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 1918 in Nanking, China, Nancy was a daughter of Dr. 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, who Nancy knew as 'Aunt Pearl,' on a manuscript that was later 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, then Shanghai American School, a boarding 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, her sophomore year, then Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. It was only her second academic experience in the United States, her first being middle school at Miss Fine's in Princeton, New Jsersey, when the family was on furlough.
After gaining secretarial skills — something all young professional women needed to do — she worked for the Chinese Industrial Cooperative, a supposed radical group that later merged with the well-known United China Relief. Then, "no longer noisily a pacifist," she enrolled in the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration program (today part of the Harvard Business School which women could not attend in that era). Her advanced 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, Nebraska, where Jerry was stationed in the United States Army Air Forces. Jerry received orders for Europe, where he remained until the end of the war. Nancy, who lived in New York City and worked at Time-Life, bought a Roseboom farm advertised in The New York Times.
Jerry, now a captain, was discharged in 1945, and the couple settled in Cooperstown, where he taught 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 for boys in South Kent, Connecticut, where Jerry taught French and Latin and coached athletics for the next 35 years. South Kent was also where they raised their family, three daughters, Anne, Sydney, and Margaret, grew up on the school campus.
From 1957 to1959, the Wallers lived in France, where Jerry earned a graduate degree at the University of Poitiers. They enrolled their daughters — who were under the age of 10 and the only Americans— in a local French elementary school. Nancy ran the household, was active in the Protestant Reformed Church, made friends who 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 from 1974 to1975.
Back in South Kent, Nancy continued to provide good cheer to generations of students and faculty families. She was active in many community issues and organizations, advocating for a kindergarten and housing for the elderly. She was a member of the Kent League of Women Voters and the Kent Congregational Church, and she hosted Sunday afternoon teas at the Waller home for the SKS 'boys." She was a life-long artist, her preferred medium, watercolor.
Nancy earned her master's degree in education in 1968 and taught French and French culture at Kent Center elementary school for eight years.
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 had painstakingly restored both the historic house and the grounds, creating magnificent 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, managed since 1948.
Nancy was a witty, passionate woman, interested in the world, people, politics, peace. In the last decade she read Chinese history, studied the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and American presidents. 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, officials and Supreme Court justices. She was an active member of the First Presbyterian Church, a Bassett volunteer, an early member of the opera guild and of many other organizations. She was an activist who literally stood up for what she believed in — every Wednesday at noon in front of the Cooperstown Post Office, protesting wars and bad politics, since the tragedy of 9/11.
Nancy is survived by her daughters, Anne Seabury Waller Auerbach of Brookline, Massachusetts, Sydney Lancaster Waller of Cooperstown, and Margaret ("Peggy") Earll Waller Burhoe and husband, Richards of Brookline, Massachusetts; six grandchildren, Peter (Brooklyn), David and wife, Peninah (Nairobi, Kenya), Jocelyn and husband, Jason (Denver, Colorado), Rebecca (Nairobi, Kenya), Samuel (Portland, Maine) and Anna (Brookline, Massachuestts); and many cherished nieces and nephews and friends.
Jerry, her husband of 70 years, died in 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 (Building People, Not Prisons), Otsego Land Trust, The Living Waters program of the First Presbyterian Church, Cooperstown or any charity that benefits refugees, children, prison reform or animals.
Arrangements are under the care and guidance of the Connell, Dow & Deysenroth Funeral Home in Cooperstown.
Published on January 23, 2017