Mary Jane Schmidt Remembered (d. 4/23/2016) Co-founder of ANSWER

By Earle Canfield

Twenty some years back, Mary Jane and I hitched up together. As Mary Jane was then retiring after 25 rewarding years of teaching, her family grown, and my daughter heading off to the University of Michigan, we began discussing what kind of a relationship we would forge together. She insisted, “We must go out and build a history together,” and with that she meant she was ready to set out and explore the world, together. She had been abroad only once before, to England and France with her good friend Eleanor, but she wanted to see it all. Our first trip abroad was to Prague and the Czech Republic attending a conference on Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition, exploring King Rudolph’s castle, and visiting the lovely medieval town of Czesky Krumlov. It was momentous for meeting poet Robert Bly, learning of Princess Di’s tragic death, and capsizing our canoe while going over a spillway on the Vlatava river-a refreshing dunk! We continued on to Vienna, Turkey and Greece with encounters and experiences too long to list here.

We would do more trips to Europe. When in Rome we did like the Romans: meeting a wonderful young couple who showed us around their city. He was a member of the Pope’s choir and sang an Aria for us in the middle of the streets in the middle of the night. In Amsterdam, we did theater and museums, and furtively partook of her namesake in our hotel room. We rode bicycles on the Greek Isles, and as we expanded our travels, we rode on the backs of motorcycles and elephants in Nepal. MJ rode shotgun beside Kofi, a big, muscular truck driver, through the jungles of Africa in a former US Army 10 wheel-drive truck, knocking down trees and fording streams, in our quest for squatters to vaccinate. In Apam, Ghana we spent the night atop an old slave fort watching the sun go down, felt the cool off-shore breeze come up, and witnessed the stars light up like laser-points over the ocean in the most beautiful array. There were several trips to Turkey, another medical mission in Honduras, and of course, our many trips together to Nepal beginning in 1997. All these were treasured moments we shared right up until the end. “Oh, Earley,” she said as we talked about our history just a couple of weeks ago, “I had forgotten all about that….thanks for bringing it back.”

That first trip to Nepal, her first to an undeveloped country, was especially hard. Yet, she was masterful as an Occupational therapist in a Children’s Hospital and taught teachers how to teach and play learning-games in a private school in KTM. It was this very first trip where we met our little street girl Uma. MJ did not just facilitate her enrollment in that school, but took measures that ensured her absentee father could not discontinue her education. Uma graduated with honors and is a practicing nurse in Nepal. As “our daughter”, Uma has been so supportive during this difficult time. From the beginning, we would visit schools together, journeying to far off reaches in sweltering jeeps, over dusty, rutty roads, sleep in flea bitten hotels with grimy mosquito nets, suffer stinking toilets and bouts of food poisoning. Despite it all, MJ made at least ten tips to Nepal, meeting hundreds of students, parents and principals and befriending them all.

She loved the children so much. That was when she was at her best….She would hug and hold hands with the students, help them read and write letters, and talk to them in an endearing way that no one had ever talked to them before. She provided the reassurance they needed…..and I needed, too. I remember a time when I was lambasting a principal in front of an illiterate Nepali mother who had no idea why her son needed to attend everyday. As the mother, who couldn’t understand a word, began to squirm in her seat, I saw MJ out of the corner of my eye, quietly putting her hand on the mother’s knee to reassure her that all was going to be fine. After that display, the boy came every day.

MJ was my anchor and kept me headed into the wind. She insisted I go to Tulane University to complete my MPH, even though we would be apart. Her visits to New Orleans that year were simply more adventures we shared: Mardi gras, Cokie Roberts, cockroaches and a hurricane.

Stateside, Mary Jane served as Vice President of the ANSWER Board and for years was the only one who traveled to Nepal and could verify my reports. Her hospitality, faithful attendance, and tactful intervention and coaching took the edge off some of our earlier board meetings and kept our board forging ahead. MJ spent many years as a Sunday School teacher and later married a UCC minister and was especially savvy and helpful as we began visiting churches to find sponsors for ANSWER students. She could quietly talk to people one on one while I was explaining things to others. We were a team, and she knew that working as a couple gave authenticity to our project. ANSWER would not have succeeded without her.

So, I taught her about the world; she taught me about people, and about myself. We shared so much: a love for education, children, travel, church and social involvement. Mary Jane was authentic and selfless; she never told a lie, not even a white one, as lies are self-serving. I never caught her even stretching the truth, and I came to realize how basic that is to raising young leaders. So, it has become my rant: “Nepal doesn’t need any more dishonest leaders, so never stray from the truth!” You will be missed, my dear, but you will live on in many ways, in many people, in many places. You did more than live in “A house by the side of the road and be a friend to man,” You went to all parts of the world and were a friend to all. Thank you.

Memorial Donations For Mary Jane

Mary Jane will be memorialized at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids on May 21 at 11am. Daughter Wendy plans a Houston commemoration of Mary Jane at her home on June 10.  The link to her obituary is   Obituary for Mary Jane Schmidt | Ofield Funeral Home.

If you would like to make a tribute to Mary Jane, donations can be made to The Earthquake Relief Fund on our website or sent to ANSWER, P.O. Box 68401, Grand Rapids, MI 49516. Emails can be sent to Earle.

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