Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder, spiritual teacher, non-violence advocate and self-designated "peace pilgrim" who walked more than 25,000 miles over three decades spreading her peace message across America, was born on July 18, 1908 on a small poultry farm in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. She was the oldest of three children born to Josephine Marie (Rauch) and Ernest Norman. The family was poor, but well respected in the farming community their ancestors had helped to found as a German immigrant agricultural settlement in 1855. The Norman ancestors had fled Germany for America in the mid-19th century to escape conflict and militarism.
Mildred Norman grew up in a loving, close-knit, extended family of nine, including six adults-her parents and three unmarried aunts and a bachelor uncle, who ran the farm. Her father, a carpenter/contractor, and her mother, a homemaker, instilled a strong peace ethic in their children, encouraging discussion of social and political issues, and pursuit of moral questions. The family considered themselves "free-thinkers" who sought answers through reason and logic. They practiced no religion, did not belong to a church, and did not provide formal religious training to their children. The three spinster aunts-particularly Aunt Lisette ("Setta") Norman, for whom Mildred was named-especially encouraged the children's intellectual and cultural development, as well as their interest in the natural world.
Mildred Norman was precocious with an inquisitive mind and a remarkable memory. She was able to recite long poems at age three, could read at age four, and one summer, after only six months of lessons, she became proficient at playing the piano. In high school she was a bright, articulate, strong-willed student with a dare-devil attitude in sports and physical efforts, at which she excelled. Academically she maintained the highest grades and headed the debating team, becoming well known as an excellent public speaker.
Due to limited family finances, Mildred Norman pursued a business course, and after high school graduation in 1926, she took secretarial jobs, first for a glass company and then for the Renault Winery. As a young adult, she led an active social life, dating, partying, wearing makeup and buying fancy clothes and expensive furniture. She also wrote plays for the local Grange in which she was director, costume designer, lighting manager and producer. In 1933, at the height of the Depression, she eloped with Stanley Ryder, a businessman, of whom the family did not approve. The marriage was fractious from the start, with a strong clash of wills, styles and goals. Stanley wanted a housewife and children; Mildred did not. He liked to drink, Mildred did not. Stanley believed in war, Mildred did not. With each passing year, the couple grew further and further apart.
Oddly, it was in this period of her life - during the Great Depression - that she made two important discoveries. The first was that making money was easy. The second was that making money and spending it foolishly were completely meaningless. She knew that this was not what she was here for, but at the time, she didn't know what it was she was here to do.
In 1938, after walking all night through the woods praying for guidance to discover her calling, she underwent a "great spiritual experience." Increasingly uncomfortable about having so much while others were starving, she walked and asked God to use her. Coming to a moonlit opening in the woods, she described this seminal experience:
I felt a complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life - to dedicate my life - to service. "If you can use me for anything, please use me!" I prayed to God. "Here I am-take all of me; use me as you will. I withhold nothing." Then a great peace came over me. I experienced a complete willingness without reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond my self.
This was the first great turning point for thirty-year old Mildred Norman. She said, "I tell you it's a point of no return. After that, you can never go back to completely self-centered living." This was the beginning of Norman's "living to give, not to get."
In 1939, she moved with her husband Stanley to Philadelphia where he had an opportunity for work. When Stanley Ryder was drafted into WWII in 1942, Mildred vociferously protested and urged him to become a conscientious objector. He refused. He joined the Army, and was sent off to a military training camp. She decided that she would not visit him as long as he was there. Unlike other wives who accompanied their husbands to the army's training camps, Mildred refused to go along. After Stanley was shipped off to Europe, she sent him at least one care package, but that was the extent of her communication. Eventually, while in Europe, Stanley became involved with another woman and sued for divorce. Their divorce was final in 1946.
Source: Peace Pilgrim's story was written by Marta Daniels, and is reprinted here by permission of the author. It is adapted from Daniels' extended biography of Mildred Norman Ryder (Peace Pilgrim), first published in short form in Notable American Women, A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. V, Harvard University Press, 2005. The full story ("Peace Pilgrim: Spiritual Teacher, Non Violent Advocate, Peace Prophet") can be found on the Peace Pilgrim web site at: http://www.peacepilgrim.com/htmfiles/mdppbio.htm Reprint of this story in part or whole must have the permission of the author. Contact the author through the Voices website.