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Mon December 31, 2012
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Peace Pilgrim's 28-Year Walk For 'A Meaningful Way Of Life'

Originally published on Tue January 8, 2013 1:19 pm

In 1953, Mildred Norman set off from the Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day with a goal of walking the entire country for peace. She left her given name behind and took up a new identity: Peace Pilgrim.

When Peace Pilgrim started out, the Korean War was still under way, and an ominous threat of a nuclear attack was on the minds of many Americans. And so, with "Peace Pilgrim" written across her chest, she began walking "coast to coast for peace."

For 28 years — the time she spent on her journey — she never used money. She gave new meaning to the word minimalist, wearing the same clothes every day: blue pants and a blue tunic that held everything she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. That's it.

"I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food," she said at the time. "I don't even ask; it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody."

'Doing Something Different'

In July 1981, the day before she died, Peace Pilgrim was interviewed by Ted Hayes, the manager of a small radio station in Knox, Ind.

"Peace Pilgrim, you know, there are a certain number of people who would probably think of somebody like yourself as a kook or a nut," Hayes said. "Do you have a problem overcoming this barrier with some people?"

"Well, I'm quite sure that some of those who have just heard of me must think I'm completely off the beam," Peace Pilgrim responded. "After all, I am doing something different. And pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange.

"But, you see, I love people and I see the good in them," she continued. "And you're apt to reach what you see. The world is like a mirror: If you smile at it, it smiles at you. I love to smile, and so in general, I definitely receive smiles in return."

One night, while driving on an Ohio road, book publisher and editor Richard Polese saw Peace Pilgrim "kind of dashing a bit out of the way of the traffic on the road. And I had no idea who it was," he recalls. Years later, Polese met Peace Pilgrim and the two became friends.

Peace Pilgrim once described her childhood on a small farm on the outskirts of Egg Harbor, a small town two miles from Cologne, N.J., as a "very quiet life. ... I had a woods to play in, and a creek to swim in and room to grow."

Peace Pilgrim's sister, Helene Young, 97, says Mildred Norman "was very much what they called a flapper in those days. She had to have the latest clothing. So, she made so many changes in her life to a very simple, basic life," Young says.

"We were brought up without a formal religion or politics," Young adds. "We were taught to think for ourselves, not follow the sheep."

A Walk In The Woods Becomes A Pilgrimage

"During the early years of my life, I discovered that money-making was easy but not satisfying," Peace Pilgrim once explained. And one night in the late 1930s, "out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life," she began walking through the woods.

"And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, 'If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing,' " Peace Pilgrim recalled. "That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself."

Fifteen years passed between this striking moment of clarity and the official beginning of her pilgrimage. To prepare, one of the things Peace Pilgrim did was walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one year — the first woman to do so.

"She was not interested in being a mother, and that was why she knew that she could handle the pilgrimage, because she did not leave family behind," her sister Helene Young explains. "She and her husband were divorced, because she thought he should be a conscientious objector, and his sergeant told him that was grounds for divorce."

The first year of her walk, Peace Pilgrim was thrown into jail for vagrancy, Young explains. "And they found out she wasn't a commie, so they let her go."

But Polese says his friend had no fear of jail. "She felt that jails were wonderful places to carry on the mission," he says. "She would gather the women prisoners together and teach them a little song, a little chant called 'The Fountain of Love.' "

The motto Peace Pilgrim had sewn on the back of her tunic when she started out, "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace," quickly became outdated. By 1964 she had already walked 25,000 miles. Eventually, she stopped counting.

A Fateful Speaking Engagement

As she became more well-known, Peace Pilgrim began getting invitations to speak at schools and churches — which is what brought her to Knox, Ind., in the summer of 1981. That's where a woman who had spent her life walking through every state and most of Canada lost her life riding in a car.

Tony and Terry Bau, who run Bau Collision Repair, were outside in the yard when the accident occurred.

"I got on the side of her, she was still alive when I got up there," Terry recalls. "I was talking to her, just telling her everything would be OK."

"Even though we didn't know her — we didn't know any of her writings or anything like that — we still lived her life," Tony says, " 'cause I believe in exactly what she believes in: being free and try to have a more peaceful world amongst people."

Peace Pilgrim's journey ended on the side of that road in Indiana 30 years ago, but her followers say they continue to find meaning in her message and to be inspired by her example.

On the radio program the day before her death, Hayes, the host, read Peace Pilgrim's vow aloud: " 'I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.' "

And, he added, "She appears to be a most happy woman."

"I certainly am a happy person," Peace Pilgrim responded. "Who could know God and not be joyous? I want to wish you all peace."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

On January 1, 1953, a woman set off from the Rose Bowl Parade, with a goal of walking the entire country for peace. She left behind her given name - Mildred Norman - and took up a new identity.

Independent producer Zak Rosen has been looking back on the remarkable life of Peace Pilgrim.

ZAK ROSEN, BYLINE: When Peace Pilgrim started out, the Korean War was still going on, and an ominous threat of a nuclear attack was on the mind of many Americans. And so with "Peace Pilgrim" written across her chest, she was walking, as she called it, coast to coast for peace.

For 28 years - the entire length of her journey - she never used money, ever. She gave new meaning to the word minimalist. She wore the same thing every day; blue pants and a blue tunic, which held everything she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PEACE PILGRIM: And I own only what I wear and carry, and I just walk until given shelter; fast until given food. Don't even ask - it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody.

ROSEN: In July of 1981, the day before she died, Peace Pilgrim was interviewed by Ted Hayes, the manager of a small radio station in Knox, Indiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TED HAYES: Peace Pilgrim, you know, there are a certain number of people that would probably think of somebody like yourself as a kook or a nut. Do you have a problem overcoming this barrier with some people?

PILGRIM: Well, I'm quite sure that some of those who have just heard of me must think I'm completely off the beam. After all, I am doing something different. And pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange. But you see, I love people, and I see the good in them. And you're apt to reach what you see. The world is like a mirror - if you smile at it, it smiles at you. I love to smile. And so in general, I definitely receive smiles in return.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

RICHARD POLESE: I was driving along a road in Ohio at night, and I saw this figure; white hair, with some kind of white lettering, walking along the road and then as I drove by, kind of dashing a bit, out of the way of the traffic. And I had no idea who it was.

My name is Richard Polese. I'm a book publisher and editor.

ROSEN: Years after Polese saw her walking on the side of the road, he met Peace Pilgrim, and they became friends. A decade after she died, he and some other friends collected her writings in a book.

POLESE: Peace is what we called her. We called her by her first name, Peace. (LAUGHTER)

HELENE YOUNG: My name is Helene Young, and I am the sister of Peace Pilgrim. And I am 97 years old. I live in Cologne, New Jersey, two miles outside of Egg Harbor, where Peace Pilgrim and I were born and raised.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PILGRIM: I came from a very quiet life. I was born on a small farm, on the outskirts of a small town. I had a woods to play in, and a creek to swim in, and room to grow.

YOUNG: She was very much what they called a flapper, in those days. She had to have the latest clothing. So she made so many changes in her life to a very simple, basic life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PILGRIM: During the early years of my life, I discovered that money making was easy, but not satisfying.

YOUNG: We were brought up without a formal religion or politics. We were taught to think for ourselves, not follow the sheep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PILGRIM: Out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life, I began to walk one night, through the woods. And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak. And I found myself saying, "If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am. Take all of me. Use me as you will. I withhold nothing." That night, I experienced the complete willingness - without any reservations whatsoever - to give my life to something beyond myself.

ROSEN: Fifteen years passed between this striking moment of clarity, and the official beginning of her pilgrimage. To prepare, one of the things she did was walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one year. Peace Pilgrim was the first woman to do this.

YOUNG: She was not interested in being a mother. And that was why she knew that she could handle the pilgrimage - because she did not leave a family behind. She and her husband were divorced because she thought he should be a conscientious objector. And his sergeant told him that was grounds for divorce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PILGRIM: You do not possess any other human being, no matter how closely related that other human being may be. No husband owns his wife. No wife owns her husband. No parents own their children.

YOUNG: The first year, she was thrown in jail for vagrancy. And they found out she wasn't a commie, so they let her go.

POLESE: She would gather the women prisoners together, and teach them a little song and a little chant called "The Fountain of Love." And she'd had them do this. So she - her mission - she felt that prisons and jails were wonderful places to carry on a mission. She had no fear.

ROSEN: The motto she had sewn on the back of her tunic when she started out, walking coast to coast for peace, quickly became outdated. By 1964, she had already walked 25,000 miles. Eventually, she stopped counting. As she became more well-known, Peace Pilgrim began getting invitations to speak at schools and churches. That's what brought her to Knox, Indiana, in the summer of 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

ROSEN: Was there anything about her that you remember?

TERRY BAU: We didn't know who it was, at first, not until it was in the paper.

My name is Terry Bau, and I'm just a housewife.

TONY BAU: And my name is Tony Bau, and I run the business here, Bau Collision Repair.

ROSEN: Peace Pilgrim, a woman who spent her life walking thousands of miles through every state and most of Canada, lost her life riding in a car.

POLESE: Tony and his wife, Terry, were outside in the yard when the accident occurred.

TONY BAU: About 75 to 100 feet up the road there, approximately - right where that utility pole is, there.

TERRY BAU: I got on the side of her. She was still alive when I got up there. I was talking to her, just telling her everything would be OK. That's about all I remember.

POLESE: Peace Pilgrim really ended up in the hands of the right people, just by serendipity.

TONY BAU: Even though we didn't know her - we didn't know any of her writings or anything like that - we still lived her life, you know, because I believe in exactly what she believes in; being free, and try to have a more peaceful world amongst people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

ROSEN: Peace Pilgrim's journey ended on the side of that road in Indiana, 30 years ago. But her followers say they continue to find meaning in her message, and to be inspired by her example. For NPR News, I'm Zak Rosen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

HAYES: Peace Pilgrim has been my guest today. In her literature, she says: Peace Pilgrim is on my back 25,000 miles on foot for peace. And she has finished walking those miles. But she continues to walk, for her vow is: I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace; walking until I am given shelter, and fasting until I am given food. Appears to be a most happy woman.

PILGRIM: I certainly am a happy person. Who could know God and not be joyous? I want to wish you all peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Zak Rosen is an independent producer based in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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