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Part 11

by Betty Dahl

Kodaikanal: High School Years

After attending the Missionary Conference, it was time for Paul, Gwen, Joanne and me to go up to Kodai. This time I was going back as an adolescent. Mother took us on the train to the foot of the hills, then up the Ghat by bus. It was very hard for Gwen and Joanne when Mom had to go back to the mission station since they had never been away from folks for any length of time. Gwen especially was homesick and would climb into Joanne's bed and cry herself to sleep. Occasionally she even wandered downstairs to my room to get comforted. Paul and I had already been to boarding school so the adjustment was much easier for us. It was also hard for Margy, since she was so used to having a lot of sisters and a brother to pay attention to her; now she had only Mom and Dad to keep her occupied.

Margy with Mom and Dad


Papa Phelps was the principal of Kodai School when I attended there. Mama Phelps was also very involved in the school, and their two sons Roger and Bob were good friends of ours. While I was in high school, Mama Phelps became very ill and died; it was such a sad time for us all. Mollie Schmitthenner's mother, who was the matron at Kennedy, also died; she had fallen from a chair while putting up pictures and had internal injuries. Since our student body was like one big family, these deaths greatly affected us. Papa Phelps later married Erkie, and ended up being principal at Kodai for 26 years.

Only fifteen students were in my class, and sometimes even fewer if parents were on furlough in their home country. Thus we had very personalized attention. The curriculum was set with little room for change because of the limited number of faculty. We were required to take Biology, Chemistry, Physics, four years of English, four years of a foreign language, four years of Mathematics, Physical Education, History and Current Events, Religion and Ethics. I, along with two other students, took a fifth year of Latin. The curriculum was selected to prepare students for college entrance since about 90% of students were college-bound.

My favorite courses were English and Chemistry. Miss Saunders, our English teacher, had both a literature and grammar degree from Vassar. I delighted in finding difficult sentence structures to diagram, trying to stump her, but she was very sharp. She took a personal interest in my work and helped me learn organization, grammar and a host of other writing skills (many of which I had to unlearn as a graduate student using the scientific model).

As I began to take advanced math and science classes, I became more interested in the sciences and decided that chemistry would be my college major. However, my fondness for chemistry may have been colored by the interest our single male instructor, an Italian from New York, showed in me. Since he was a single young male just out of college, he was fascinating to the high school girls, who flirted with him openly. Mr. Root was my instructor in math. He was congenial and down-to-earth. I enjoyed math, and I am quite sure I would have gone into computer work had computers been a part of my childhood. Math was my best subject, but chemistry my favorite. I read endlessly the books in the library that had to do with chemistry. I was sure I would end up being a scientist or doctor (kept being told that only one girl was accepted for every 100 males, and that sometimes they were not awarded their degree or did not get work as a doctor), though at other times I thought of being a world-class pianist. Psychology was an unheard-of subject for high school at that time.

We students were in awe of the language instructor, Mr. Musil. He was an ex-priest who told us very little of his past, leaving many tales to be told, whether true of untrue, about why he left the priesthood. He was very strict and used derogatory remarks to shame students into learning. Students spent hours studying vocabulary for daily tests to avoid being yelled at in class. The fear techniques led to short-term learning, and most of us forgot the language quickly. I feel a course in conversational language would have been more practical, and that the true test comes when one is called upon to converse in that language.

Mr. Musil often singled me out to answer difficult questions and was derided me for "faking" a lack of knowledge. He thought I knew more of the language than I did. On one occasion I was kicked out of class and sent to the principal because I was unable to provide the correct response. Upon finding out that I was consistently asked to do more and harder work than the other students, Mr. Phelps ordered Mr. Musil to allow me back in class. Never again was I asked to do harder work than the others, though I continued to live in fear of the day when I would again be asked to do a difficult oral translation. Gwen went through an even more difficult time in Mr. Musil's class and would come from that subject literally traumatized. Nonetheless I took five years of Latin and two years of French to meet the school requirement of two languages.

Later Mr. Musil moved to Denver to teach in an all boys' high school. He taught there for thirty years. At the end of his life, he traveled to Austria even though he was very weak; he wanted to be buried in his home country.

I never learned Telegu well, as there were so few opportunities to use the language during the two months when we were home in Hyderabad. The Indians in Kodai spoke Tamil, and Hindi had just been named the national language of India. Unfortunately, the school offered no Indian language. Both at school and home, missionary children tended to live lives quite separate from the Indians. As a consequence of this isolationism, we did not become very proficient in any Indian language; we just learned enough to survive. The self-consciousness of adolescence compounded the problem in that I grew more and more shy of trying my poor Telegu and Hindi on the Indian people. I also raised a personal wall around myself to shut out the problems of the people around us. I felt guilty when we faced poverty and illness, knowing that I had so much in comparison. I withdrew into a world of books and studies.


Another imposing figure was Mario DiGeorgio, our music director. He came from a Russian Orthodox Church and was used to church music being sung in Latin, so many choir renditions were sung in that language. These were rather meaningless without a translation, but melodious. This exposure to Latin musical renditions, together with my interest in words and literature, led to my taking Latin I through V. Only three students enrolled in Latin V--two boys who were thinking of becoming priests and me. I still know some of the Christmas songs better in the Latin.

Since I was one of the few students who could play piano well enough to accompany musical groups, Mario kept me quite busy. At Easter the whole high school and adult volunteers sang the Messiah, and it was hard to play loud enough for the whole group. My suggestion that two pianos be used simultaneously was accepted. Thereafter Miss Ruth, my piano teacher, and I both played the accompaniment for the group songs and I played for the soloists. The last year we were there, Joanne helped with some of the numbers.

Dad expected us to learn an instrument in addition to the piano, so I learned to play the French horn. Phyllis played the drums, Grace the violin, Paul and Gwen both played the clarinet, and Joanne learned the C saxophone. Which instruments we learned depended on what instrument might be available at that time. Joanne always hated the sax; she wanted to play the flute since she thought it was much more feminine. For a time I was a member of the band, but it got too hectic.

I took piano lessons from Miss Ruth, who had also taught some of us in California. Dad asked her to come along to Kodai to teach piano, and to our surprise, she decided to do that. She ended up staying there many years. Piano was not at first a priority on my list, so I tried to play sick or say I forgot because of studies, but she rescheduled until the games I played became wearisome and it was easier to show up for lessons. If my fingernails were too long, Miss Ruth would wait for me to file them down. This was supposed to be done before the lesson, so if I came with long nails, Miss Ruth would go in the other room and read until I completed the task. This was to remind me that I was wasting my parents' money as I had only half of my lesson. I generally solved the problem by biting my nails on my way over to lessons, a habit that I kept most of my life.

Miss Ruth...........We had our lessons at her home, Williston

Sports and Hiking

I was very fond of jumping and running, so sports opened up an avenue of real fun. I ran the mile, entered the standing broad jump, running broad jump, and high jump. I also pitched or played catcher on the girls' baseball team, helped the boys out on a touch football game, played on the basketball team, and participated in as many other activities as possible.

Each year all the students took part in a day of sports competition known as Field Day. This even took place on the Benderloch field (known as Bendy for short). Students from K-12 were divided in two teams: the Orange and the Blue. Competition between the two teams was intense. For those athletes who earned a prescribed number of points over the years, a "K" award was given. After the competitions were completed, we all sat on the field in a big circle and were served curry & rice. After all that excitement, the lunch was especially delicious.

Field Day

I usually won the mile race because so few girls entered the event. Thus I was assured of at least one ribbon. Standing broad jump was my best event and Mama told me I still hold the record since it was dropped as an event and no one will ever best it. How lucky for me. I worked hard at my events and finally earned enough points to get a "K." I still have it. How I enjoyed Field Day and all the sports.

Hiking was an activity that absorbed most of the free weekends during high school. Sometimes a large group went on a day camp, but usually the hikes were by grade. Our favorite hikes were those that started on Friday afternoons and took us some 30-40 miles away. We would hike through the night to reach our destination early Saturday morning. Some hikes took us through a rainforest (shola). As we passed through, the monkeys chattered and scolded us for invading their territory. The worst problem we faced in the sholas was leeches. They hung onto us so tightly that if we stopped to take one off, ten would attach. Thus we didn't stop during our walk through this forest. When we had made it through, we took out salt and salted ourselves; slowly the leeches would drop off. Girls would scream and boys would cuss as we found leeches everywhere about our bodies. The lake in the area was known for the large leeches that live in water, so we didn't ever swim there. We didn't try to get through the rainforest at night because of the leeches, scary sounds and wild animals (we saw mostly monkeys). Also, we would risk losing our way.

Once we reached our campsite, we positioned rocks to make a fire to heat water and food, and also to keep warm. The light given off by the burning logs was comforting. We cut bracken, which was abundant on the countryside, and piled it high for a mattress to sleep on. The thrill of hiking with the opposite sex was high. The bold ones held hands and slept in sleeping bags side by side, whereas most of us did not have that courage. Teasing, joking, storytelling, cooking, exploring, and game playing were common activities. No doubt these long hikes were a challenge to the accompanying faculty members.

Often we crossed mountain streams with fresh, clear running water. It was always tempting to drink it as it was, but we faithfully added the chlorine pills because no effort was made to keep waterways clean during those years. Swimming in the cold lakes and streams was fun. Sometimes we swam in the pool at the top of high waterfalls and would swing on a rope attached to a tree to see the bottom of the falls. Mercifully no one fell from the rope swing and the branches did not break, though we were told one person had died from a fall some years past. At one of the gradually-sloping falls, we used to sit on gunnysacks and slide down into the pool; this was great fun, but at times the gunnysack would slip and we'd rip the bottom of our bathing suits. Embarrassing!

Frogs were abundant and often we found new species, or at least ones we had never seen or read of before. We enjoyed watching the tadpoles or polliwogs change to creatures with legs and finally to frogs. Each stage was easy to see. We spent hours watching this transformation. The boys would fry some of the frog legs, much to the protests of the girls. I did not know at that time that adults ate frogs' legs; we thought it was just bravado on the part of the boys trying to get the attention of the girls.

Beautiful flowers were abundant because of the cool climate in a tropical setting. Tea plantations, banana trees, hillsides full of rhododendron all graced the hillsides and made hiking memorable. Wild flowers were prolific, and one could see varieties of orchids over the countryside. Dorothea, a classmate, and I began to log the wild flowers we found in a large book that had a comprehensive list of the wildflowers of India. It also had a picture of each known variety. I forget how many we found over about a three-year span, but it gave us something to do on hikes and after school. We pressed the flowers as proof of the flower's correct identity. Dorothea always hoped that we would find a new species no one had identified before. She planned to name the flower after herself. We had no doubt that Dorothea would become a famous botanist.

When the terrain was relatively smooth and we were not using all our air to climb, we often sang our hiking songs, some in unison, some in harmony and some with groups answering each other. "100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottles of beer, if one of those bottles should happen to fall, there'd be 99 bottles of beer on the wall; 99 bottles of beer on the wall," etc. Sometimes we would get an echo in the hills. We enjoyed shouting and hearing the echo return the words in a plaintive, moaning sound. There was constant chatter between the boys and girls, as one might expect as interest in the opposite sex escalated.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who was given credit for being the first human to climb Mt. Everest in the Himalayas of northern India, sometimes came to Kodai for training before hiking. We were thrilled to hike with him. He walked at an even pace compared to us. We would have a burst of energy and go fast and then get weary and sit down for awhile. I never saw him sit down: he just kept walking like a robotic machine, rarely sharing conversation. We had a lot of questions that went unanswered because he kept to himself. But then, we were a noisy pack. We would also encounter Jesuit priests hiking and we learned there was an enclave of priests near Kodai. It seemed such a lonely life.

Life in Lower Boyer

I was excited to move into Lower Boyer when we returned to Kodai. Barbara Rambo, Dorothea Schwartz and Jeanne Frykenberg were my roommates. We were assigned the end room in the downstairs part of the dorm. We had hoped that the morning inspections would end once we were in high school, but we found out that if anything, the inspection was more particular.

A half-hour was allotted for getting ready for bed. Showers were scheduled by day and hour. We were allowed two baths a week and times were rotated because the warm water would run out and those who bathed last got cold water. We had little privacy and had to get used to being kidded about our shapes.

Study hall, which was held in the school library, was required for all students between the hours of seven and eight-thirty. It was assumed that everyone had homework, whether we did or not. Many events were planned by students to break up the monotony of these endless hours of studies. Alarm clocks were programmed to go off every ten minutes (they were hidden ahead of time throughout the room). Personal notes were thrown or passed across the room. It was in these notes that many made their first professions of love or made plans to meet after study hall or rendezvous the next day. Various classes planned these diversions and each class tried to outdo the others. The seniors were expected to pull off a really exciting event. Our senior class managed to get a buffalo into the library. The frightened young woman teacher who was in charge that night didn't know what to do. Finally, with the help of some juniors, the poor buffalo was led down the stairs and out to pasture. No doubt the owner was nearby, enjoying the bribe given to him for his cooperatation. We were delighted with the outcome, although we were given a punishment: many hours of supervised work. It seemed worth it.


Rather than paying Kodai School to have us Mennonite children stay at the school dorms, our mission felt it was economically sensible to purchase a tract of prize land with a large home on the acreage. This land, known as Bruton, was across the bund on a hill with a beautiful view of the school and lake. Moreover it was within easy walking distance of the school. The mission felt this home would provide a more homelike atmosphere for us, and we could receive more religious instruction. Thus all the Mennonite children were moved to Bruton, and Herb Krause (our former Windsor principal) and his wife Rose came from the U.S. to be our houseparents. Dad had talked them into coming to Kodai, and they spent most of their years at this school.

It was a paradise for us as the grounds had once had a beautiful landscaped garden on almost every side of the main house. There were a lot of eucy trees, jack-in-the-pulpits, wild green pear trees, mushrooms and rolly poochies, brachen and tree ferns, a rose garden and many flowers. On one slope we would spread our bath towels, don our swimsuits and lie out in the sun so that the boys in Kennedy Hall could see us beauties with their binoculars, and we could watch them with ours. We also found our own hiding spots to be alone or in small groups; the giant tree ferns and passion fruit plants were great for this. Dad put up a swing since we had enjoyed the one at Tanglewood.

The Krauses were strict houseparents. The younger children often preferred to take the punishment laid out by the Krauses for infractions of rules rather than have the Krauses write to their parents. I rarely dared to cross them and would have been mortified if they had written to my parents. Mom took their place one summer as they went back to the U.S. for a break. She was more loving, told us stories, made hot chocolate during study hall and told us "Nutkya" stories (most likely stories of her own experience).

We played outdoors until dinner hour. One game was our favorite. It was called "Witch," and was played in the dark. Someone was "it" and hid somewhere near the house while the rest counted to 100. We then split into small groups and headed different ways around the house. The goal was to meet up with the group going around the house the opposite way before the witch could catch us.

There was a record player in the main sitting room, and we played old records for hours on end. Since any "modern" music was looked at as edging on sinful by Mennonites, we felt very worldly when we would play such songs as "The Old Spinning Wheel in the Corner" and "JaDa." We attended the Friday night movies at Kodai, a real sin in the U.S. Mennonite community. Mother loved going with us when she was up in the hills; her favorite was "Music for Millions" with June Allison. We also liked putting on skits and impromptu programs. The content of our dramas often included imitations of our teachers.

Margy and me on the Bruton slope

After dinner we had study hall. This was held in the main dining room, just as it was in the dormitories. I was often put in charge so I would be able to help the younger children with their homework. I spent quite a bit of time helping Gwen with her Latin and English. She disliked studying, feeling inferior to her siblings when it came to grades; she made up for it by enjoying the company of the boys. But when she began failing geometry, I tutored her nightly until she "got it." Later, in Hillsboro, she finished the course and found herself far ahead of the others who were not accustomed to applying themselves, particularly in math. This was a real triumph for me.

Barbara Rambo was my roommate for a time and we shared a bedroom and our own bathroom. Barbara missed the camaraderie of the dorm and found me a bit dull because I studied so much. Moreover I became ill with rheumatic fever my junior year and was bedfast for about a month and then away at Vellore Hospital for about a month. She wanted more companionship and less religion. I was sorry to see her go, but I thought she would be happier back in the dorm.

Paul lived in Boys' Block, the boys' dorm at Kodai campus, since there were no other Mennonite high school boys attending Kodai at that time. He had minimal contact with us sisters. I felt as though I had lost my best friend. I sewed and embroidered runners for his dresser. I am not sure he needed them or used them, but I worked so hard to make them neat. Occasionally we agreed to meet at teatime to exchange information from parents or catch up on a few aspects of each other's life. We would hear stories of escapades of night hikes and making a brew with alcoholic content. Whether Paul was involved, we never knew.

Boys' Block

While we were living in Bruton, the last of the Hiebert clan joined us. In July of 1949, Lois was born at the Van Allen Hospital in Kodai. Dr. Rosenthal was Mother's doctor for this delivery. It was a difficult birth, both because of Mom's age and the size of the baby. Dad was very worried; thus we also worried about it. When news came that Lois was born and both she and Mom would be fine, we cried and went to tell our friends. I ran to inform Paul, who was at basketball practice. He gallantly stated he expected to get another sister, having given up hope for a brother, and was fine with this. Mr. Musil, who was supervising the basketall practice, was simply amazed at how excited we were about the birth of yet another sister. Grace and Phyllis found out about the birth before Kansas time had reached the hour Loey was born, since India's time is 12 hours ahead of that in the U.S.

Loey joins us; Mom with Loey and Margy


The Dispensary was the first line of medical attention; more serious problems were taken to the local hospital or the Vellore Hospital on the plains. No one liked to end up in the dispensary, fondly or perhaps not so fondly known as the "Dish." On one occasion I was told to go for a checkup after being hit in the stomach with a flung baseball bat. I was declared okay but had pain for a long time. Later an x-ray showed my rib had been cracked. When I was younger I swallowed a needle, so we had to check my bowel movements at the Dish. It came out just fine, to everyone's relief.

Dr. Rosenthal was the school physician and Annie Putz was the nurse when I was last at Kodai. The children dreaded going to the Dish because they were sure they would be treated with ichthiol, a black, slimy substance that smelled a bit like licorice. Dr. Rosenthal spread it over the chest if one had a bad cold. It made one feel very warm as if in a cocoon. When Gwen or Joanne had bad colds or tonsillitis, as they often did, Miss Putz would have them sit on a chair under a tent made with a sheet. Inside there was a burner with a teakettle on it, and the steam from the kettle filled the tent. Miss Putz would often add Vicks or eucylyptus oil to the water. After fifteen minutes in this tent, the girls declared themselves cured.

During my junior year I began to experience difficulty with joint pains and developed a low-grade fever that left me feeling washed out. Dr. Rosenthal suspected that I had rheumatic fever, so she sent me to Vellore Medical School for tests. It was not feasible for my parents to come with me, so I was quite lonely there. It was the first experience in an Indian hospital that I have memory of. The room was sparsely furnished: 2 beds, bed table, a ceiling fan, and open windows and door. Patients on that ward shared a bathroom, located down the hall. Occasionally a monkey would swing by to check out my room for food or interesting toys. Once a monkey grabbed my hat and another time a canteen of water. Saucy crows with beady eyes perched on the windowsill eyeing an opportunity to get some of my food. I had to eat quickly or lose some of my meal to these pesky visitors. They had infinite patience and rarely got distracted.

After the tests had been run, a diagnosis of rheumatic fever was made. Dr. and Mrs. Carmen took me into their home to help lower costs. I was little trouble to them because I spent most of the day sleeping or reading in bed. One day I overheard the medical staff discussing my case and heard them mention that I was vulnerable since I already had rheumatic fever twice as a child. I worried about death and disability and bargained with God. I figured God wouldn't have made me as intelligent as I considered myself to be only to let me die. I told God that if I could only graduate with my class, I would be willing to accept death. Then when I graduated, I told Him that surely it must be college graduation that we bargained for. Obviously God honored the bargain many times over. I stayed in Vellore about two months and then went back to Kodai. I was allowed to go to school on days I felt strong enough to walk. In time I regained my strength.

Church and Vespers

Church services were ecumenical. I frequently played piano for worship services and accompanied the choir or small ensembles. Rarely was I a part of the singing group, so I felt self-conscious when I did sing.

Sunday evening services, called Vespers, were informal as we gathered around a fireplace. One of the high school classes was assigned to take charge each week. Generally this consisted of calling on students in the audience to select hymns to sing. I was frequently the accompanist. It seemed someone always asked for the song " Now the Day is Over, Night is drawing nigh, Shadows of the evening steal across the sky." Other favorites were "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "God of Our Fathers." Occasionally an innovative class would produce a skit or read poetry. The more forward high school students would choose to sit by a boyfriend or girlfriend as the timid gawked. More often the boys would look over the girls and see which girl they would invite to go on the evening walk. Girls who had not yet been asked for evening walk would go very slowly out of Vespers to give the boys a chance to ask. If they didn't, the girls could pair up with another girl or go to the dorm. The younger children occasionally joined a walk but usually went to the dorm for story time. Sunday was Erkie's day off so the storyteller was often a junior or senior high school student.

Following Vespers, a faculty chaperone took the students on the evening walk, generally around the lake or along Coaker's Walk. For high school students, it was a chance for sanctioned dating, so the girls waited expectantly for a boy to ask to walk with her. Occasionally there was a girls' choice walk so girls could ask the boy they were interested in; turning a girl down was not considered good etiquette. I looked forward to these Sadie Hawkins events, but often had to muster courage to ask the boy I really wanted to walk with since he was in a grade above me. Games were played to avoid being asked by the wrong boy. It was acceptable for a boy to ask a girl's best friends if the girl would accept if asked, so the boy need not face rejection.

On the walk, the more serious couples held hands. Those who did not have a "date" would either return to the dorm or, more often, walk with others of the same sex. Many of these pairs tried to make it miserable for serious daters to enjoy the walk. For example, the front couples were supposed to sing out a warning for any cow-pies they encountered so as to save the rest of the walkers from the fate of stepping into a pile of cow dung. If they failed to sing out, those who followed had the most unromantic fate of stepping in the dung and smelling bad the rest of the evening. There was a lot of teasing. Overall, walks were really enjoyable and very unpredictable.

(To be continued)