Borneo? Where is That?
My plane was flying low over the lush tropical jungle. Strange trees
with round tops like giant cabbages towered above the dense forest. Shaggy
trees with droopy branches hung low over the banks of snaky rivers,
silvery in the bright sunlight. We skimmed over the hills as we neared our
destination. In the distance I saw the glimmering blue of the Sulu Sea but
no airport in the expanse of green beneath us. Peering through the small
windows of the two-propeller plane, I finally spotted a small triangular
clearing to which our pilot deftly nosed the airplane. I had goose bumps
as we landed, filled with both anticipation and misgivings. This was my
I was a Kansas farm girl who had spent only one of her twenty-nine
years away from her native state. Now I found myself on this remote,
tropical island named Borneo. I had come a long way since attending a
mission conference at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, where I had
experienced a call to teach in Africa. While viewing slides of African
children, an unbidden question entered my mind, “Can I really learn to
love them?” Nevertheless, I sent an application to our Mission Board who
already knew of my interest. When I received no response, I decided they
must not need me even though we had heard an impassioned plea for
I was offered a position in Mount Olive Lutheran School in LaCrescenta,
California, which I eagerly accepted. The year was an experience in
itself, but only one part is pertinent to this story. I was preparing to
sign a contract for the following year when I received a letter from
Gladys Peterson, my elementary education professor at Bethany.
She wrote, “Since we knew you were interested in Africa last year, we
are wondering if you would consider applying to be an educator in India.
The teacher who is supported by the Kansas Conference Women will be
retiring in two or three years and we would like to have one of our own
Kansas teachers replace her. Our women know you and would like you to be
My immediate thought was, “Oh, my! Here it is again! Can I never get away from it?”
Our Freemount Congregation had always promoted missions, but I was
never going to be a missionary! Neither was I going to be a teacher; yet I
was completing my sixth year as one. After five years as a schoolmarm in rural schools, I returned to college preparing to be a
parish worker. Because of my teaching experience, my counselor advised me
to take additional educational courses while working toward my degree.
Upon graduation the position in LaCrescenta opened up and I became a
I’d mentally said “No” to Africa, but not to India. So I wrote to
the mission board again. This time I did get a response, but it was not a
“yes” to India. Instead they asked, “Would you consider going to
North Borneo? We desperately need teachers there.”
Borneo? Whoever heard of North Borneo?” I opened the atlas for a lesson
in geography and found it was not far from the Philippines, so that gave
an me inkling. Already I knew in my heart that was where I would be going.
We only used long distance telephone for dire emergencies. Instead, I
wrote an airmail letter telling my parents that I was resigning from my
school to go wherever the Mission Board decided to send me, probably
Borneo. Usually a letter took three days each way, but this time I had a
reply in just three days. I opened it with misgivings for they hadn’t
seemed eager to have me go to Africa. Their reply showed no reluctance,
only complete acceptance. “We always knew we would face this some day.
If that is where they need you, you have our blessings.”
Later, I realized that they knew I was not completely at ease about
going to Africa, so they didn’t endorse it either. I have never ceased
to be thankful for the backing and support they gave me in all the big
decisions of my life.
Late in June, 1951, I returned to Kansas, rode a train to
Minneapolis to be cross-examined by the Mission Board, and received a call
to teach in North Borneo.
During the next two months I prepared for my new venture. I bought and
packed the belongings I would need for four years. I read Agnes Keith’s Land
Below the Wind, the story of an American wife of an English government
servant living in Borneo. I viewed slides of the school and people I’d
be working with. It was more civilized than the “ring in the nose and
bone in the hair” picture of Borneo natives that Americans have received
from the Barnum and Bailey sideshows.
The summer was full. Passport, visas and health certificates! Shots and
vaccinations! It seemed an endless list of things to do. The nearest
cities in which I could have a yellow fever shot were Denver and Chicago.
I chose Chicago, a 1600-mile train ride, so I could also visit a college
friend who lived there.
To be issued a passport I had to produce documents from people who
could verify that I was who I said I was, and was born when I said I was.
Birth certificates were not issued routinely in 1922. I gathered all the
papers I needed and my cousin, Lucille Hawkinson, and I drove ninety miles
to Wichita to apply. There I discovered I had to have a live witness,
non-relative, attest for me. Luckily, a school friend worked in Wichita
and, on a moment’s notice, took off work to sign for me.
I was commissioned on Labor Day weekend in Freemount Church. Margaret
Peterson, home on furlough from Africa, represented the Mission Board. We
were singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” when a summer storm
knocked the electricity out. Suddenly, we were in darkness with no organ.
A friend commented that the organist should have known the music well
enough to play it without notes. Well, yes, but not without power!
Everyone kept singing a cappella
and we ended on a high note.
Margaret took me out to dinner in Salina to orient me into the life of
a missionary. That she did! She frightened me by veering to the left when
we were meeting a car, a reaction from her driving on the left side in
Africa. Later I developed the same scary reflex.
My flying date had been set for September 12. On the 8th I
got word that the flight had been postponed for two weeks, till the 26th.
I recorded my reactions in a letter written on the 9th:
“It gave me a blank feeling to hear that we wouldn’t go for two
weeks. I’d said good-bye to everybody (that’s done at any rate) and
had weighed my luggage at the depot in town—seventy pounds! I’d taken
out two sheets so I’d lightened it four pounds to be within my limit.
First time I’ve ever been packed two weeks in advance! We’re going to
can this week, wash curtains, and fill silo. I’m on the W.M.S. (Women’s
Missionary Society) program and several friends haven’t had time
to entertain me. So the two weeks will go quickly enough.”
In the next few days we canned two bushels of peaches, bought pears and
plums to can, and were feeding hay balers and silo fillers. I was more
help to Mom those few days than I had been all summer.
Then another message arrived. The flight had been moved forward a week.
Virg, Doris, Mom and Dad were driving me to Minneapolis so all this
juggling of flights meant juggling their schedules, too.
In Minneapolis I met my two traveling companions, Stan Benson and
Clarence Budke. Recent graduates of Gustavus Adolphus College, they had
been promised that they could go to Africa if they’d spend two years in
Borneo first. Bud had just become engaged to Ruth Larson who was to follow
him to Borneo after graduating from college in the spring of 1952.
I’ve wondered what those two fellows, four or five years younger than
I, thought about traveling with an old maid. But we soon became good
friends and had a great trip together.