#21 Floyd Wilfred Schmoe, Quaker Servant on Four Continents for over 90 Years

Floyd shimmied up the lone pine tree. He would not, could not, be a part of the day’s animal butchering. He may have been a farm boy, but he refused to kill the animals raised on his Kansas home. He loved them too much just as he loved the tall tree his grandfather had planted sixty years before. He could hear his father calling for him, but he sat quietly on the scratchy limb. He would deal with his father’s frustration and anger later. From the high branches, Floyd looked out over the wavy prairie grasses and the fields of corn, wheat, and wildflowers. He could see no other trees though the small town of Prairie Center, Kansas was off in the distance.

Floyd Wilfred Schmoe was 12 years old, an eighth generation Quaker, whose family was grounded in love, non-violence, social justice, and service. They worked hard every day except First Day (Sunday) when the whole family headed to Quaker meeting followed by a shared meal with their friends and family. Floyd loved the silence of meeting and listened carefully to the words of vocal ministry shared by the elders. Back at home, he escaped to wander for several hours across the prairie, collecting rocks, bugs, snakes, mushrooms, and wildflowers, the last two gifts for his mother. He’d lie in the grass, look up at the billowy cloud shapes and create pictures and stories in his head. His father didn’t understand Floyd’s “differentness” but didn’t ask many questions so long as his chores were done. His mother understood his love of nature and encouraged his interest in art and music. She also taught him empathy for those in need, “As long as we have a slice of bread, we will share it with any unfortunate who needs it.” She’d invite the stranger in, give each a bar of soap, and send the “guest” off to wash up before returning for a place at the table.

Born on September 2`, 1895, Floyd attended grade school in Prairie Center and high school in the growing town of Wichita, Kansas, where he studied science, art, and music. There he met two people who would change his life forever. The first was Ruth Pickering, who would become his wife and partner in years of service until her death in 1969. The second was a young Yale College student who opened the study of forestry to him. The idea that one could not only study trees but earn a living working among them excited him. In high school he also encountered the nature writing of John Burroughs. Floyd was influenced by Burroughs’ ideas on the conservation of nature and finding power in the soothing and healing of the natural world and its help in putting one’s sense in order.

In 1917 Floyd moved to Seattle, Washington to study forestry while Ruth continued at the Friends University in Wichita studying piano. While he had loved the vast Kansas prairies, he adored the beauty of the Pacific Northwest – the lakes, streams, and humped mountains. When the U.S. entered WWI, he left this passion behind to apply for and receive his conscientious objector (CO) status and head off to Europe with a group of Quaker COs working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). He did a short stint with a British Quaker ambulance corps followed by two years of building prefab houses and later renovating army barracks for living quarters for refugees. Before returning to Seattle, he traveled to Poland to help deliver medical supplies. Back in the U.S., he married Ruth and returned to Seattle to his forestry studies at the university.

A summer job as a tour guide on Mt. Rainier led to his and Ruth’s spending a winter season at Paradise Inn, snowed in for over eight months. They started a family, and he wrote a book, A Year in Paradise. During his summer tour guiding, he met a wealthy client who told him of a course about ecology and recreational forestry at Syracuse, NY. This was much more in line with the ideas he had found in Burroughs’ writings. When the client offered help with travel and tuition, Floyd and Ruth headed to Syracuse. Returning to Mt. Rainier in 1922, he worked as a park ranger and was appointed one of the earliest full-time ranger/naturalists at the park. For six years, he led tours, collected specimens, created exhibits, and gave nature talks. For six years, his “Nature Notes” attracted visitors to the park and shared conservation ideas. The spread of this newsletter led to invitations to speak in Syracuse and across the country.

With six children in tow, he and Ruth then returned to Seattle, built a home above Lake Washington, and bought a salvage boat. He and the children renovated the boat and spent many summer hours roaming the waters among the islands off the Washington coast. He took courses in marine biology, spent a summer running high school ecology cruises to Alaska, discovered Flower Island, and claimed it by squatters’ rights. There he and the children researched reef life and he wrote his MS thesis for his degree in 1937.

As his family had done in Kansas, he and Ruth took theirs to the Quaker meeting in Seattle, protested the build up to the war in Europe, and collected food and clothing for the Jewish refugees coming to the western U.S. through Asia. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and Ruth became concerned for their friends and other members of the Seattle Japanese community. When Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 calling for western zone Japanese to be relocated to camps, Floyd was appointed as head of the AFSC office and worked to help them secure their homes and assets or sell them before leaving for the camps. He and other Quakers worked to find education slots for Japanese students in colleges and universities in the mid-west and along the Eastern seaboard. One of these students was Aki Kato , who went to the Friends University in Wichita and stayed with Ruth’s parents. Aki’s story will be told in post #22. Another was Gordon Hirabayashi, who would become his son-in-law and take his resistance to the curfew and relocation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. (In post # 20, I told Gordon and Esther’s story.). Ruth was active in visiting ailing and elderly Japanese put in sanitariums. Floyd visited and stayed in camps at Minidoka, Idaho, Tule Lake, California, and Heart Mountain, Wyoming, bringing food and supplies to add to limited provisions issued by the U.S. government. It was the books he brought that thrilled the children and teenagers like Aki Kato. When the camps closed at the end of the war, Floyd and his family helped repair homes, plant gardens, and improve community relations. Returning to their former homes was not always an easy task for Japanese families.

When the U.S. Government bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan at the end of the war, Floyd knew he had to do something there to help rebuild as he had done after WWI in Europe. He knew the Japanese Government would not welcome such help readily so he went to work in Hawaii helping the AFSC send goods the organization had collected. There he discovered that the Heifer Project was sending 250 goats to Japan to supply milk for Japanese children. Floyd went with the goats, made contacts with Japanese Quakers in Hiroshima, recruited potential Japanese volunteers, and planned a house building project. Back in Seattle, he raised money and donations of materials, purchased the materials, recruited three experienced Quaker builders, and went to Hiroshima. Over four summers, his project built 22 multi-family dwellings in Hiroshima and with help from the Japanese Government 12 in Nagasaki. 100 families had new homes! Houses for Hiroshima and Houses for Nagasaki became familiar organizations across Japan.

After the Korean War, Floyd and others formed another organization, Houses for Korea. This time, they were able to get United Nations funds to build homes, wells, roads, irrigations systems, and a medical clinic. Using American, Korean, and volunteers from Japan and Europe helped form bridges of friendship. Floyd was not yet done with his building efforts. Following the Sinai conflict in the 1950s, he set up Wells for Egypt to fund well digging, installations of pumps to supply drinking water and water for irrigation. To create sustainable oases, his group provided nursery plants for holding water and soil and small trees for creating fruit orchards. Again, the volunteer builders built relationships that bridged cultures and established desires for peace.

In 1959, Floyd retired to write and spend time with his partner in service, Ruth. Their children had families of their own, their Quaker meeting had grown and was active in the Seattle community, and their island home welcomed family and visitors alike. For ten years they enjoyed these visits and letters from friends around the world. Floyd had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, recognized by the Japanese Government as a Sacred Treasure, and seen his friend Gordon Hirabayashi win his second U.S. Supreme Court case, resulting in an official apology from President Ronald Reagan in 1958 and in 1959 the “redress” payments of $20,000 to each living Japanese internee. Ruth died in 1969, and some time later Floyd married one of the Hiroshima volunteers, Tomiko Yamizaki.

Did he call it quits? No. He used the 1980s and 1990s to build peace parks in Seattle and in one of her sister cities, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Can you imagine the surprise of the citizens of Tashkent when the 90+ year old American helped pour concrete for their peace park? I asked my daughter Asha if she knew Floyd at the University Meeting in Seattle during her volunteer service there in the mid-1990s. “Yes,” she told me, “he rambled a bit in meeting for worship, but we all forgave him. After all, he was 100!” When he died at 105 in 2001, he had lived through a whole century of observing people and nature, made his mark on four continents, and answered the call to service over and over again.

Questions to ponder:

  • What do you think it would be like to live for a whole century? Think about and list all the changes that occurred in the 20th century.
  • What values did Floyd’s parents instill in him? How did this grounding affect the way he lived his life for those 105 years.
  • If you were to go to a different country and want to learn about its culture, what ways would you use to reach out to get to know the people and what was important to them?
  • Why do you think Floyd was nominated for three Nobel Peace Prizes? How did he make the world a better place?

Books to read:

  • A Year in Paradise by Floyd W. Schmoe
  • Our Greatest Mountain by Floyd W. Schmoe
  • For Love of Some Islands by Floyd W. Schmoe
  • The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Valerie Bodden
  • Sadako and the Thousand Cranes by Cleanor Coerr
  • The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story by Sandra Moore and Kazumi Wilds
  • The Paper Crane by Molly Bang

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