Remembering Virginia

By | August 8, 2015

My mother, Virginia Dudley Eveland, would have turned 116 earlier this year had she stuck around. As it was, she lived to 93 – time enough to see the world totally transformed. In a way, she and many of her generation pioneered the experience of today’s millennials. She was a brilliant but quiet child, growing up in a small town with no money (she had lost her father to a hunting accident before she was 6) but with relatively high social status derived from her family and her education. She graduated with distinction from Colby College in June 1929, just in time to see the stock market crash 3 months later usher in the Great Depression. Knowing that she had only herself to rely on but still committed to helping others, she became a psychiatric social worker specializing in the welfare of abandoned and neglected children, of whom there were no shortage in those days. Working all around New England and Pennsylvania for 10 years, she eventually wound up working with the Red Cross in Juneau Alaska.

Soon thereafter, she met my father at 2 AM in broad daylight on the docks, where she’d gone with friends to meet “good old Warren” returning from a year away in graduate school. A whirlwind courtship later, they were married. Soon the war took them both; father in the Army and mother continuing with the Red Cross, now trying to help families adjust to the new realities of wartime. For a brief period in the summer of 1942, a series of bureaucratic errors on the part of the Army allowed them to be both the same place together; it’s always been strange for me to understand that were it not for bureaucratic errors, I would never have emerged.

Motherhood in those days almost always entailed leaving the world of paid work. My mother managed however, like many of her generation, to remain fully engaged with the problems to which her profession had sensitized her, working as a volunteer. At one point soon after the end of the war, she took me to visit with some of her former colleagues at the “New England Home for Little Wanderers”, where she’d kicked off her career 15 years earlier. I can recall finding this deeply disturbing, since by then I was certainly a Little Wanderer, having lived in perhaps ten places and traveled back and forth across the country at least twice by then; I was a bit concerned that she was going to drop me off. We managed to weather that one; but she never worked again for money.

All this was recalled for me a few weeks back when as a result of a Google search for something else, I came across a reference to one of her publications: a short book entitled “A Welfare Program for Children of Mixed Parentage”, published in 1956 by the Foreign Affairs Association of Japan . I was moved to write a short review of this book, as follows; I think you’ll see why I thought it was important as a part of the historical record as well as a tribute to a remarkable woman:

This is a short outline of ways for dealing with the significantly large numbers of children of mixed American/Korean descent who remained largely in Korean orphanages after the end of the Korean War (1950-53) and the withdrawal of most of the American military forces from South Korea. Armies have had a way of leaving quantities of children in their wake, from the earliest times to the present. For the most part, they have refused to take any responsibility for these children.

The US Army, in this one instance following the Korean War, was persuaded to help alleviate the problem, at least to a degree, by both supporting services for such children in Korea and facilitating the adoption of many of them by US families in the following years. This step was made possible by the efforts of American social workers, in both the US and Japan. In order to put such a plan into effect, they had to overcome numerous challenges, from the American military, from Korean traditionalists, and from well-meaning but unqualified American religious groups who saw in these children a fertile source of new converts.

The author of this book, Virginia Eveland (my mother), was a masters-level psychiatric social worker and child welfare specialist with a multi-year career in helping children through tough parenting situations, before she found herself stationed in Tokyo in 1954-56 as the wife of an American colonel. The norms of the time wouldn’t allow her any official professional work, but like many other military wives, she poured her abundant energies and talents into a variety of volunteer roles. In addition to her child welfare work in association with International Social Services (ISS), she was also instrumental in re-forming the College Women’s Club of Tokyo, a group that played an important part in re-establishing social and economic ties between America and the new Japan.

Short and to the point, this brief summary of the initiatives and programs developed for helping mixed-parent orphans was written shortly before she returned to the US in 1956, as a sort of legacy summary of the work they had undertaken. For the next four years, Ms. Eveland would be in Washington DC continuing her efforts, now as a lobbyist and promoter for ISS working with members of the US Congress (including particularly then-Sen. Jack Kennedy) to write into law significant portions of this document and prevent the hijacking of children by unscrupulous religious groups. In 1960, major legislation was passed to embody many of the principles of this book.

While short, this book provides a succinct summary of what a professional approach can bring to a major social problem. And it’s a continuing testimony to what a dedicated and brilliant person, cast perforce into a volunteer position, can accomplish against assorted bureaucratic and social forces. A small piece of history, but significant and moving!

Where would we have been as a society were it not for the enormous amounts of talent and education poured out by generations of women through volunteer efforts generally neither compensated nor often even acknowledged by society generally? Would things have been better if my mother had been paid for efforts over 40 years of volunteer service? One could argue that her volunteer position gave her a degree of freedom and flexibility that paid work never could have; she probably accomplished more as a volunteer than she ever could have as an employee. On the other hand, her work was largely invisible and unacknowledged, even when having a significant impact.

My mother took it all in stride; toward the end of her life she was able to appreciate all that she had accomplished, even as she wondered if things might’ve been different. We’re all products of our time and place. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to call attention to her accomplishments here. Our true immortality resides in remembrance and in our effects on others. I have my own remembrance issues these days; herein lie my thoughts.