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Our Founder: Welthy Honsinger Fisher

Chronology | Honors | Films | Books and Articles

World Education Founder, Welthy Honsinger Fisher

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.

World Education Founder, Welthy Fisher

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 Education was built with enough vision and strength to carry on her work into the twenty-first century, and to expand to reach 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.

Chronology

1879 Born September 18, Rome, New York.
1900 B.A., Syracuse University.
1903 Teacher, Haverstraw, NY and Englewood, NJ.
1904 First trip abroad to France for summer.
1906 Methodist missionary, Principal, Bao-Lin School, Nanchang, China.
1918 Y.W.C.A. war worker in England and France. Lecturer in US on women of allies.
1920 Editor, Methodist magazine World Neighbors.
1924 Married Frederick Bohn Fisher, Methodist Bishop in India and Burma, friend of Gandhi and Tagore.
1938 Widowed at 59 by Fred Fisher's sudden death
1939 Visited China and India as journalist, interviewed leaders
1940's 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.
1947 Visited China and India. Gandhi urged her to work in India.
1948 Chairman, World Day of Prayer.
1952 Returned to India to start literacy work.
1953 Founded Literacy House at Allahabad, India.
1956 Literacy House campus established at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
1958 President, World Education, Inc., NY, initial sponsor of Literary House
1964 Welthy Fisher Comité established in Netherlands. "To Light a Candle" film produced by Santi Chowdhury for US Information Service.
1966 Founded Young Farmers Institute of Literacy House. "Welthy Fisher," documentary produced by National Educational Television.
1969 Established Family Life Center at Literacy House. Key speaker at formative meeting of British Committee on Literacy, House of Commons, UK.
1973 Visited China for the first time since 1947.
1978 Visited Peking, oldest foreign guest of government.
1979 Celebrated centennial year in United States. Television documentary on Welthy Fisher and Literacy House produced by All India Radio.
1980 Final trip to India as guest of government, after previous "farewell" visits in 1973 and 1977. Died December 16, Southbury, Connecticut.

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Honors

1921 Hon. M.A. Syracuse University
1938 Hon. Litt. D., Florida Southern College, Lakeland
1948 George Arents Medal, Syracuse University
1959 Hon. President, World Literacy of Canada, Toronto
1961 Citation, Merrill-Palmer Institute, Detroit
1962 Watumull Foundation Award, New Delhi, $1,000
1963 Hon. International Member, Beta Sigma Phi
Hon. Ph.D., Western College for Women, Ohio
1964 Ramon Magasay say Award, Manila, $10,000
Librada Avelino Award, Centro Escolar Univ., Manila
Hon. International Member, Delta Kappa Gamma
1965 Hon. Ph.D. Syracuse University
1966 Women's National Farm and Garden Award
1968 Ancient Scottish Rite Masons and Auxillaries Award
Nehru Literacy Award (first recipient)
1970 Welthy Fisher Literacy House Endowment Fund, India
Humanitarian Award, Variety Clubs International
1973 Hon. Chairman, World Education, Inc., New York
Phi Beta Phi, Outstanding Achievement in Humanities
1974 Pioneer Award, Adult Education Association of USA
1975 Honour Award, India League of America
1978 International Meditation Society, Utica-Rome Chapter Award.
Special Citation from US Vice-President Mondale.
UNESCO Pahlavi Prize, Honourable Mention
1979 Rosicrucian Society Award
1980 Hon. Litt. D., Delhi University, India
Commemorative postage stamp issued by Government of India

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Films

1965 "To Light a Candle," produced by Santi Chowdhur, Image India Films Private Ltd., for US Information Service. 16 m.m. B&W.
1967 "Welthy Fisher," produced by National Educational Television, NY, directed by James Beveridge, for Creative Persons Series, B&W, 30 min.
1973 "To Light a Candle," produced by White Tiger Productions, NY, directed by Tao Porchon. Colour, 45 min.
1973 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.

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Books and Articles Published by Welthy Honsinger Fisher

1922-3 "Twins Travelogues." Four stories for children about India, Korea, Japan and China. New York, Abingdon Press.
1923 "Shall Women 'Keep Silence' in the Churches?", Christian Advocate, Jun. 21, 776-7.
1924 "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.
1926 "Top of the World." New York, Abingdon Press.
1927 "Under the Southern Cross." Series of nine articles in The Classmate, Feb-Mar.

"Thinking Straight about China." Indian Witness, Apr. 6.
1929 "Missions True and False." World Neighbors, v.8, n.2., 51-3.

"The Aunt Dorinda Letters." Series of eight articles in The Classmate.
1930 "An Appeal to Educated Woman." Woman's Outlook. Apr.

"Freedom: a story of young India." New York, Friendship Press.
1935 "Harold Gray and his Social Experiment." Christian Advocate, Oct. 11, 829-31.
1938-9 "A Passage to India." Series of articles in The Classmate.
1941 "China has Changed her Mind." The Classmate.
1944 "Frederick Bohn Fisher: world citizen." New York, Macmillan.
1946 "Do Christians Really Want One World?" The Church Woman, Sept.
1948 "Gandhi as I Knew HIm." Unity, May-June, 31-2.
1950 "Handbook for Ministers' Wives." New York, Woman's Press.
1962 "To Light a Candle." Autobiography. New York, McGraw-Hill.
1970 Introduction and Epilogue to reprint of "That Strange Little Brown Man Gandhi" by F.B. Fisher. New Delhi, Orient Longmans, xiii-xx, 233-46.
1971 Acceptance speech, Humanitarian Award, Variety Clubs International. World Education Newsletter, n. 17, Spring, 1-7.
1973 "Women in the Changing Pattern of Society." in "Adult Education in India," ed. by Anil Bordia et. al.
1979 "I Keep Inventing my Life." World Education Reports, n. 18, Jan.

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