Turkish memories: Whitewater couple lived, worked 44 years in country

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

— Turkey is grabbing international headlines because of anti-government protests raging in the streets, but a Whitewater couple remembers another clash in the late 1970s between Turkish right-wing and left-wing groups that brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The Rev. Wallace and Ruth Robeson served as Christian teaching missionaries of the United Church of Christ in Turkey for 44 years and made their homes in Tarsus, Izmir and Talas-Kayseri.

“We lived through some tumultuous times,” Wallace said. “The fathers of several students were murdered, but we were never bothered because they knew we were not involved in politics.”

Their daughter, Mary Heather, was in high school at the time.

“I would lie in bed at night and listen to the bombs go off and the machine guns shooting,” she said. “I would wonder how close they were.”

The Robesons spent most of their adult lives in Turkey, where they met and married in the 1950s. They lived mostly in Tarsus, near the southern coast on the Mediterranean, and taught at Tarsus American College.

At the time, the United Church of Christ sponsored the secondary school where Ruth taught English and Wallace taught science. Later, he became the school’s principal. Wallace is an ordained clergy of the United Church of Christ but did not speak about his religion to students.

Both he and Ruth touched the lives of many young people at the school, which is known worldwide for the success of its alumni.

In 1996, the Robesons moved to Whitewater’s Fairhaven Retirement Community. They are active in leadership roles at Whitewater’s Congregational United Church of Christ and in the Wisconsin Conference United Church of Christ. They never forgot their Turkish students and dear friends.

“There’s a quality of friendship there that I’ve never found anywhere else,” Ruth said.

This spring, Wallace, Ruth and Mary Heather returned to the country for an emotional reunion with teachers, staff and former students.

“We wanted to go back once more to see our friends,” Ruth said.

At a dinner in Istanbul, almost 80 people came to honor them. Many were graduates of Tarsus American College. In Tarsus, more than 90 arrived to greet the Robesons.

“We found it hard to remember the names of so many grads, especially since we knew them when they were 18 or 19,” Wallace said. “Now, they are from 55 to 70.”

Wallace planned the trip for his wife, with the help of Mary Heather.

“I have so many wonderful memories of Turkey,” Ruth said. “Returning to Turkey was something I wanted to do so badly. I was so, so sad when we left. Ninety percent of the dreams I have take place in Turkey.”

They also visited Izmir, a city of palm-lined promenades, avenues and green parks, where the couple lived the last seven years they were in the country.

“I miss my friends the most,” said Mary Heather, who grew up in Turkey. “I miss the smells, the mountains and everything about Turkey. I am genetically an American and spiritually Turkish.”

The Robesons still feel at home in the country, nestled between the Mediterranean and Black seas. They watch the news carefully as anti-government demonstrations continue, and they hold dear the memories of their former lives.

“I never get bored,” Ruth said. “I can just think back on all those wonderful years in Turkey.”

They also cherish their recent trip.

“The memories of those days do not fade quickly,” Wallace said. “They will be with us forever.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 7:53 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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