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Janet Sorg Stoltzfus (1931–2004)

Janet Stoltzfus, who established the first non-religious school in north Yemen, died on 5 March 2004 at the age of 73. She was married to William A. Stoltzfus Jr., who served as US Ambassador in all the Gulf states except Saudi Arabia. They had met in Beirut in 1953. He was there studying Arabic; she had come to teach English, hired by Bill’s father, then president of Beirut College for Women. While the father was assessing Janet’s professional qualifications, his wife, Ethel, privately determined that Janet was the perfect match for their son, Bill. ‘In true Middle Eastern style, ours was an arranged marriage’, Janet would often joke. It was to become a strong and devoted partnership.

During the course of their career, the Stoltzfuses served in Aden, Ethiopia, Kuwait (twice), Saudi Arabia (twice), Syria and Yemen. Of all their postings in the Arab world, Yemen, where they lived from 1959–1961, remained their favourite. Bill recalled that ‘it was a challenge every day. It was like the 13th century…When we had a dinner party, I’d go out before and shoot a guinea fowl…’

Janet approached the challenges of running a household and raising small children with pragmatism and a sense of adventure. She relied on her courageous cat to keep her garden free of poisonous snakes. Everywhere she found allies, including the British Chargé d’Affaires, Christopher Pirie-Gordon. Once, on a trip to Aden, Janet and Bill came upon the British Legation’s vehicle abandoned in the middle of the road, every tyre punctured. ‘We stopped and searched about and soon discovered Christopher sitting on a pillow on the side of the road with rain pouring down, engrossed in a volume of classical Italian poetry!’

On the day of Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon in the 1960 election, Ronald Bailey, Pirie-Gordon’s successor, kindly monitored the incoming results on his short-wave radio, one of the few links with the outside world in Yemen at that time, and sent hourly updates to Janet, teaching at her school.

Janet made many Yemeni friends. She once wrote to me, saying, ‘I spent a lot of time visiting Ta ‘iz women, hunkering down on my haunches (I was pretty flexible in those days!), while they smoked their hubbly-bubblies, and we talked about husbands and kids and life’. Often in the evening she would accompany Bill on visits to Yemeni men, from ordinary citizens to members of the royal family. Unlike in some parts of the Arab world, in Yemen her gender was no obstacle to conversation; the men welcomed her full participation in lively discussions of politics, history and culture.

It was typical of Janet that she looked for an opportunity to do something for the local community into which she became comfortably settled. She decided to start an elementary school for the children of diplomatic families, named the Ta‘iz Cooperative School. Almost immediately the Yemeni foreign minister and local chief of police asked that their children should also be allowed to attend. Janet and Bill had not envisaged including Yemeni children for fear of upsetting Imam Ahmad, who was notoriously opposed to foreign influence. But once asked, they did not want to exclude anyone. Within days, the Imam summoned Bill to account for this cultural incursion. After careful questioning, however, the Imam agreed to the school, with the proviso that only Janet would be the teacher. She instructed about twenty-five pupils of different ages in a single classroom. Surprisingly, no one objected to the co-educational nature of the school. The Imam even tolerated some bending of his proviso when Joan Bailey, wife of the British Chargé d’Affaires, started teaching the girls how to knit and sew. By the time Bill and Janet were transferred to their next post, the students were predominantly Yemeni. The school still existed when I myself visited Yemen in 1977, although it had undergone numerous transmutations and had moved to Sana’a.

A former student at the school, who eventually became a doctor, recently wrote to Janet’s eldest son, ‘I cannot tell you how much I loved your mother… Your mother took me under her wing, making me feel like her adopted son. She was always there for me both at school and at home whenever I got sick and missed school. She was my first teacher in life and had such an impact on the rest of my life whereby I fell in love with everything American. I loved school and books because of her and I’ve never forgotten her caring generosity to me’.

Janet enjoyed her later posts and found a way to contribute to each new community. For example, she developed and was head teacher of a pre-school enrichment programme for low-income families in Ethiopia. In the Gulf, she served as volunteer coordinator for an enrichment programme for children with cerebral palsy, which was managed by the Kuwait Handicapped Society. When Bill retired from the foreign service in 1976, the Stoltzfuses moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Janet taught English and Religion at the local independent school. For four happy years, from 1986–1990, they lived in London. There Janet founded and edited the Ellesmere Gazette, a newsletter by and for senior citizens. Thereafter they returned to Princeton, and Janet taught again until retiring in 1994.

Janet possessed a natural beauty and elegance to the end of her life, even after years of living with breast cancer. She was intelligent, well-read and an astute judge of character. Although not an ebullient person, she had strong opinions which she could express forcefully: she was a powerful and devoted ally of those she loved and befriended.

Yemen always remained close to her heart. Following her only return visit to the country in 1971 she wrote, ‘I had thought that by going back I would find everything changed, and that the present would erase my nostalgic view of our nearly two years in Ta’iz, but not so. Changes we found aplenty, but physical changes. The people are just as spontaneous, friendly and captivating as ever, the Ta’iz region as beautiful as ever. In just a few days you feel total involvement in their problems and their hopes.

Ginna Vogt