth. They already teach the sustainable methods of agriculture to small holder farmers in areas being affected by climate change, methods that help to reclaim, replenish, and protect the soil and water sources. The next step will be to partner with green investors to be able to expand this work to a scale that will help cool the planet.
The third highlight for me was to hear the Board begin their planning for a major global celebration of the organization’s 75th anniversary next year. It seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating the 70th! I’m looking forward to seeing what the planning committee comes up with this time around and to participating in whatever ways I’m asked and able.
The culminating highlight of the day for me was to share the evening stage with Heifer founder Dan West’s daughter in what was billed on the Board’s agenda as “An Evening with Jan Schrock and Peggy Miller,” or as Jan likes to call it, “The Jan and Peggy Show.” This is the fourth time we have presented together, with Jan sharing stories about her father and how he became Heifer’s founder and me sharing the history of Heifer’s beginnings, including stories of the seagoing cowboys and Heifer’s legacy. A bonus was having longtime Heifer Executive Director Thurl Metzger’s daughter Kathleen McNamee present to share about her father’s role in purchasing the Heifer Ranch. The Ranch staff created a very festive atmosphere in an outdoor pavilion and served a delicious meal using Ranch-raised meat and produce that set just the right tone for a delightful evening with the Board members, Heifer International’s Leadership Cabinet, and Heifer Ranch/Heifer USA staff and volunteers. A night to be long remembered.
Next post: A tour of Heifer Ranch with the Heifer Foundation Board.
I’m late with this post, as I was absorbed last week in the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference where I was a keynote speaker. I invite you to listen to the live streaming of my illustrated presentation that gives the back story of how I became the documenter of the seagoing cowboy history, the legacy of the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project, and the importance of continuing to deliver hope to the next generation. The speech, which you can find here: https://livestream.com/livingstreamcob/NOAC2017/videos/162425620 begins at 13 minutes into the session and lasts for 70 minutes. I know — that’s a long speech! But that’s what I was contracted for and that’s what I gave. If you wish to jump to the seagoing cowboy part, you can start at 25:30 minutes (including the reading of my picture book The Seagoing Cowboy) or start at 35 minutes to skip the picture book reading and stop wherever you wish. Enjoy!
Next post will pick up Part II of the pre-WWII seagoing cowboys.
For those who might be interested, I will be a keynote speaker at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference at Lake Junaluska Conference Center in North Carolina Thursday, September 7. My illustrated talk will be live streamed at 10:30 a.m. at http://www.brethren.org/Inspiration2017 and can be accessed later, as well. My topic will be “Delivering Hope to the Next Generation.” The speech will give the back story of how I became the documenter of the seagoing cowboy history, the legacy of the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project, and the importance of continuing to deliver hope to the next generation. I’d be honored to have you join me.
My work of fifteen years now has a name: The Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project, with thanks to the family of seagoing cowboy Alvin Zook for coming up with this title. The start of a new year is always a good time to look back and ahead; I’m adding a first Friday post this month to do just that.
It was fifteen years ago this month that I made my first seagoing cowboy interview with a former pastor of mine, Albert Guyer. I knew he had gone to Poland with livestock, and I wanted to know what my Grandpa Abe’s trip might have been like. Al’s story hooked me in and got me started on a journey that culminated this past year with the publication of my first book, the children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy. That event pretty well defined my professional year, first planning for its release the end of March and then promoting it throughout the remainder of the year.
A local book signing and release party was followed by speaking events and signings for all ages that have taken me from coast to coast, with stops in Indiana and Iowa, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, New York state, Maryland, Virginia, back to California, on to Arizona, and Texas, often connecting with seagoing cowboys. I’m grateful to my many readers for the warm and enthusiastic reception of my book and the seagoing cowboy story. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m looking forward to a different pace and focus for 2017.
I’m excited about the year to come. It will start with a trip next week to Germany, where I will be able to visit the seagoing cowboy exhibit at the Upper Silesian Museum in Ratingen. Then my focus turns to the writing of a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, including the seagoing cowboy story as it relates to Heifer. I plan to sequester myself for six months during the year at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, to that end. Three months in the middle of that will be spent in “Oma and Opa time” assisting our daughter in Ohio with child care while she tests the waters of running a friend’s market garden for the summer.
If all works as planned, the year will end with another trip abroad — this time to Finland for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the S. S. Park Victory and the ten sailors who lost their lives in the sinking of the ship off the coast of Finland in December, 1947. The Park Victory had been one of UNRRA’s livestock ships, making six trips prior to its demise while shipping coal. It’s a famous ship wreck in Finland, but the livestock portion of the ship’s history was unknown there until one of the men working on the commemoration found my website.
I will only be taking a limited number of speaking engagements this year. I’m looking forward to being the speaker for a Heifer International event in Michigan April 8, in being the featured author to kick off the children’s summer reading program at the Goshen, Indiana, public library in June with the theme of “Build a Better World,” and in being a keynote speaker at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) in North Carolina in September. Aside from that, my plan is to write, write, write!
Many wonderful pieces of seagoing cowboy and Heifer Project history happened in 1947, so look for lots of 70-year commemorations in my blog posts throughout the year. I’m looking forward to a great year, and I wish you one, as well!
In this concluding post on recipients in Poland, I want to say more about my experience with Magda and Grace and more about Ralph Witmer’s experience. Little did I know when I set out for Poland in 2013 that I would become a link connecting the seagoing cowboys with people who are preserving the history of Gdansk. Before I left home, I had pulled some 800 images of postwar Gdansk from my seagoing cowboy computer files onto a flash drive to take with me. I printed out hard copies of about 280 of those images, nine to a page, hoping to be able to identify buildings and locations in the photos. When I first sat down with Magda and Grace after my arrival, I had no idea what a treasure I was bringing my new friends in Gdansk.
You’ll remember that Madga is studying architectural history and Grace is a photographer and curator of historical photos. The two women looked over the images sheet by sheet and their excitement grew as they identified many of the locations, especially when they came to the colored images scanned from slides. Poland had no color film at the time these images were taken. I realized then just how special my collection is. I’ve always been grateful to the seagoing cowboys for so generously sharing their materials with me, but now I feel it ever so much more. Their generosity has brought a wonderful gift to the Polish people.
The offshoot of all of this is that the story is getting out in Poland. Grace is one of those persons who is a mover and a shaker with lots of connections. She was so taken with the seagoing cowboy photos that she arranged for interviews for me on my last day in Gdansk with a newspaper reporter and a TV reporter. The article that appeared in the newspaper the next morning generated a number of phone calls to the newsroom from people remembering those days or discovering the history.
The first photo had a young girl in it of whom one reader said, “That’s my grandmother in that photo!” But the really special part of this piece of the story is that I received an email from Grace shortly after I arrived home, saying that her aunt called her when she read the article and told Grace that her own grandparents had received an American cow, something Grace hadn’t known. Her aunt told her the cow soon gave birth to a calf, which meant step by step improvement for the family. Grace said her “grandparents lived on the outskirts of Gdansk and they had five children, so this cow was very important to them.” One of the biggest rewards of my work has been helping people connect with their family history. I’m thrilled that this has happened for Grace!
Seagoing cowboy Ralph Witmer had a similar experience when he returned to Poland last year after 69 years. Ralph’s son Nelson, who went with him, wrote a detailed letter home and has given me permission to share this piece of it:
Before we started our walk [through the old city of Gdansk, our guide] Margaret told us she had much interest in Dad’s story and had done much research. She said before we could go on she had to show us something. She pulled from her pocket a photo of her Grandfather sitting astride a horse. A horse that he had gotten from the Americans who brought them over on ships with many other goods and supplies to help in the rebuilding effort. Margaret’s grandfather had moved to Danzig after losing two homes in the countryside to bombing. He had lost almost everything. Many people were leaving because of the destruction. But he was a builder and stayed because he knew they could not give up. They must rebuild. He didn’t have much, but he did have a cart – and now he had a horse. And with that horse and cart he joined in the process of cleaning up the rubble and rebuilding Gdansk. With that Margaret gave Dad a hug and said, “Thank you, for my Grandfather.” And so we started to meet the kind, appreciative, generous people of Poland.
Grace and Magda are working on plans for an exhibition in Gdansk of photos from my collection, because they see them as an important piece of the city’s postwar history that needs to be shared. They have applied for a grant from the U. S. Embassy in Poland, so far without success. I’m considering trying to raise money through an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen, but haven’t had the time to pursue that, as yet. If any of my readers know of sources that may be good possibilities, please be in touch with me. I’d very much like to see this happen while there are still seagoing cowboys, like Ralph, healthy enough to make the trip to participate.
Claire Ewart’s vibrant illustrations bring the story to life, and book designer Paul Stocksdale’s map illustrated with historical photos following the story adds tremendous value to the book.
I’m grateful to Brethren Press for taking on this project and to all the seagoing cowboys who have shared their stories with me. You can purchase the book here.
Claire Ewart and I will be signing books at Better World Books in Goshen, Indiana, from 6:00 to 8:00 tomorrow night, April 1 (no fooling!). I’ll have my private launch party on Saturday, then head on down to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I’ll be presenting at Heifer International as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 16. Watch my events page on my website for something near you.