At the TS summer school of 1934 Robert Logan, the newly appointed head of the TOS in America, mentioned that “for those of us who cannot lecture or write articles, there is no way of spreading the truths which have helped us except to express them in action. How we live is the measure of our Theosophy, and although living, like charity, begins at home, it is essential that we should take active part in the organized life of our community and prove in practice that Theosophy has made us better and more inspired citizens.” This was quite easy to do, as the country was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and thousands of people were out of work and struggling to get by.
Edith Lee Ruggles was the head of the Social Service Department at the time and refused to allow the strife to overwhelm her. She and Blanche Kilbourne, another active worker, would publish notices in the American Theosophist informing members about needs around the country. For example, the need of the American League for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment for money and members, the support needed to pass the anti-lynching bill legislation, the need to write to Washington D.C. to protest the import of monkeys from India to the U.S. for vivisection purposes, and to protest the Carver Diving Horse Act. (Horses were trained to jump off diving ramps from heights as a high as 60 feet into a pool of water.) Edith and Blanche listed these appeals in one issue, and in the next, Blanche wrote “So you are interested in the Theosophical Order of Service? All right. How many of last month’s appeals did you respond to? No? Well, it isn’t too late. The test of sincerity of one’s beliefs is action in support of them. Let’s be doers . . . not readers only.”
Every issue had more appeals. The notices included the fight for the life of a teenager on death row, the need for funds to support the Friendly Nursery (a childcare center for mothers who went to work—this was 1938), a protest against the U.S. export of war supplies to Japan, the fight against racial and religious prejudice, and the need for socialized medical care. (Why does this sound familiar?) In the same light, a letter campaign was started to the U.S. Secretary of Labor protesting the deportation of fifteen men from various countries who resided and worked in the U.S., but were not citizens. They had collaborated with the Loyalists against General Franco in Spain, and if deported to their respective countries would face torture and execution.
In 1939, Robert Logan retired from his position and was replaced by Capt. George N. Ragan. Capt. Ragan’s run as Chief Brother of the TOS in the U.S. was short-lived as he was called back to active duty when the U.S. went to war. Miss Esther Renshaw took Capt. Ragan’s place in 1942, and together Esther and the energetic Edith Lee Ruggles provided the TOS some stability in order to grow. Edith, Head of the Social Service Department, and Esther, the Chief Brother, kept members aware of the distress that prevailed in other countries due to World War II. The TOS Relief Fund was started to ship food and supplies abroad to those suffering in war torn areas. It was also during this time that Mrs. Oscar Holmes, a.k.a. Lois Holmes, became the Head Brother of the Arts and Crafts Department.
Joy Mills joined the TS in 1940 and began working at Headquarters in 1942. She was one of the volunteers who packed the relief boxes. Joy was kind enough to share her memories of Edith and Esther:
. . . we were much aware of the TOS through what was called the War Relief Committee or TOS Fund in England, and that became, through the war (Second World War) years, the TOS European Relief Project (perhaps that name was given to it when the war ended, not sure). Anyway, at Olcott I remember packing boxes of donated items: warm clothing, basic foods, personal essentials, to be sent to members in Europe whose names were sent to us either by TOS in England or contacts with leading members in Europe. At one point, I remember it was called the TOS European Parcel Project, and it involved the entire Olcott staff (we were such a close-knit community in those days, everyone lived in the main building), so in the evenings we would gather in the basement to fill boxes and ready them for shipping. . .
As I recall, at the time I joined the TS, and so the TOS, which seemed to me to be just the “service” arm of the TS, there were two members who headed it: Edith Lee Ruggles who was quite an activist and Esther Renshaw (later Esther Burckes). Esther was also one of those people who was always helping people in need. I knew them both, but remember Esther best; I first met her in Cleveland, where she was very active in the lodge there, and then later, after marrying Martin Burckes, she and Martin were residents at Krotona and she continued a great deal of service work of one kind or another.
Another activity that was set up during this time was correspondence with soldiers abroad. They were also sent Theosophical material to keep up their spirits. In November 1943, four leaflets were distributed to servicemen and women by volunteers of the TOS. The titles of these pamphlets were “Now That You Are a Soldier,” “The Hidden Warrior,” “You Can Take It,” and “Invisible Armament.”
Healing groups, which tended to come and go, increased extensively. In 1942, there were only six healing groups in the U.S., but by 1943 there were twenty-six. This increase was credited to Marie Mequillet, who headed the Healing Department at that time. Due to the increase in deaths more work came for the To Those Who Mourn club which sent out the pamphlet “To Those Who Mourn” by C. W. Leadbeater. And while comfort was being given on the one hand, a campaign for international peace was in full swing on the other. Herbert Staggs, Head of the Right Citizenship Division (this fell under the Social Service Department), brought news about an international organization being formed called the United Nations whose object was “to maintain international peace and security—to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace and the suppression of acts of aggression—and to bring about by peaceful means. . .a settlement of international disputes.” Of course, the UN would not be official until 1945.
Members of the TOS during this time kept abreast of the progress of the war and its effects. Blanche Kilbourne started the year of 1945 with a call to service saying, “may all respond who wish our returning soldiers to have a fair deal.” In her article, Blanche reminded readers that a number of soldiers returned from the war “with minds and emotions shocked and disturbed by their experiences. Too often such men, when later involved in criminal violence, receive the death penalty (instead of medical care) at the hands of the state they had fought to preserve.” The call was to abolish capital punishment.
At the same time, to help get soldiers integrated into “normal” life, the TOS set up a new channel of service called the Department of Handicrafts. Donald W. Greenwood, Arts and Crafts associate, wrote that “in military and veteran hospitals craft work is recognized universally as an absolute necessity in both functional and diversional [sic] therapy for recreation and re-creation.” Greenwood mentioned a national weaving guild called “The Olcott Weavers,” and in an article outlined how the Department of Handicrafts proposed to link up with other craft guilds to help put veterans back to work. His article was impressive, as it showed forethought on ways to deal with soldiers suffering from shellshock (later known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), at a time when little was know about it.
In June of 1949, the European Parcel Project (also known as the TOS Relief Project) came to a close. It was estimated that between the year 1945 and 1949, twenty-eight tons of food and goods had been shipped from Olcott. Acknowledgement and thanks were given to Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Getz who resided at Headquarters and oversaw the shipping of the various packets and donations. Twelve different European countries benefited from the goods sent and an unknown number of families and individuals.
Esther Renshaw retired as Chief Brother in 1950 and the next year, Edith Lee Ruggles passed away. Diana Winslow stepped in as the new Chief Brother and kept the momentum of the TOS alive with her calls to service and the awareness she gave of another project called “Bundles for Korea Movement.” This project was started by Marion Swift who took over the Social Service Department. Marion also printed and mailed out a Manual of Social Service and oversaw the donation of hundreds of boxes of clothes and goods that were shipped overseas.
In 1954, Diana Winslow relinquished her position to Lois Holmes and a year later, at the suggestion of International President N. Sri Ram, the title of Chief Brother was changed to National Director. Thus, the TOS began a new chapter.
This article was previously published in the commemorative issue of the TOS