Searching for Mark Higgins

Most everyone who lives in Worcester County knows the name Higgins; in fact you can search this blog and you’ll find a post describing a visit to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, which was founded by John Woodman Higgins, the prominent industrialist who created the Worcester Pressed Steel Company in 1905.  John’s son Carter became president of the steel company in 1949 and served in that role until his death in 1964.

I did not realize there was a connection between the Higgins family and North Brookfield until I attended a lecture at the Haston Library this evening, titled Against the Current: How Albert Schweitzer Inspired a Young Man’s Journey.  Clarinda “Rindy” Higgins, together with William “Bill” Armstrong, recently published a short book about Mark Higgins, Rindy’s cousin and the son of Carter Higgins.  It’s the story of their efforts to discover more about the life and death of Mark, who perished in October 1960 while on an African journey.  The Higgins family lived and worked in Worcester, but Carter Higgins built a cottage on Brooks Pond in North Brookfield, and the family often spent quite a bit of time there.

Mark, who was nine years older than Rindy, graduated in 1958 from Milton Academy, a private school in the Boston suburbs.  He understood that he was expected to work at the family business and eventually take over as the company president, but at age 19,  he was not ready for that yet; he wanted to have different experiences, particularly in another culture.  So in 1959, he traveled to Gabon, which was then part of French Equatorial Africa, to work at the clinic in Lambaréné founded by the remarkable German medical missionary Albert Schweitzer.  Most people know Schweitzer as the Nobel Peace Prize winner and proponent of the “Reverence for Life” philosophy; due to my background, I am more familiar with his contributions to music and theology.

Mark’s letters home described his daily activities at the clinic: clearing brush, gardening, building a house for tuberculosis patients, caring for patients at the leper colony.  After he gained more experience at the clinic, he was promoted to medical assistant, responsible for giving injections.  He also befriended people, observed the village rituals, and helped with a cardiology study.  In one letter he spoke of having discovered the “blessing of service,” a phrase that still resonates.

After a year in Gabon, Mark decided to embark on a 2000 mile solo trek across Africa toward Israel, where he planned to work on a kibbutz (Mark’s stepmother was a Holocaust survivor).  It was a bad time to be in the Congo.  Belgium finally granted its former colony independence in 1960, but the transition was not easy; the names Patrice Lumumba and Mobuto Sese Seko are familiar to most US citizens who remember the proxy wars with the Soviet Union.  In October 1960, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette headlined a news story “Executive’s Son Missing in Africa.”  The news got worse: the family soon learned that Mark had been killed.  The story became front-page news across the United States.

Rindy and Bill knew the outlines of Mark’s story, but they still had questions which they decided they wanted to answer.  They embarked on a journey of discovery: they wanted to find out more about what Mark’s life in Africa was like, how he traveled, who reported him killed, who killed him and why.  They became like the history detectives, with serendipity and chance playing a part in their success.  They discovered family papers they had not known about, and in 2014, they traveled to Africa to visit Gabon’s Albert Schweitzer Hospital.  They visited the site of the leper colony, as well as remote villages, searching for older residents who may have known Mark back in 1959-1960.  Eventually, they did learn how Mark died: he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot accidentally (not hacked to death with a machete).

Mark’s life was cut short, but Rindy assured us that his legacy lives on, in the tribal lives extended through simple heart surgery (one result of the cardiology study), the school founded in his memory, the scholarships for young people to study in Gabon, and even the Peace Corps connection (President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 in March 1961, less than a year after Mark was killed).  She and Bill were inspired by Mark’s story, and I think all of us in the room felt that way too.  May we all continue to incorporate the attitude of reverence and the impulse to service into our daily lives.