By Joel Freedman
Ted Studebaker and I became friends when we were fellow social work students at Florida State University. After we received our Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees in 1969, Ted, a conscientious objector whose draft board told him he could do alternative service in America, volunteered with Vietnam Christian Service to go to Vietnam.
I sent Ted a copy of my first letter to the editor about cruelty to patients at Foxboro (Massachusetts) State Hospital. Ted wrote me: “That’s great Joe. Give ‘em hell man! You gotta call ‘em like you see ‘em, else what’s honesty and integrity all about!”
“Yep, I’m in the world’s hellhole, Vietnam. I’m working as an agriculturalist with the Montegnard tribe called Koho in the highlands of central Vietnam. Work here is sometimes successful and rewarding but usually unsuccessful and frustrating as hell. Say, would you be interested in caseworking me back to reality if I ever get back stateside, ol’ buddy?”
After nearly two years in Vietnam where he taught the locals innovative farming techniques that improved their rice crop and vegetable gardening practices, Ted remained there because, as his mother later wrote me, “Ted had become so involved with the project and the people he just didn’t feel he could leave yet.”
In March 1971, I was invited to, but could not attend, the wedding of Ted and Lee Ven Pak, a Chinese woman volunteering as a child care specialist in Vietnam. Ted wrote me, “We’ll be married in Koho language and somewhat following the tribal custom, only Christianized. Life is great. Yea!!” A week after his wedding, Ted was shot to death by Viet Cong raiders. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered under the willows of his parents’ farm in Union, Ohio. Ted was only 25 years old when he was killed.
ABC carried a piece about Ted on the Reasoner –Smith News. Its concluding statement was: “Ted Studebaker was a man who believed peace was possible. He had his roots in the land and it occurred to him that a land that needed him was a tortured land far away from his farm in Ohio. He went there willingly: now he has come home.”
In school, we all knew Ted for his warm smile and easy-going manner. He liked to sing and play his guitar. Ted believed that “when we can really live out our religion, when we can honestly love our neighbors as ourselves, then I think things will really begin to pop.”
“Keep us ill at ease and restless, God, as long as we can see need in the world. Help us to understand the true meaning of love and brotherhood and give us strength to say and mean in all sincerity, ‘Here am I, Lord, send me,’” Ted prayed.
A few years after his death, Ted’s mother wrote me… “After the tragedy, we received several hundred letters, many from young men in college, in the military, in prisons, young fellows struggling to make decisions about careers. They wrote to say that Ted’s story had made them come to grips with how best to use their lives and talents. Many asked questions about how he began to build his courage. It was an amazing and humbling experience to begin to realize that the social concerns which Ted had tried to spark with just what little he could do in an isolated spot, instead of being suddenly cut off, were somehow spreading and growing.”
I have often sensed Ted’s continued presence in my life. Perhaps Ted has become one of my guardian angels.
Two of Ted’s siblings, Gary Studebaker and Douglas Studebaker, recently wrote a wonderful biography of their brother, “Ted Allen Studebaker, An Enduring Force for Peace,” that brings to life Ted’s thoughts, passions, accomplishments and frustrations. (The book can be purchased on Amazon or accessed online at no cost) His brothers explain, “Ted was able to live out his beliefs with a sense of purpose and fulfillment at addressing life’s central issues which he eventually died for.”
I was especially mesmerized by the authors’ account of their 2012 pilgrimage to Vietnam, where they met many of the people who were part of Ted’s life, and where they visited places where Ted lived and worked. This biography includes everything from Ted’s diary and letters that describe how “war is hell” to a lighthearted essay, “Why I Play Football,” which Ted wrote as a student and football player at Manchester College in Indiana, which he attended prior to his social work education at FSU. One of Ted’s reasons for playing football was “because, dad burn, I just can’t deny it anymore. I often daydream about pulling in some fantabulous interception or making some earthshaking tackle that would win the game for us so all the nice looking girls would notice and then I’d have to ‘fight em off’.”
Lou Pagliuca, a FSU classmate and friend, wrote to Ted’s brothers that he remembers Ted as “a multi-talented man who had deep convictions about the world we live in. He was opposed to war and man’s cruelty to man and I was not surprised when I learned that he went to Vietnam to fight a different kind of battle. I was shocked when I heard the news of Ted’s passing in Vietnam. How could this man of peace be taken by the very thing he strongly opposed? Through the many years that have passed I have never forgotten Ted Studebaker, the things he strongly believed in, and the kind and gentle man he was.”
As Ted’s brothers conclude, Ted’s “life has given cause for many to reflect on their own lives. The impact of his words and actions on his contemporaries and future generations continue to endure as a lasting force for peace.”
Joel Freedman of Canandaigua, N.Y., is a retired social worker.