Our Founder: Welthy Honsinger Fisher
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World Education Founder, Welthy Honsinger Fisher
If World Education is a tree, with branches currently reaching out all over the world,
then its root, buried deep in the soil of Lucknow, India, is Literacy House. The light,
heat and water that nurtured its growth was Welthy Honsinger Fisher, the founder of
Literacy House and World Education. That an American woman campaigned for women's
literacy and women's independence in India in the 1950s is extraordinary. That Welthy
Fisher began the enterprise that would become World Education at the age of 73, in the
midst of a life that would include teaching and traveling on almost every continent for
the next eighteen years, sheds light on just how extraordinary she was.
Welthy Honsinger began her life in 1879 in Rome, New York. After receiving her college
education from Syracuse University, she traveled to China as a Methodist missionary to
become principal of Bao Lin, a girls' school in Nanchang Province. The year was 1906,
fourteen years before American women would have the right to vote. While there, she
encouraged her girls to develop into new, modern Chinese women, often against the wishes
of their more traditional parents. She was committed to the idea of women's independence,
however, and knew that if she could give them the tools they needed through education, then
there would be no stopping them from changing the face of China. In her words:
"To me there was virtue and grace in 'Old China'
and virtue and hope in `New China.' Proud of my own rich inheritance of freedom,
I was trying to teach my southern Chinese children to 'know the truth.' My
charges, ranging from babies to teen-agers, were the women of 'Young China's' future.
In the happy assurance of my Christianity, my belief in Western progress and the
emergence of women, I was sure that moral good could only beget good. When I was
accused of encouraging young revolutionaries, a word I associated with 1776 and not
with the ferment in Russia or the writings of Karl Marx, I agreed that indeed I was."
In fact, when the Chinese revolution occurred that put Chiang
Kai-Shek in power, some of Welthy's female students were there
to help make it happen.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Akbar Ali Khan, and Welthy Fisher celebrating the 20th Founder Day of Literacy House, Lucknow, 1973.
In 1924, after working for the YWCA during World War I and
traveling the world for pleasure, Welthy married Frederick
Bohn Fisher, a Methodist bishop with a passion for life, freedom,
and mutual respect among all peoples. For the next fourteen
years these two amazing personalities joined forces to campaign
for cooperation among peoples and cultures in order to eradicate
suffering and promote peace. Throughout their travels, they
came to realize that lack of education and poverty were the
cause of much suffering in the world, and they both spoke
publicly throughout the U.S. to raise awareness of such problems.
The Fishers spent much of their time in India, where Fred's
sermons drew standing-room-only crowds. Despite Fred's powerful
Christian message, and both Fred and Welthy's dedication to
their Christian faith, they had the ability to see beyond
the boundaries of individual religions. They embraced all
races, cultures, and faiths equally. It was this "spiritual
color-blindness" that drew the attention of Gandhi, a
man who would remain both friend and inspiration to the Fishers
throughout their lives. In the times they met with Gandhi,
they engaged in philosophical debate and discussed how best
to solve the multitudes of problems India was facing in the
twentieth century. Welthy was impressed with Gandhi's dedication
and self-sacrifice. "There was no one with whom I could
compare him except Christ himself," she once said.
While traveling in the U.S. in 1938, Welthy, at 59 years of
age, lost her favorite companion and great love when Fred
Fisher died of heart complications. Although she felt an overwhelming
sense of loss and loneliness, she carried on her life's work
with the positive outlook that characterized every aspect
of her life. Once again, she was off to make her place in
the world, first traveling to China and India as a journalist,
and then to South America and the Middle East to study women
and educational systems. On a trip to India in 1947, she was
asked by Gandhi himself to return permanently to India and
continue her work in education there. Her life came full circle,
as it was in India that she decided beyond all doubt that
the only way to eradicate poverty was through literacy training.
As Welthy said at that time:
"Illiteracy is a real tragedy for a modern man.
…As a nation becomes democratic and industrial, there's
no time for the wise men, for the cultured illiteracy
of simpler civilizations, where remembered words were
handed down in the village square. Now a man who can't
read is cut off from participation in his own government,
in choosing his leaders. He can't progress or improve
himself because he can't read directions or handle the
workings of machines. In this new India, men and women
needed to read as never before."
Dedicated to improving the chances of men and women's survival,
advancement and independence in "new India" through
education, Welthy began Literacy House, a small, nonformal
school that would combine literacy with agricultural training.
However, it was not long before Welthy and other literacy
pioneers realized that "new India" could be replaced
with "new Asia," "new Africa" or even
"new America," and World Education was born in New
York City, dedicated to providing literacy training to those
who needed it most throughout the world.
Welthy Honsinger Fisher was deeply involved with World Education
either as president or advisor from 1951 until 1972, when
she gave up all official duties. At the age of 93 she was
once again free to travel as she pleased. In 1973 she visited
China for the first time in years, and returned to Peking
in 1978 as the oldest foreign guest of the government. She
made two "farewell" trips to India in 1973 and 1977,
but returned one last time in 1980 before dying at the age
of 101 in Southbury, Connecticut. (Read her memoriam.)
Two things are certain about Welthy: she was a woman of action,
and she had a personality so large and multi-faceted it is
almost impossible to portray accurately in words. While she
fought tirelessly for education for the poor and was dedicated
to the notion of Christian charity, she never gave up her
personal pleasures, including her collection of stylish dresses
and hats, her desire to be hopelessly in love with her husband,
and her delight in singing in her renowned voice. She had
an amazing ability as a fundraiser, yet she paid her own way
every time she traveled internationally. She lived her entire
life on the very modest wages she made through working for
various organizations, yet she never wanted for anything.
Above all else, she was ready at a moment's notice to speak,
campaign, raise money, or travel for the people she helped
in India. She had an amazing energy that persisted until the
day she died of natural old age. World Education still benefits
from that energy. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Welthy
Fisher, World Ed was built with enough vision and strength
to carry on her work into the twenty-first century, and to
expand to reach more and more larger numbers of women, girls,
and men. As Welthy knew, there is still much work in the world
to be done—she herself was planning for a century.
from Sally Swenson, Welthy Honsinger Fisher:
Signals of a Century, 1988.
||Born September 18, Rome,
||B.A., Syracuse University
||Teacher, Haverstraw, NY and
||First trip abroad to France
||Methodist missionary, Principal,
Bao-Lin School, Nanchang, China
||Y.W.C.A. war worker in England
and France. Lecturer in US on women of allies.
||Editor, Methodist magazine
||Married Frederick Bohn Fisher,
Methodist Bishop in India and Burma, friend of Gandhi
||Widowed at 59 by Fred Fisher's
||Visited China and India as
journalist, interviewed leaders
||Travelled to South America
and Middle East frequently, studying women and educational
systems. Lectured throughout the US on women of the
world and promoted Chinese Industrial Cooperatives
||Visited China and India.
Gandhi urged her to work in India.
||Chairman, World Day of Prayer
||Returned to India to start
||Founded Literacy House at
||Literacy House campus established
at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
||President, World Education,
Inc., NY, initial sponsor of Literary House
||Welthy Fisher Comité established
in Netherlands. "To Light a Candle" film
produced by Santi Chowdhury for US Information Service.
||Founded Young Farmers Institute
of Literacy House. "Welthy Fisher", documentary
produced by National Educational Television.
||Established Family Life Center
at Literacy House. Key Speaker at formative meeting
of British Committee on Literacy, House of Commons,
||Visited China for the first
time since 1947.
||Visited Peking, oldest foreign
guest of Government.
||Celebrated centennial year
in United States. Television documentary on Welthy
Fisher and Literacy House produced by All India Radio.
||Final trip to India as guest
of Government, after previous "farewell"
visits in 1973 and 1977. Died December 16, Southbury,
||Hon. M.A. Syracuse University
||Hon. Litt. D., Florida Southern
||George Arents Medal, Syracuse
||Hon. President, World Literacy
of Canada, Toronto
||Watumull Foundation Award,
New Delhi, $1,000
||Hon. International Member,
Beta Sigma Phi
Hon. Ph.D., Western College for Women, Ohio
||Ramon Magasay say Award,
Librada Avelino Award, Centro Escolar Univ., Manila
Hon. International Member, Delta Kappa Gamma
||Hon. Ph.D. Syracuse University
||Women's National Farm and
||Ancient Scottish Rite Masons
and Auxillaries Award
Nehru Literacy Award (first recipient)
||Welthy Fisher Literacy House
Endowment Fund, India
Humanitarian Award, Variety Clubs International
||Hon. Chairman, World Education,
Inc., New York
Phi Beta Phi, Outstanding Achievement in Humanities
||Pioneer Award, Adult Education
Association of USA
||Honour Award, India League
Society, Utica-Rome Chapter Award.
Special Citation from US Vice-President Mondale.
UNESCO Pahlavi Prize, Honourable Mention
||Rosicrucian Society Award
||Hon. Litt. D., Delhi University,
Commemorative postage stamp issued by Government of
||"To Light a Candle,"
produced by Santi Chowdhur, Image India Films Private
Ltd., for US Information Service. 16 m.m. B&W.
produced by National Educational Television, NY, directed
by James Beveridge, for Creative Persons Series, B&W,
||"To Light a Candle,"
produced by White Tiger Productions, NY, directed
by Tao Porchon. Colour, 45 min.
||Documentary on Literacy House,
produced by All India Radio for centennial, in Hindi
with some English. B&W videotape converted to
American standard. 15 min.
Informal videotape of Welthy Fisher at home at her
100th birthday. (Highlights marked in Index.)
|Note: All films are in BU collection.
BOOKS AND ARTICLES PUBLISHED BY WHF
Four stories for children about India, Korea, Japan
and China. New York, Abingdon Press.
||"Shall Women 'Keep Silence'
in the Churches?", Christian Advocate,
Jun. 21, 776-7.
||"Beyond the Moongate;
being a diary of ten years in the interior of the
Middle Kingdom." New York, Abingdon Press.
"A String of Chinese Pearls." New York,
The Women's Press.
||"Top of the World."
New York, Abingdon Press.
||"Under the Southern
Cross." Series of nine articles in The Classmate,
"Thinking Straight about China." Indian
Witness, Apr. 6
||"Missions True and False."
World Neighbors, v.8, n.2., 51-3.
"The Aunt Dorinda Letters." Series of eight
articles in The Classmate.
||"An Appeal to Educated
Woman." Woman's Outlook. Apr.
"Freedom: a story of young India." New York,
||"Harold Gray and his
Social Experiment." Christian Advocate,
Oct. 11, 829-31.
||"A Passage to India."
Series of articles in The Classmate
||"China has Changed her
Mind." The Classmate
||"Frederick Bohn Fisher:
world citizen." New York, Macmillan.
||"Do Christians Really
Want One World?" The Church Woman, Sept.
||"Gandhi as I Knew HIm."
Unity, May-June, 31-2.
||"Handbook for Ministers'
Wives." New York, Woman's Press.
||"To Light a Candle."
Autobiography. New York, McGraw-Hill.
||Introduction and Epilogue
to reprint of "That Strange Little Brown Man
Gandhi" by F.B. Fisher. New Delhi, Orient Longmans,
||Acceptance speech, Humanitarian
Award, Variety Clubs International. World Education
Newsletter, n. 17, Spring, 1-7.
||"Women in the Changing
Pattern of Society." in "Adult Education
in India," ed. by Anil Bordia et. al.
||"I Keep Inventing my
Life." World Education Reports, n. 18,