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Ben Booz, 1925-2016
Elisabeth Benson Booz, known to her friends as “Ben,” died peacefully on October 31st, 2016 at the age of 91. An artist, journalist, teacher, translator and world traveler, author of seven books, mother of five children, with 20 addresses on three continents in her lifetime, Ben lived a life brimming with adventure, creativity, spiritual exploration and friendship.
By contrast, her early life was girdled by the routines and structure of upper-middle-class British society. Ben was born in 1925 to American parents living in London thanks to her father’s banking career. She acquired there the accent she would carry all her life. At age nine, she was sent to boarding school. In her words, “Five years at that school prepared me better than anything else in my life for living in Communist China 44 years later.”
In 1939, when Ben and her family were in America visiting relatives, Hitler invaded Poland. With World War II unfolding grimly in Europe, the family stayed on in the US – always believing “the war would be over in six months” – for seven years. During that time, Ben completed high school at St. Mary’s in the Mountains in New Hampshire, studied history at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, as part of the wartime “accelerated” classes, and ultimately graduated in 1946 from the University of California, Berkeley. She went on to earn her Master’s in economics at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, a period of her life that she described as “gloriously happy.”
In 1947, to support post-war reconstruction, Ben joined a brigade of idealistic Swiss students who volunteered, with teams from 20 other countries, to build a railroad in Bosnia, Yugoslavia. Amid the dynamite, pickaxes and wooden wheelbarrows, she met fellow American Paul Booz. Two years later, as newlyweds, they bought a small pink house in Yvoire, a medieval walled village on the French shore of Lake Geneva.
For the next two decades, long before digital communications shrank the world, Paul’s career as an advisor on the economies of developing nations would lead them to live in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and twice in the Maryland countryside near Washington, DC. Throughout these nomadic domestic adventures, Yvoire served as the family’s enduring home.
While managing a growing family – four boys and a girl, plus a retinue of pets that featured many snakes and the occasional monkey – Ben somehow orchestrated international household moves every two or three years; painted; wrote and illustrated three children’s books; and indulged her passionate curiosity about the people, languages and cultures of every country they lived in.
She also taught at and served on the boards of schools all over the world. Where necessary, she helped found new ones: the Dacca American School in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), the Joint Embassy International School of Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Washington International School. A wonderful and vibrant teacher, Ben helped lead an innovative effort at the Lab School in Washington, D.C., to invent new ways of teaching “unteachable” children.
She and Paul built friendships with a number of world-wandering American families who joined them in various postings; the families remain, across three generations, closely connected even now. Introduced to Quakerism by an American couple they met in Jordan, Ben and Paul joined the Society of Friends in Sandy Spring, Maryland in 1965.
Ben’s life changed forever in 1971 while the family was living in Indonesia; at the age of 56, Paul suddenly died. Financially inexperienced, on her own with five children between the ages of 11 and 21, and needing to earn a living and build a new life at 45, she moved the family back to America and taught for six years at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland.
By 1979, with her last child in college, Ben seized the chance for a new set of adventures in Asia. Although China was not yet officially open to Westerners, Ben and her third son, Paddy, accepted a rare invitation to teach English in southwestern China at a remote university being reconstituted in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. As the first Americans to enter Yunnan Province for thirty years, they encountered brilliant students starved for knowledge of the outside world. Ben and Paddy responded by building a library based on second-hand books sent piecemeal by friends and relatives in Europe and America, and gamely planning and teaching courses with modest titles like “The History and Culture of the English-Speaking World.” In the summer of 1981, through a teaching stint at Lhasa University, Ben also achieved a life-long wish to visit Tibet.
After three years in China, she began to spend half of each year in Yvoire and half in Maryland. Describing this as her annual “bird-migration,” she reveled in the company of friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic. Over 22 years, this migratory pattern also allowed her to write and edit dozens of projects for the National Geographic Society, all marked by her graceful and disciplined style.
Since 1986 a devoted member of the Society of Women Geographers, Ben was stalwart in promoting the exploration of the world by women, herself producing in-depth guides to New Zealand and Tibet. With sketchbook and paintbrush in hand, she traveled for pleasure to many wonderful distant places, including Kyrgyzstan, Inner Mongolia, Tasmania, Gotland, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iceland and the Orkney Islands.
She was a longstanding member of the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting, a Quaker community that, across five decades, proved to be a home for her of the warmest and most embracing kind. Ben had a profound interior life; she took seriously the discipline of mindfulness long before it was widely known, and filled many notebooks with her dreams and dream-life. Armed with this self-understanding, she unselfishly offered help wherever she saw the need, and in this way became an anchor to a great many people of every age. Joyful, witty, disarmingly candid, infinitely curious, fit enough for an Alpine hike until well into her 80s, Ben never lost touch with young people, especially her eleven grandchildren, and loved to hear how they were doing in the world.
Diagnosed last spring with cancer, Ben chose not to pursue aggressive treatment. She wrote her last chapter as she lived her whole life – brave, cheerful, gracious, unsentimental, spiritually attuned and in command of her own journey.
Ben’s second child, Matthew “Mamoo” Booz, predeceased her in 2002. She is survived by four of her children – Miche Booz of Brookeville, Maryland, Paddy Booz of State College, Pennsylvania, Rustam Booz of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Katherine Booz of Boulder, Colorado – as well as eleven grandchildren, and friends around the world too numerous to count.