HEMET — 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.
--The Peace Pilgrim
With the humility befitting one whom others called a saint, Mildred Norman--a woman widely known as the Peace Pilgrim--used to refer to her heroic journey as her "retirement project."
Norman covered the United States on foot from 1953, when she first set out from the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, until 1981 when she was killed in a automobile accident near Knox, Ind., at age 73. Her message was that if world peace ever was to come, individuals must first attain personal peace.
Now a Hemet couple, who were one of the many people to shelter Norman in their homes over the years, have made it their own retirement project to continue the work of the Peace Pilgrim by distributing her teachings in written form.
Ann and John Rush, both 68, have participated in organized peace rallies and vigils throughout their lives, but today they believe that keeping the spirit of the Peace Pilgrim alive is more important than any other peace-related work they could be doing. Their mission even takes precedence over spending time with their three children and eight grandchildren.
"The beauty of Peace Pilgrim was that she was able to reach people the peace movement could never reach," said John Rush, a former Whittier postman who moved to Hemet two years ago. "The peace movement might have turned these people off, but here was this woman. . . ."
Norman's style of speaking was much like Lily Tomlin's sagacious bag lady, or Maude of the cult movie "Harold and Maude." Her message was so simple, her delivery so effusive, that sometimes she was judged to be "completely off the beam," as she put it.
She accepted no money. Her only possessions were a blue work shirt, blue trousers, cheap tennis shoes and an often-patched cotton tunic with PEACE PILGRIM lettered on the front, and, 25,000 MILES ON FOOT FOR PEACE on the back. (She passed the 25,000-mile mark in 1964, and stopped counting.) In the pockets of the tunic she carried a toothbrush, a comb and correspondence from admirers around the nation, which had been forwarded to her at a post office box in Cologne, N. J. She also carried copies of her aphorisms, which she insisted were not "impractical religious concepts," but "laws governing human conduct, which apply as rigidly as the law of gravity."
John Rush was not impressed the first time he heard Norman speak.
Raised a peace-respecting Quaker, Rush was drafted as a conscientious objector during World War II. It was while he was serving in a forestry camp in Glendora that he met Ann Trueblood at a folk dance. Trueblood's ancestors were among the early Quaker families who settled Whittier.
The two married and had a child. (Ann had two children from a previous marriage.) They moved to the backwoods of British Columbia, on their own "walk" to simplify and purify their lives, Ann Rush explained. They wanted to raise their brood away from the influences of television, materialism and militarism.
In 1957, the Peace Pilgrim passed through British Columbia (in addition to the United States, she walked in 10 Canadian provinces as well as parts of Mexico). She spoke to the Rushes and four other Quaker families who had gathered on the shore of Kootenai Lake.
John Rush recalls: "My attitude then was, 'Why are you traveling around the country like this? You're not saying anything new.' "
The Peace Pilgrim freely acknowledged that hers was not a new message. John Rush eventually came to understand Norman's point that what the world needs is not new ideas, but more diligent practice of the ancient truths taught by all spiritual leaders.
Today, John Rush says that Norman affected him more than anyone he's ever met. She's the one person he's known whom he felt had achieved what many aspire to: inner peace. "But she didn't just leave it at that (personal contentment)," he said. "It inspired her to do something for world peace. She combined the two (inner and world peace) in a beautiful way."
Under the Rushes' stewardship, Norman's pilgrimage continues to gain momentum four years after her death. In response to requests, the couple mailed 50,000 copies of her booklet "Steps to Inner Peace" in 1984-'85 alone.
They continue to receive letters from people all over the world who were moved by a chance meeting with the white-haired, blue-eyed vagabond at a truck stop or freeway on-ramp. The letters liken Norman to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, St. Francis of Assisi. . . .
A note from Texas said: "She literally brought heaven onto Earth. She brought the divine qualities into her life here. She changed lives all over America."
The Rushes have filled requests for almost 30,000 copies of a book they helped to compile after Norman's death. Called "The Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words," it contains excerpts from her talks and writings.