IN MEMORIAM (FULL OBITUARY)
Nancy Waller, World Traveler,
Advocate For Justice, Writer
COOPERSTOWN – Nancy Waller, world-traveler, advocate for peace, social justice and prison reform, lifelong writer and artist, died peacefully Jan. 10, 2017, at the Clara Welch Thanksgiving Home, Cooperstown, her three daughters and pastor at her side. She was 98.
Born Anne Bigelow Thomson in Nanking, China, Nancy was a daughter of James Claude Thomson and Margaret Seabury Cook Thomson. She grew up in pre-Communist China.
Her father, a biochemist, was head of the Chemistry Department at the University of Nanking, one of several Christian colleges established in the early 20th century to educate China’s “best and brightest.”
Her mother, a Smith College alumna, taught literature there; she also advised their neighbor, whom Nancy knew as “Aunt Pearl,” on a manuscript that was published as “The Good Earth.” Aunt Pearl was of course Pearl Buck.
Nancy described her childhood in “My Nanking Home,” self-published in 2010, as a “haven of affection and acceptance for us and our friends”. She attended Hillcrest international elementary school in Nanking, after that a boarding school, Shanghai American School, graduating in 1936. Her schoolmates included Huston Smith, known today for his authoritative studies of the world’s religions, and Harriet Mills, who became a Chinese scholar – but not before imprisonment in China as a spy.
Nancy attended Ginling College, the women’s college of the University of Nanking, for her freshman year, leaving Nanking, as tensions were rising, just months before Japanese forces invaded the city in what is referred to as the Nanking Massacre. She attended the Geneva College for Women, in Switzerland, for her sophomore year, then Smith College, Northampton, Mass. It was only her second experience in a school in the United States, her first having been Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, N.J., when the family was on a one-year furlough years earlier.
After gaining secretarial skills – something all young women needed to do – she worked for the Chinese Industrial Cooperative, a supposed radical group that later merged with United China Relief. Then, “no longer noisily a pacifist,” she enrolled in the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration (today part of the Harvard Business School, which women could not then attend). Her degree took her to the personnel department of Time-Life, where she made her mark by hiring Henry Grunwald as a copy boy. Grunwald was to become managing editor of Time magazine in 1968.
It was on a blind date when Nancy was at Smith that she first met Julius Earll Waller, Jr., a Princeton student. She called him Jerry. On April 4, 1943, they were married in Kearney, Neb., where Jerry was stationed in the Army Air Forces. Jerry promptly received orders for Europe, where he remained until the end of the war.
Jerry returned as a captain in 1945, and the couple settled in Cooperstown, where Jerry was a teacher at the Cooperstown Academy (now the site of Bassett Hall). Their first daughter, Anne, was born in Cooperstown. The next year they moved to South Kent School, a boarding school in Connecticut, where Jerry taught French and Latin and coached athletics for the next 35 years later. South Kent was also where Nancy and Jerry started a family: Sydney, and Margaret were born there and the three daughters grew up on the school campus.
In 1957-59, the Wallers moved to France, where Jerry earned a graduate degree at the University of Poitiers. They enrolled their daughters, all under age 10 and the only Americans, in the French public school. Nancy ran the household, was active in the Protestant Reformed Church, made friendships that lasted a lifetime, and also learned French, which would get in the way whenever she tried to put together a sentence in Chinese. Nancy and Jerry also lived in Toulouse France in 1974-75.
Back in South Kent, Nancy was active in community issues, advocating for a kindergarten and housing for the elderly. She was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Kent Congregational Church, and she hosted Sunday afternoon teas at the Waller home for the SKS students.
Upon Jerry’s retirement in 1982, Nancy and Jerry embarked on an eight-month road trip around the perimeter of the country, before taking up residence in Cherry Valley. Their house had been built in 1793, and it had a name – Willow Hill. They had bought it years earlier, on Nancy’s whim, and they had painstakingly restored it and the grounds, creating magnificent flower and vegetable gardens. In the 1990s they sold Willow Hill and built an entirely new house on a hill in Roseboom to be closer to the woods of Jerry’s tree farm.
Nancy was a witty, passionate woman, interested in the world, people, politics, peace. In the last decade she read Chinese and French history, studied the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and the American presidency.
Although her hearing and sight diminished, she remained well-informed and fully conversant on issues of the day and regularly wrote letters to the editor, government officials and Supreme Court justices. She was an activist who literally stood up for what she believed in – every Wednesday in front of the Cooperstown Post Office, protesting wars and bad politics, since the tragedy of 9/11.
Nancy is survived by three daughters, Anne Seabury Waller Auerbach and husband, Joel, Brookline, Mass., Sydney Lancaster Waller, Cooperstown, and Margaret (“Peggy”) Earll Waller Burhoe and husband, Richards, Brookline, Mass.; six grandchildren: Peter, of Brooklyn, David and wife Peninah, of Nairobi, Kenya, Jocelyn and husband Jason, of Denver, Colo., Rebecca, also of Nairobi, Samuel, of Portland, Maine, and Anna, also of Brookline, and many nieces and nephews and cherished friends.
Jerry, her husband of 70 years, died on March 27, 2013. She was predeceased by her sister, Sydney Thomson Brown, and brothers, James Claude Thomson, Jr., and John Seabury Thomson, who spent their childhood with her in Nanking.
A service of thanksgiving for the life of Nancy Waller will be offered at 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 4, at the First Presbyterian Church, Cooperstown, with the Rev. Elsie Armstrong Rhodes, pastor, officiating.
Memorial gifts may be directed to Southern Poverty Law Center, The Fortune Society, or the Living Waters program of the First Presbyterian Church.
Arrangements are under the care and guidance of the Connell, Dow & Deysenroth Funeral Home in Cooperstown.