Mary Thomas Schiek Sargent Letters
Hailing from a seemingly remote college town on the edge of the Wisconsin prairie, Ripon College graduates increasingly find their way to various corners of the globe..
Rapid growth in air travel and the rise of multi-national firms have made touring the world an ever-more popular option for students upon graduation – a luxury previously reserved for the elite and government officials.
Surprisingly enough, one of Ripon’s most traveled graduates may just be the Class of 1939’s Mary Thomas Schiek Sargent, who registered time spent living in India, Ghana, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Honduras, Somalia and Pakistan.
After graduating from Ripon College with majors in biology and English, Sargent initially worked as a copywriter for advertising in radio and the newspaper business.
When World War II broke out, she volunteered for the Red Cross, which led her to taking care of injured soldiers in India. Although she had rarely traveled growing up or as a student, Sargent felt that service was a necessary part of life that meant a great deal to her and “always has since I come from a family who felt that we all owed a ‘kind of rent’ for living in the world.”
Her service was not without risks. While riding on the back of a truck in India , she fell off and was temporarily paralyzed. While recuperating in a Red Cross hospital , she helped injured soldiers recover by teaching them art. She met her husband, Benjamin Sargent, there in 1945.
The couple married in 1948 and moved to Waukesha, Wis., where they lived and worked until 1962, before being chosen into the United States Foreign Service.
Selections from letters written by Sargent between 1962 and 1979 while stationed overseas to friends and family members in the United States can be viewed below.
The collection recently was donated to the Ripon College Archives and represents a fascinating perspective into a volatile period in world history.
-By Andrew Prellwitz
Librarian, Archivist and German Instructor
Selections from the letters of Mary Schiek Thomas Sargent, Class of 1939
In 1960, Ben took the foreign services exam with hopes of working abroad. He was accepted and placed in Accra, Ghana, in 1962. Ghana been established as a country only in 1960 after many years as a British colony. The political situation was quite tenuous, with Kwame Nkrumah establishing himself as president for life and had detained an estimated 400 to 2,000 opponents in 1961 (Ghana: A Country Study, 1995, p.33). However, Mary is often somewhat removed from these political trials and focuses on adapting to her new life and culture. In the following excerpt from a May 1962 letter, she discusses the daily trials and expectations of maintaining a household in Accra.
We had been warned about the first few days of “cultural shock,” but having lived in India, I did not suppose I would feel it, but I did. It is difficult to explain what it is like, this Cultural Shock, because it is so vague. All the problems of house-keeping, the food tastes strange, and the water tastes funny and you keep worrying about all the don’ts. Don’t walk barefoot, don’t eat salad greens until they have been soaked in disinfectant, don’t use clothes dried outside until they haven ironed to kill the tumble bugs which burrow into your skin, don’t go to bed until you have sprayed for mosquitoes, don’t forget to take your Daraprin, the malaria depressant, don’t get too tired or you will come down with one of the many odd fevers and don’t expect to see much of your husband because he is so concerned with his new job. Of course there are also many “dos.” Do be sure to call on the wives of your husband’s superiors, do be sure to leave a Mr. and Mrs. calling card and one of your husband’s cards, do stay only twenty minutes, do try to remember peoples’ names, do haggle over the prices in the market, they expect you to, but this is hard to do when you still can’t make sense of the shillings and pence. Do be getting your house settled and at the same time be ready for your callers.
In 1964, Ben was moved to another post, this time in Kabul, Afghanistan. Again, the Sargents lived in a challenging political situation. During their tenure in Kabul, King Zahir Shah commissioned the government to write a new constitution. A national gathering of 254 representatives from across the country wrote a document that created a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary. At the same time, the Americans and Soviets are exerting influence on the country through monetary aid and infrastructure improvements. In her Jan. 2, 1965, letter to family and friends, Mary writes about the landscape and how the Americans were creating roads through the mountains outside of Jalalabad.
January 2, 1965
As I have said, the mountains are all around us like a bowl and wherever we go, we go out through these. One of the most spectacular ways is the new road built by the American Engineers that goes from Kabul north and northeast through the range of mountains around us and then down the river gorge a very sharp steep decline as the road drops down to the plains of Jellalabad [sic]… Near Jellalabad are some ecological excavations so, on the 18th of December, four of us set out to see them. … I had never been through the gorge and really it is so much, one can hardly describe it. We are nearly 7,000 feet high here in Kabul. We drive 40 miles and enter the gorge. There used to be an old camel train that skirted along the edge of this roaring torrent … and it was along this that the Americans carved the road out of the sheer rock. … Rocks, you never saw such huge rocks. … In fact, great sections of mountains look as though they were all one big rock. Of course, the river is full of rocks so that the water is all rough and roaring and they are building several power dams along here. When you see the whole river trying to squeeze through an opening a few feet wide and plunging on down all green and beautiful, it is scary.
La Paz, Bolivia 1967-1970
In 1967, Ben and Mary were moved to a new assignment in La Paz, Bolivia. During her time here, Mary first discusses the challenges of living in one of the world’s highest cities. The La Paz airport is at situated at 13,000 feet, an altitude comparable to Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc. Immediately prior to the Sargents’ arrival in Bolivia, the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, had been hunted down and killed by the Bolivian Army and CIA operatives. As the public learned more about Guevara’s death, the public and especially students grew increasingly angry. In her Aug. 12, 1968, letter, Mary writes of the protests in the streets.
Lapaz, August 12, 1968
Meanwhile, the students who have been demonstrating every day, trying to stir up something, having “grand manifestations” every day, REALLY got going. Heaved a rock through a window at the Ambassador’s residence and threatened all manner of trouble. Last Saturday, the traitor, the cabinet minister who borrowed the President’s copy of Che Quivera’s [sic] diary and sold it to Cuba, came back and announced that he had been paid by our CIA and threw blame with names, right and left, a nice smoke screen for his own treachery, so that now things could go either way!
“Things were bad yesterday. Students stoning many windows and planning a meeting this evening and then, to get AID, USIS and, of course, the American Embassy. Well, since Ben is the Assistant Security Officer, I packed him a big bag of tuna fish sandwiches and he went to spend the night in the Embassy with the Marines. I gathered that he is the one to make the decisions to “burn” and the plan is to defend the building, floor by floor, and if that fails, to burn all the important papers; the Marines are especially trained for this job and they were keeping in touch with the other Embassy officers around town, on walky-talkies.
Tegucigalpa, Honduras 1970-1974
In 1970, Ben and Mary changed posts for Tegucigalpa, Honduras, following the Football War of 1969 in which El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief war over immigration and land issues spurred on by several hostile world cup qualification soccer (football) games. Also during this period, the Honduran Air Force General Oswaldo Lopez Arellano seized power from civilian President Ramon Villeda Morales in 1972. By this time, Mary has become a seasoned veteran of the Foreign Service. She sees her position as the wife of a foreign service officer as one of service in which she helps create both the social life of the embassy and volunteers in the local community to create good sentiment toward the United States. In Ghana, Afghanistan and Bolivia, Mary had volunteered in hospitals, raised money for local children, and taught art. However, by 1972, society, including the foreign service, was changing its culture in not assuming women would serve as homemakers.
September 13, 1972
I feel as though some of the young ones could take on some of the jobs … but with woman’s lib … the State Department no longer gets two for the price of one. … Wives may no longer be mentioned in the efficiency reports … so all the new wives are doing their own thing …which is not baking cookies for Thanksgiving services or coming to meetings, etc. I am trying to round them up for one next week, and then I am going to try to get them to help us with sewing the little smocks for the child care center which was about destroyed when someone set fire to the biggest down town market here. We have cut out 214 already and next it will be 200 crib sheets. It is almost easier to do it myself than try to talk others into helping. The whole new look will be very bad for the foreign service … and its morale. We were better off when we only had officers whose wives were dedicated, too.
Mogadishu, Somalia, 1974-1977
In Mogadishu, Somalia, Mary experiences a much more challenging daily life. Most American groups had pulled out of Somalia, and the Soviet Union and China were applying greater influence on the country.
August 14, 1974
This post was huge before the great reduction of the staff, AID, peace corps, etc. …Thousands of Americans. …Now there (are) less than 50 … but a nice international bunch… The British company that runs Somalia’s airline for them. …French, Indian and lots, thousands, of Russians living in a huge complex. … Lots of Red Chinese. … We are not allowed to take photographs … nor stop and look at the harbor … nor drive more than 20 miles out of town. … Maybe I will take time to write a book … but right now …I am busy being the maid. Tomorrow a new secretary arrives … and we will have a party for her.
October 3, 1974
Mogadiscio is a strange place, an old Arabian seaport in a country run by the military since their revolution about five years ago. Thousands of Russians are here “helping” them. All imports have been cut off so that we cannot buy butter, cheese, milk and so on, and it is hard to find sugar, rice and flour. We are managing, and I will be well-trained if I ever decide to be a pioneer, making my own cheese, bread and so on.
Karachi, Pakistan, 1977-1979
In their final tour of duty, Mary and Ben experience some of the most dangerous situations of their careers. Political instability leads to strikes and rioting, which leaves Mary often at home in her embassy residence working to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy.
April 11, 1977
As you have read … Karachi is just one strike after another … and tho (sic) there is no violence near us … still we must stay in in our own compounds and not go to shop. … And most of the servants do not come … and only half the workman (sic), so that the ones who do come cannot work and are worried about getting home safely. … One cannot blame them as they are worried about their homes and their families. …
When we get in, we lock the doors to be safe. … There has been an anonymous letter sent to the consulate predicting dire things “to those who support Bhutto and the People’s Party”… Ben does not think it is a serious threat … and the police and secret police are trying to decide what measures to take … and how to, or if, to warn all the Americans. … I have not been afraid … but then, he does not tell me the things which might worry me … and says in case of kidnapping … the less information I have … the better.
May 1, 1977
Pakistan had an election. The Peoples’ Party won. The party that lost is so mad that they are striking and rioting and preventing others from working. The government, in order to stop the fighting, killing, looting and burning, has declared an “indefinite curfew.” Not a wheel turns; people may only leave their houses for a few hours a day, so no one can return to work, nothing can be bought in the markets, even if you could get there.
So I sew. I have miles of nice lemon-colored fabric. It used to be four huge pairs of draperies, used and dirty. They said they could dry clean them … but they WASHED them. The buckram dissolved, the cotton lining shrank, they ironed them with a very hot iron … they ruined them. … So I ripped them up and washed them and am making things. It keeps me out of trouble when I am not gardening, making bread, scraping paint, waxing the tiles or playing my lovely piano. I have finally “caught on” to reading the notes, and it is very exciting. Even Ben said the other night “it is a pleasure to hear you play.”