From the painting by Bruno DiSopra to the astonishing ostrich egg she holds, Mary Engle Richardson is surrounded by mementos of her beloved Kenya.

By Naomi Yocom
New Era Staff Writer

SHE HAS FACED revolutions and world war, epidemics and uprisings, but Mary Engle Richardson cannot face eating dinner at the early hour of 6 p.m.

     So, with typical resourcefulness, she eats a substantial hot luncheon and plans to go out for dinner or have a light snack in her suite. Then she focuses her day on mid-afternoon tea, a social event to which she invites friends and neighbors at Homestead Village retirement community, where she lives.

     The tea ritual, in the midst of her exotic and beautiful art and artifacts, is a beloved reminder of Mrs. Richardson’s 35-plus years in Africa – "half a lifetime,’ she says.

     And what a lifetime!

• • •

     Mary Engle was born and raised in Lancaster (she declines to give the year of birth) and graduated from Lancaster General Hospital School of Nursing in 1935.

     She became a public health nurse, was commissioned during World War II, and served overseas in Africa, Egypt and Greece.

     After the war, she returned to Lancaster and, on the G.I. Bill, earned consultant status in maternal and child hygiene at the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to Africa and married the Nova Scotia- born, Africa-raised engineer who had been pursuing her for three years.

     In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (at that time still under British rule), she raised two children plus a stepdaughter, while using her nursing and administrative skills, trying her hand at business, and maintaining an active social life with locals and a steady stream of visitors from Lancaster. She returned to Lancaster for the birth of her daughter (her son was born in South Africa). During :he mid-’50s, when the Mau Mau uprising of Africans who wanted to end colonial rule in Kenya was at its worst, she took the children to California to stay with relatives, and worked there for a year before returning to her husband in Kenya. Then, in the mid-’60s, she brought the children to Lancaster where they attended school and established residence for citizenship, while she taught at the Lancaster General Hospital School of Nursing.

     She then returned to Kenya, which by that time had achieved independence and welcomed her talents and those of her husband.

     Her husband died in 1970, and once more she came to Lancaster, this time to work(in a doctor’s office) long enough to ensure her Social Security; then she returned to Kenya.

     Finally, in 1986, she sold her home in Kenya, moved to Lancaster, and, no longer seeing well enough to drive, decided to live at Homestead Village.

     "A large part of my heart and soul remains in Kenya," she says, "but here I am also at home."

• • •

     What powered this small, smiling women to launch on such an adventurous life?

     She was the second of seven children in "a solid, conservative, God-fearing, supportive family," she says. However, she was a maverick, questioning both the religious and educational verities of her background. In an effort to bring her into line, she was even sent away to a religious boarding school when she was 15. It didn’t work – she continued to go her own way.

     After finishing high school, she worked for a time – "Several people remember me from when I worked for Edison Electric," she says – and she worked in her father’s bakery. She then went to Lancaster General Hospital for nurse’s training, after which she paid for her academic education at Messiah College by serving as a college nurse. She also took some teaching courses at (then) Millersville State Teachers College.

     However, she wanted to be a nurse in the U.S. Public Health Service, and to do so she had to have a degree in education. So she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. To earn her way, she worked as a nurse at the university hospital – until, she says, a federal scholarship freed her to concentrate on her studies. She graduated with distinction.

     "I didn’t take notes," she discloses. "I just sat and listened. In all my education, I never took notes."

     With that statement, she reveals an extraordinary ability to focus, listen, organize and remember, which would stand her in good stead in her multinational life.

     She became a Public Health Service nurse shortly after the beginning of World War II; when the PHS was made a branch of the military, she was commissioned and sent overseas. She arrived in North Africa in a blacked-out convoy, and recalls the subsequent train ride across the continent from Algiers to Cairo, and thence to the Sinai Desert, through the burned-out, blackened hulks of tanks and planes left over from the battles with Germany’s Gen. Erwin Rommel.

     For a while, she worked in a refugee camp, El Shatt, which was so close to the Suez Canal that she could talk with the people on the ships going through. She remembers it was so cold at night, she’d have to wear five layers of clothing.

     One time she negotiated her schedule and worked nights so that for Christmas she could go to Paris. Too impatient to wait for appropriate papers, she got a ride "with some nice young lads" who were flying over. Of course, when it was time to return, she didn’t have the necessary documents. So she was made an impromptu "courier," and returned to home base in the nick of time.

     Meanwhile, mutual friends were trying to get her together with Maj. Alfred Granville Richardson, an engineer who was in the British Air Force. The night before she was to be transferred to Greece, they met, had dinner, danced and parted.

     She settled into her job in a unit outside Salonika where she worked with two military doctors, one an Indian and the other a Punjabi (Pakistani). The doctors were among a group she invited to her quarters to celebrate her birthday. Not realizing it was for- bidden by their religion, she offered them wine; not wanting to of fend her, they accepted and drank.

     At that moment, Alf Richardson arrived at her door.

     Richardson had been born in Nova Scotia but, the son of a regular in the British army, he had been raised in South Africa. Because of his background, he was acutely color conscious, and, she says, "He wasn’t very approving of me having such familiarity with the ‘colored,’ even though they were doctors."

     But he set aside his prejudices and spent his leave chauffeuring her around as she established clinics and worked with the Red Cross. Somewhere along the line, the prejudices evaporated.

     "Alf was," she says, "adaptable. When he grew up in South Africa, the blacks would get off the pavement for the whites. But in Kenya, the time came when he worked with them, and he would address them as ‘mister,’ and we would have them for tea. And when he came over here he fit into the American culture. He fit in everywhere he went, my husband," she says, her smile tender. "He was a perfect host as well."

     However, at the time they met she wasn’t interested in romance. She was still concentrating on her profession, and at the war’s end, she returned home, went on inactive duty and continued her education on the G.I. Bill "Alf wrote to me," she says. "Then he got sick, and I felt guilty, so I started a correspondence."

     In 1946, he invited her to Africa, where he was now in business, to marry him.

     "I didn’t know what I wanted to do," she recalls. She had worked long and hard to achieve consultant status in maternal and child hygiene. "I had reached the level where I could function happily, and I did," she says. However, she continues, "Time was passing, I was in my 30s, and I had another priority: marriage and children."

     She liked Alf, she respected him. she thought he would he a good husband and a good father. Undecided, she bought a round- trip ticket and, as far as anybody was concerned, went to Africa to visit a missionary sister in Rhodesia, and. oh, yes, to see Richardson.

     Ten days later, they were married. "We made a good marriage. We were partners. We worked together. We were a team," she says.

     They planned to stay in Kenya for 10 years, but at the end of six years, when the contract Richardson was working under ran out, he started his own drilling business, and they stayed on.

     She had such a good time showing visitors around. she decided to start a travel business. but after leading two tours. she realized that commercial tours were not for her. Later, she owned and ran a small coffee plantation, "which paid for my daughter’s schooling in Switzerland," she says.

     Though maintaining her American citizenship, she "fit into the system," she says, as the country changed around her. In fact. one American who came to Nairobi told subsequent newcomers, "First you take your card to the Embassy, and then you go see Mary Richardson."

     "I knew so many people, I was there so long – I could help them."

     The Richardsons traveled a great deal, and. during Kenya’s long struggle for independence, maintained homes on both sides of the world.

     Mrs. Richardson also influenced health care on both sides of the world. having trained hundreds of nurse-midwives in Kenya, and an almost equal number of student nurses at Lancaster General Hospital.

     Still energetic, she keeps busy despite her failing eyesight and a recalcitrant ear infection that prevents her from returning to Kenya for a visit.

     She is a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, she belongs to several women’s clubs, auxiliaries, alumni associations and social and intellectual organizations. and keeps up long-distance membership in the service-oriented East African Women’s League.

     She can travel enough to visit her children – her son, an artist. lives in Atlanta, Ga.; her daughter. a scientist and motivational speaker, lives in Canada. She also stays in touch with her several grandchildren.

     And. she says. she has told her minister that when the time comes, she wants half her ashes to remain in Lancaster, her original home, but hopes that the other half will, like the other half of her heart and soul, join her husband’s in their beloved Kenya.

(Originally printed in the Lancaster New Era, Thursday, October 17,1991
Reprinted December 2000,
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