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They Called Her Mrs. Nobody

She visited nearly 100 countries in her lifetime while living a modest life on the North Shore. She helped raise and then give away almost $1 million. But it was one donation she made to build a tiny school in Central America that sent her great-granddaughter on a quest to learn her story and see if the good that she did endures to this day.

Email|Print| Text size + By KATE YEOMANS
January 21, 2007

As the sunlight crawls up Guatemala’s Santa Maria volcano, children walk toward the small concrete school. Young girls dressed in hand-woven huipils and cortes and young boys wearing sweat shirts from places like Acadia, Maine, walk double time beside mothers clothed in the elaborate colors native to their Mayan village. They travel a long dirt road cratered by mudslides from 2005’s Hurricane Stan. They walk past the cornfields and cabbage rows, where they will work after lunch. They walk in cool mountain air amid snack wrappers, stray dogs, and plank-and-concrete-block homes with rusting metal roofs. By 8 a.m., more than a thousand children will file into the schoolyard, past a small white marble plaque containing the name of a woman from Newbury, Massachusetts, who ventured to this village 40 years ago. My great-grandmother.

I had long been curious about her travels. As a child, I could not get my arms around the large woman I knew only as Grammie Morse, and we rarely visited her because she was rarely at home. Instead, I would get a card from some faraway place, or a small doll would make its way to me, its skin color, clothes, and face very different from my own.

Even Grammie’s own three sons couldn’t keep track of her. “I don’t know all of the places that she went,” her youngest son, Don Morse, told me when I set out on my journey to trace one of her adventures. “All I knew was when she was here, she was here. And if not, she was gone.”

I was 13 in 1987, the year Grammie Morse died. A decade later, the scattered details of her travels landed in a heap of cardboard boxes in my home office after my great-uncle Bob cleaned out his attic. For 10 years, I circled that stack. I’d pick through the files at random and wonder what would compel a woman in her 60s to leave the small-town life of a banker’s wife for the unknown hazards of traveling to Third World countries. She first traversed the globe solo in 1959 – at 54 years of age – and by her own account visited 85 countries in the next 18 years. I read letters postmarked from Jerusalem, Greece, India, the Philippines, Haiti, Senegal, and Iran. Thousands of slides contained images of these countries and more – Lesotho, Nepal, Surinam, the Canary Islands, and even the Malian city of Tombouctou. She appeared atop a camel in front of Egyptian pyramids, surrounded by children in Hong Kong, in a canoe in Liberia, riding a mule in Colombia, and standing by a plaque in front of a school in Guatemala.

Born the daughter of a suffragist in Malden and raised in Salem, Mabelle Louise had always loved to travel. When she was 3, she toddled off alone one afternoon through the neighborhood. In 1935, at age 30, she and four other women (and her 16-year-old brother, hired as their driver) took a cross-country road trip in a 1928 Buick. She repeated this trip in 1949 with two teenaged sons. By then, she and her husband, Charles Morse, had moved to Newbury so that he could work at Newburyport Bank. She joined the mothers’ club at the Greater Newburyport YWCA, where she became a volunteer and later sat on the board of directors. She spent countless hours attending fund-raisers and hosting social events. Later, when she traveled abroad, she’d stay at YWCA residences because she knew that was where she’d get to know the local women.

Louise (she dropped the Mabelle after marrying and became Louise Herrick Morse) worked as a bookkeeper for a Salem hardware store and was active in the Massachusetts Federation of Women’s Clubs. In the mid-1950s, whenever a group’s planned guest speaker backed out, she would step in, talking about raising three children and about her road trip to California. With her Katharine Hepburn twang and self-deprecating, Erma Bombeck-like humor, she kept her audiences roaring. But her family grew tired of serving as the source of others’ amusement and begged her to find something else to talk about.

It was during a Sunday morning church service that Louise first learned about the Cooperative for American Remittance to Europe (now the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). It was started in 1945 to offer relief to soldiers in the form of boxes filled with food and other provisions – CARE packages – and by the 1950s had expanded to feed the hungry in emerging nations. The minister that morning challenged his congregation to take part in this person-to-person effort to help others help themselves; each CARE package cost $10 and went directly to a recipient in need.

When Louise returned home from church, she got a phone call from the friend of a friend, telling her the speaker for her woman’s club meeting the next day had canceled. She asked if Louise could fill in, adding, “Of course we’ll pay you.”

“Now I know women well enough to know that she had no intention of paying me,” Louise once wrote. “I’m sure that friend of hers who was a friend of mine had said, ‘Call her up – she’s not so hot, but she’s free.’ So when I said I’d be interested in the pay part, she was some surprised. I said I had just heard a sermon, which had fired me with enthusiasm to do something for CARE, and if her organization would make a contribution to CARE, I would be delighted to present a fun program for them, and she said she was sure they would be glad to do that.”

So began, in 1958, Louise’s “Fun for Food” program. By January 1959, she’d given 20 talks, and CARE’s Boston office began receiving checks from people who noted, “Mrs. Morse spoke here.” Louise thought the speeches would make a good retirement hobby.

“This is my go-down stretch in life and I’ve decided that a roller-coaster exit is for me,” she wrote. “Thirty years of kids, cooking, committees and such either settles one down into a has-been sort of person or you kick over the traces and start off on another tangent. . . . I decided my hobby must be a specially created one . . . [that] had to merit the effort involved. I didn’t want it to be something the next generation would sell to a junk collector a week after I had departed from familiar haunts.”

And so, at dozens of club meetings, she told her stories – most often the one she called “California Trip.” But by the spring of 1959, Louise found she had nothing more to say.

“That tale,” she wrote, “with a few others for variation, recited over and over, began to pale, and the satisfaction of food packages for CARE in return for such nonsense seemed to begin to be an effort; and then I decided that the well had gone dry, and until I had a new experience, something really worth talking about, I’d just end my programs right there.”

The day she reached this conclusion, a friend, Ada Perry, was visiting , and the phone rang yet again. Louise told the caller that she would not be able to oblige her request to speak and hung up.

“It seems a pity you can’t take that engagement,” Perry said. “What kind of experience would you need?”

“I don’t know,” Louise said. “I’d need to go somewhere exotic, like around the world or something.”

A few days later, a letter arrived from Perry and her husband. The childless couple told Louise they’d intended to leave her something after they’d died, but they recognized that now would be a better time to put the money to good use. They challenged her to go around the world and, upon her return, raise $500 for CARE. And so, in 1959, Louise went around the world in 80 days and returned to learn that her volunteer secretary had booked 100 engagements throughout New England. Within a few months, Louise had raised $2,000 for CARE.

She would charge $20 for her talk to fund her next trip, $20 for a direct donation to CARE, and 10 cents per mile to cover travel expenses, for a total of a little more than $40 per lecture. One trip inspired the next, with Louise visiting ever-more-remote places to gather her stories. By 1964, she had visited 40 countries and had used her new lecture series, “Mrs. Nobody Goes Somewhere,” to raise $20,000 for CARE.

She had delivered her talks to more than 700 audiences, showing slides and reporting heart-rending accounts of disturbing scenes she had witnessed at the CARE projects she visited – starving babies in Niger, a leper colony in India, earthquake survivors in Iran. Sometimes she’d put on a native costume, such as a then-exotic Indian sari, or show items she’d brought home from abroad, including a tear-catcher from Jerusalem and a Pygmy grass skirt from Africa.

Some of the groups she spoke to would take up a collection and offer an additional donation, but for the most part, she raised donations $20 at a time for almost 20 years. Early on, CARE designated a special account, the Louise H. Morse Fund, and allowed her to decide which CARE projects would get the money from it. By the time CARE gave her a volunteer award in 1977, the organization estimated she had inspired $1 million in donations.

Dick Calandrella, then the assistant New England director of CARE, said that at one time, the group put pledge envelopes in residents’ utility bills, and that it would always get a spike in donations from towns across New England whenever Louise spoke. “She had a personality that could win over anybody,” he said, “and she knew the impact she had on her audience.”

“Almost every time she gave a lecture, she would put in a few slides upside down, and she would make some self-deprecating joke and get a big laugh,” Marion Blum told me when I reached her at her home in Maryland. Her husband, Leon, had been the director of CARE’s Boston office, and Marion and Lee would sometimes attend Louise’s talks. “That was her way of warming up the audience. . . . She wanted them to know she was a real person like them. She knew how to hold the audience in the palm of her hands.”

When Louise walked along the road in Llano del Pinal in February of 1966, she knew it would cost $2,000 – then about the same as a year’s tuition at Harvard – to build a school there. She had $1,656.71 in her account, but her spring lecture schedule would make up the difference. She had also inspired the Newburyport High School class of 1967 to partner in funding the school’s construction. She would put up the money; once the class had raised $1,000, it would reimburse her fund, and both she and the class would be credited with the donation. Susan Little, owner of the Newburyport bookstore Jabberwocky, was vice president of the class of 1967. Her grandmother was friends with Louise, and helping to build a school seemed to her like a great service project.

“I talked everybody into it, and it didn’t feel as though it was a lot of money to raise,” she said. “We donated the money because it seemed the right thing to do – we didn’t need fancy flowers at our prom tables. And I really felt that way. We don’t need this money, and it can really do a lot of good somewhere else.” Though the purpose of Louise’s visit to Llano del Pinal in 1966 was to find a site for the school, this was news to the villagers. In the company of CARE field staff, Louise introduced herself as a tourist and did not hide her amazement at the towering volcanoes, the lush greenery, and the fresh air. She joined women doing their wash at the village fountain; they laughed when Louise tried to carry a pot on her head. She put on a native blouse and had her picture taken. She hugged the children who came up to her. She stopped by the existing school, a two-room building made of rocks and wood, and found teenager Julia America de Lopez teaching 16 students who shared six blue wooden desks beneath a leaking roof. Louise told Julia that she might be able to do something about the situation and asked whom she needed to talk to. Julia told her to go see the mayor, a man named Felix Coyoy.

When Louise met the mayor, she told him she might have money to help the community build a school, but that she understood the village didn’t have any spare land. As they walked, they came to an open field near a church, and Louise asked, “Could you build the school here?”

“Yes! This will be the land,” Coyoy answered, not knowing whether he could get the land from its owner.

He did not want to miss this opportunity. Coyoy grew up the son of a cattle breeder, and instead of attending school as a child, he had worked 12-hour days and had not learned to read or write.

“Well, you’re in charge,” Louise told him. “I want you to get the field, and when you do, you let me know.”

After two days of negotiations, the landowner agreed to sell for about $140. Twenty people worked every day for three months to build the six-room concrete school, which was dedicated on June 12, 1966. Louise did not return to join the thousand or so people who attended the ceremony. She spent the day at her cottage on Baker’s Island near Salem and planned that week to deliver the last two lectures of her spring series.

Last February – almost 40 years to the day since Louise had visited Llano del Pinal – I decided to find out if the school was still there. In Louise’s files, I found news clippings, black-and-white photos of the dedication ceremony, and letters from CARE staff and the school’s six teachers. I knew the only way to understand what inspired her travels would be to retrace her steps, alone. I considered searching for the two schools she’d funded in Colombia, but they are located in an unstable part of the country. Though Guatemala endured more than 30 years of a devastating civil war, it has stabilized within the past decade. But there were obstacles. I was a novice international traveler who didn’t speak Spanish, not to mention the mother of two preschoolers, contemplating running off alone to a Third World country in search of a remote village’s elementary school. In April 2006, I began sending e-mails to anyone and everyone in Guatemala who might be able to help.

Gen Takahashi, director the Guate Spanish Language School, replied. He had not heard of the village school, but he was intrigued by my quest. As April edged toward June, he made inquiries, but nothing he discovered indicated the school still existed. CARE staff in Guatemala searched, too, but by June, no one had found it. Finally, I decided I could wait no longer and would find out for myself. One week before my planned departure in July, on an evening when I was thinking of aborting the whole trip as just too crazy and expensive, an e-mail arrived from Takahashi. He had found the school. Three days later, I heard from CARE, which had also found the school – and had even arranged for my visit to the village.

So, as scheduled, I made my way,accompanied by two CARE workers, down the long straight road that leads to Llano del Pinal, located in the western highlands of Guatemala. We pulled our vehicle over by a pink church and walked throuh a green metal door to the school’s courtyard. There, kids watched a basketball game while leaning against a wall near the small plaque bearing my great-grandmother’s name. Girls in skirts and dress shoes chased basketballs, and boys scattered in clusters to kick more balls around. In that instant, I shared my great-grandmother’s fascination with the people and the place that surrounded me, and I could not argue with her long-ago desire to do her part to help the children of this village. Kids gathered around to see their images captured on my digital camera. They shouted, “Photo! Photo!” and then posed with wide grins. Mine matched theirs.

Not only was the school still there, it was thriving. Today, 1,163 children attend. When it opened in 1966, just 60 kids were enrolled, but now there are almost that many in each classroom, including the 23 classrooms that have since been added on.

In the afternoon, we visited Julia America de Lopez – the once-young and now-retired schoolteacher – at her home in Quetzaltenango. She told me about the day Louise came to the village and how she didn’t believe this American lady would follow through on her promise to build a new school. She expressed gratitude for the school that had employed her and served thousands of kids over the years. She said she was living proof that Louise kept her promise to the village and to the people who gave her donations.

There was a lull in our conversation, and I followed Julia’s contemplative gaze to the wooden ceiling as filtered sunlight bathed the room.

“Your great-grandmother is with God now,” she said, “and she is very happy that you are here to see what she has done.”

Kate Yeomans is a writer in Newbury. E-mail her at kateyeomans@comcast.net.

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