ALBERT SCHWEITZER AND THE HASTINGS COMMUNITY
(A speech in which Elinore Barber describes the fifteen-year relationship
that existed between Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s African Hospital and
Hastings College and the Hastings, Nebraska community.)
Seven hundred thirty-two thousand, four hundred sixty-six sewn or knitted items, weighing more than a ton; scores of carpenter and gardening tools; several sets of surgical and basic diagnostic medical instruments; more than twenty autograph notes, lists, and letters—at least two of which are of historic importance; more than one hundred lectures, lecture-recitals, and concerts given for the financial benefit of a mission hospital located on the Ogowé River in a densely forested equatorial area of West Africa, approximately one hundred-eighty miles inland from the Gabonese city of Port Gentil—what does all of this "add up to"? It "adds up to" a significant relationship between the Hastings community and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, renowned philosopher, theologian, musician, medical missionary, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate—a relationship which flourished during the last fifteen years of the Doctor’s life—that is, from 1950 to 1965. In addition to taking stock of the important facets of this relationship and acquainting you with the dedication, the energy, and the expertise of those persons who supplied much of the "fuel" which kept the relationship productive during the decade and one half of its existence, I want to remind you of the rich and varied Schweitzer inheritance that included important concepts in the fields of philosophy, religion, and the performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
But first, I have been asked to relate to you the story of my initial meeting with Doctor Schweitzer and the invitations which resulted from it. I should preface this recounting with the fact that from my childhood years I had been attracted to this man, who showed compassionate concern for all human beings and a great affection for animals. Albert Schweitzer was, in fact, my childhood hero; and more than any other person I wanted to meet him, to hear him speak, and to experience his playing of the music of Sebastian Bach. And so, when I learned that Doctor Schweitzer would be one of the principal speakers at the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration to be held in Aspen, Colorado in July of 1949, I determined that I would make the trip to Aspen to hear him. Two of my closest friends, Gretchen Lainson and Dorothy Tirrell, decided to join me in the venture, and by the end of February, 1949 we had sleeping car reservations on the California Zephyr from Hastings, Nebraska to Glenwood Springs, Colorado for the night of July 3-4 with connecting transportation (bus) from Glenwood to Aspen. The California Zephyr was such a popular train in those days that even though we had booked in February, we were forced to take Roomettes located in different cars of the train. And so we decided to meet for breakfast in the dining car at a fairly early hour in the morning. My Roomette was located in the next to the last car of the train, which by morning was trying to make-up lost time by achieving a near 100-miles per hour speed on the relatively flat land of Eastern Colorado—never mind the swaying and surging which resulted!
As I was walking from my Pullman car through the next sleeping car, an extra large surge threw me into the arms of a gentleman returning from the dining car. As the man began to apologize in French, I looked up to see that he was none other than Doctor Schweitzer himself! In a state of absolute shock, I delved into my meager memory of high school French vocabulary and made my apology as we parted. Once in the dining car, I came out of shock enough to realize that I had missed a real opportunity; and taking the back of a menu, I wrote Doctor Schweitzer a short note in German, recalling our recent meeting and expressing my appreciation for his writings and his wonderful editions of the Bach organ works. I also reminded him that in his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, he mentioned his habit of trying out pipe organs wherever he went. I said that if he were to try out organs in Aspen, I’d love to hear him play, telling him where I would be staying while at the Congress. Calling for a Zephyrette, I tipped her and told her that Doctor Schweitzer was no doubt housed in the last car of the train, since that car (an all drawing-room/bedroom facility) was always attached to the train in either New York City or Boston.
I was not sure that I would get an answer to my note, but in about an hour (shortly after I had gone to the dome car to view the approaching mountains), the Zephyrette came back with a note for me: Doctor Schweitzer did not know whether or not there would be any pipe organs in Aspen, Colorado but if there were any, he hoped that we could find the time to "play for each other"—I hadn’t mentioned "playing for each other"! At any rate, he would like to meet and talk with me. I should keep the note, he said, although he didn’t think I’d have any trouble getting to see him, but he cautioned me that one never knew and that supposedly he and Madame Schweitzer were being lodged in the guest wing of a private home somewhat removed from the area of hotels and ski lodges. I did get to speak briefly with the Doctor, but unfortunately Aspen boasted no pipe organs at that time.
Back in Hastings, where a year later (in 1950) I was scheduled to play one of the recitals during the new French Memorial Chapel dedication month, I sought and received permission to have the United Church Women of Hastings sponsor my concert in order that I might bill it as "a benefit" for Doctor Schweitzer’s Hospital –and thus take up a free-will offering. We raised almost $1,000 in that way, sending the money, a program, and a letter to Doctor Schweitzer in Africa. A few weeks later I had a beautiful reply in which the Doctor not only thanked us for the money, but said that he hoped that the next time he and Madame Schweitzer were in Europe I could visit them. Not having known many Europeans (who usually genuinely mean the invitations they issue) at that stage of my life, I really didn’t take the invitation too seriously and put the letter and the pictures the Doctor sent with it, carefully away. The following year, in late August of 1951, a letter came saying that Doctor Schweitzer was again in Europe and would be most happy if I could visit him in his Gunsbach home as soon as possible, since he would be returning to Africa late in the fall. Upon hearing of the invitation, the Hastings College administrative officers made sure that I accepted it, giving their blessing and arranging for my classes and private lessons to be "covered" for the opening two months of the fall term. Fortunately, I had a valid passport and had recently been vaccinated for smallpox (a "then" requirement for travelling abroad).
Hal Lainson’s travel manager was soon making reservations for my trip, and two weeks after I received the invitation I was on board the Cunard Line’s newest ship, the Caronia, sailing for France. I arrived in Gunsbach (the village in which Doctor Schweitzer made his European home) late in September, where I was privileged to live with the Schweitzer family and to have daily Bach coaching from the Doctor. I returned to Hastings via the Mauritania and the Denver Zephyr on November first, full of plans for further Schweitzer benefit lectures and concerts – projects in which the College and the community cooperated in every way possible.
During the winter of 1954, Doctor Schweitzer sent me word that he would again be in Europe, beginning in the late spring. He suggested that I plan to come for as long as I wished during the summer months. I left Hastings the last week of May and, after spending a few days in Great Britain and Paris, arrived in Gunsbach in mid-June. I left Gunsbach in mid-August, returning to the U.S. via Italy and arriving on American shores on Labor Day. Once again, the College backed the program we envisioned for the dissemination of material concerning Doctor Schweitzer, his hospital, and the important work he continued to undertake. So much for the way in which the Schweitzer-Hastings relationship began.
From time to time during the years from 1950 to 1965 the people of Hastings and other communities throughout the State had the privilege of working for Doctor Schweitzer’s hospital. The Lambaréné Hospital was, and is, a sizeable West African compound and jungle clinic established by Doctor Schweitzer on the Ogowè River in 1913 and re-established after World War I (in 1924) several miles further upstream on the Ogowé which flows through the former colony of French Equatorial Africa, now the independent country of Gabôn.
As previously mentioned, in June 1950, the Hastings Council of Church Women sponsored the first of a series of benefit concerts and lecture-recitals for the Lambaréné hospital. Throughout the next fifteen years, the College promoted and sponsored more than one hundred such events, which I presented in Nebraska and neighboring states.
In the fall of 1952, a group of nineteen Hastings business and professional men and women organized the "Hastings Committee for Albert Schweitzer Hospital Benefit." By the spring of 1953 that committee was able to turn over to Doctor Schweitzer a sizeable sum of money which was used in building new wards for the ever-growing leper colony at the hospital. Several of the members of that committee are, or have been, known to some of you. The group included Mr. Gerald Walley, Treasurer, Dr. Warren Berryman, Dr. C.M. Foote, Dr. Hayes Fuhr, Dr. Frank Hewitt, Mr. Tom Jorgenson, Dr. Silas Kessler, Mr. and Mrs. Hal Lainson, Professor Darel McFerren, The Very Reverend Winfield Post, Mr. Lester Stiner, Commander Malcolm Tinker of the Naval Ammunition Depot, Professor Dorothy Tirrell, Public Schools Superintendent and Mrs. Raymond Watson, Hastings College’s President Dale Welch, and Dean Frank Weyer, with myself as chairman. More members were added later.
At one point I asked Doctor Schweitzer if there was work that we in Nebraska could do for his hospital. He replied by giving me samples of various items to be sewn (and in one case knitted) for his patients. I brought these model patterns back with me, and in 1955 the United Church Women of Nebraska elected to sew for his hospital for two years, making blouses and skirts needed for the various female patients, as well as protective bandage covers, bandage squares, and knitted eye-patch covers for the then sizeable colony of lepers which were being treated at the hospital. During the twenty-four months that the Nebraska Council of Church Women sewed for the Hospital, they created significantly more than a ton of materials – a very large supply which broke down into more than 732,466 individual items.
Various transfer companies picked up these boxes of sewed materials from churches located in Nebraska cities, towns, and villages, bringing them free of charge to be stored in our basement, where once a month students from the College worked several hours on a Sunday afternoon sorting, counting, and invoicing the materials for shipment to West Africa. Under Hal Lainson’s aegis, the Dutton-Lainson Company’s packing crew then re-packed the materials in boxes made of new wood one inch thick and banded in steel, securing box-car and ship’s-hold space for each of the eight large shipments of sewed materials sent to the Schweitzer hospital.
Since Hastings College students had during the two years supplied more than 800 man-hours in the counting and invoicing sessions, I felt free to suggest to Doctor Schweitzer the possibility of his writing a letter, describing his search for and his final discovery of the Ethic of Reverence for Life. This letter, which would be helpful to all young people, would be specifically addressed to our Hastings College students. Doctor Schweitzer did take time away from his busy schedule to write this letter addressed to "The Students of Hastings College," a rare and priceless document—"rare and priceless" not only because of its content and the renown of its writer, but also because of its uniqueness. The hand-written five-page letter, beautifully matted and framed through the generosity of the Lainsons is permanently displayed on the East wall of the second floor of Perkins Library.
For the benefit of those persons not totally familiar with Doctor Schweitzer and his work, not only as director and founder of the 450 bed African hospital and its Leprosarium but also as a philosopher, theologian, musician, and former university professor and pastor, I would remind you that Albert Schweitzer was the man who the Editors of Time once honored, not as their customary commendatory "Man of the Year," but as a man for whom the biblical quotation "He that loses his life shall find it," applies. He was the man who the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, when conferring his honorary degree, described as "one who has revived for his own generation the vision of greatness." We are speaking of a man who during his lifetime was the recipient of more than a hundred different medals, including that of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, the highest honor that the citizens of the world can offer to one of their number. We are describing a man who, when addressed by the Assembly of the Union Française in 1951, was honored with these words: "Your country salutes you as one of the most valiant and noble figures of our time, honoring you not only for the Union of France, but for all mankind."
What do I think Doctor Schweitzer’s most outstanding legacy to be? His discovery of the Ethic of Reverence for All Life—a concept that, because of its ideal of humanity, can bring man into a spiritual relationship with the entire universe, thus lending an ethical, but active, core to the culture of his time.
Having described some of Doctor Schweitzer’s numerous honors and many contributions, I think that one might logically ask of me, but what of Albert Schweitzer, the man? What were the most salient qualities of his character? What were the essential elements of his personality? I can only summarize for you those facets of his character which made a deep and lasting impression on me when I lived for a time in his household.
I was continually amazed by his relentless self-discipline, his powers of concentration, and his phenomenal memory. I was constantly impressed by his penetrating mind and by both the breadth and depth of his knowledge. I was always delighted by his sense of humor and his joy for life. But most of all, I was deeply moved by his genuine concern for all those with whom he associated.
I would like to close these remarks by paraphrasing the final words of Doctor Schweitzer’s 1949 Goethe Bicentennial address: "Such were the salient character qualities of Albert Schweitzer, the philosopher, the theologian, the medical doctor, and the musician about whom our thoughts are directed today. There are those both here and afar off who bless him for the wisdom he has given them—so simple and so deep. It is with joy that I count myself to be one of their number."