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Floyd Schmoe; Activist for Peace for Nearly a Century

April 29, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During World War I, he risked his life as a Red Cross ambulance driver, rescuing the wounded on battlefields in France. During World War II, he helped Jews flee Nazi Germany.

Back home, he stood up for Japanese Americans sent to U.S. internment camps. And when the atomic dust settled, he went to Hiroshima, where he built houses for survivors of the devastating bomb attack.

In the 1950s he helped rebuild South Korea after the war there. He repaired water wells damaged by conflagrations in the Middle East. And he built orphanages and hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania.

At 93, he was pouring concrete in 120-degree heat at a peace park under construction in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Then he brought that idea home, to Seattle, where he turned a briar patch into a lush memorial for the world harmony he strove all his life to achieve.

Floyd Schmoe, whose accomplishments brought him Japan's highest civilian honor and three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, died April 20 at a retirement home in Seattle. He was 105.

A naturalist and sixth-generation Quaker, he was guided by a simple belief: One should "always have something important to do."

He was one of five children born on a farm in Prairie Center, Kan. Though his family was poor, it was resourceful. His grandmother invented a process for cooking rolled oats, which were sold in a cylindrical container as Purity Oats and later renamed Quaker Oats.

The only child in his family to attain more than an eighth-grade education, Schmoe went to the College of Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y. Drawn to the Pacific Northwest by his parents' recollections of a 1909 trip to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, he moved to Seattle and continued his forestry studies in 1917 at the University of Washington.

When World War I broke out, he was a conscientious objector who rejected combat but still dodged bullets, volunteering for relief work in France.

After the armistice was declared, he joined the crew on a train taking emergency supplies to Poland, but it was captured by remnants of the German army who had not heard the war was over. His captors held him for two weeks before they let him go.

He returned to Seattle to marry a University of Washington music student. He became the first naturalist stationed at Mt. Rainier National Park, where he and his wife, Ruth, spent their honeymoon in a snowbound tent. His account of their experiences, "A Year in Paradise," was published in 1959 and remains in print.

It is one of 10 books by Schmoe, including the 1983 publication "Why Is Man," which posed questions to world leaders and includes responses from Pope John Paul II, Norman Cousins and folk singer and activist Joan Baez.

When World War II broke out, he was Northwest regional secretary for the American Friends Service Committee. Working with British Quakers, he helped several thousand Jews escape from Germany.

He opposed the West Coast internment of Japanese Americans, who were seen as security risks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Schmoe felt so strongly that the internment was wrong that he left his job teaching forestry at the University of Washington to live among the internees sent from Seattle to barbed-wire camps in Idaho. He helped many of them by watching after the homes and businesses they had been forced to abandon.

He also endorsed a court challenge of the federal internment order by University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi, convicted in 1942 for refusing to report to military authorities for relocation. The conviction of Hirabayashi, who married one of Schmoe's daughters, was overturned in 1986 by a federal judge in Seattle. His case played a role in the decision by Congress in the 1990s to pay reparations to internees.

After the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Schmoe's conscience compelled him to action again.

In 1948, after raising $4,000 from friends, he led a group to Hiroshima, where over the next five years he helped build more than 30 houses. The project was later subsidized by the United Nations.

"If I went to Japan and said, 'I'm so sorry,' " he recalled in the Seattle Times a few years ago, "they would have kicked me out. But if I went with my own money and with my own hands built a house for a survivor, they would understand."

The Japanese honored his efforts in 1988 with the $5,000 Hiroshima Peace Prize. He also earned the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure of the Emperor, Japan's highest civilian honor.

He used his prize money to finance the Seattle Peace Park. The centerpiece of the half-acre park is a statue of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who became an international symbol for the peace movement after she died of radiation sickness after the destruction of Hiroshima. Schmoe did much of the work himself: He applied for the permits, raised additional funds, cleared the weeds and planted trees. The park opened in 1990 on the bombing's 45th anniversary.

The centenarian was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). In his nomination letter, the congressman acknowledged that Schmoe was not as well-known as other nominees, such as former President Jimmy Carter. But the man who had spent his lifetime "doing small things for peace" possessed "a personal moral authority every bit as compelling as that of the most renowned leaders of our time."

At 101, Schmoe was at work on a novel about the people who wandered across the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to Europe more than 2 million years ago. His focus still global, he was sending $20 a month to Thailand to keep young girls out of prostitution.

Although the Nobel would elude him, the prospect of winning dazzled, though not for its promise of personal glory and riches.

"Can you imagine," he said, "how many people I could help with a million dollars?"

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