Presita el Usona Esperantisto № 2013:5

An interview with William R. Harmon

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2018-03-27

In issue 2013:4 we mentioned the tribute to William R. Harmon at this year’s Landa Kongreso given in honor of the enormous contributions Bill has made over the years to Esperanto-USA (known also by its original name, ELNA).

Bill first learned Esperanto over 70 years ago, and he has been one of the most active members of ELNA since its foundation in 1952. In 1974, he established the current Central Office. Bill has been a board member and President of ELNA, Commissioner for Wills and Gifting, Commissioner for UEA affairs, Ĉefa Delegito to UEA on behalf of the USA, and Secretary in local groups like SFERO (San-Franciska Esperantista Regiona Organizo) and LOGO (Ligo de Orientgolfaj Esperantistoj).

In the 1970s, Bill lived for three years in Japan and was active in Japanese Esperanto groups. He has participated in many World Congresses and has lectured in China. Esperanto-USA made him an Honorary Member in 1992, and UEA did the same in 1998.

During the second World War, Bill even taught Esperanto to fellow shipmates in the Navy. He has worked for many years in transportation — for 17 years with the Santa Fe Railway, and after that for various sea transport companies. Bill is the author of A History of the Esperanto League for North America and translator of My Indian Boyhood and Stories of the Sioux by Chief Luther Standing Bear.

Below are excerpts from an interview Bill gave to Ĵenja Amis in 2005.

Bill and Lucy Harmon.

What motivated you to learn Esperanto and become active in the Esperanto movement at such a young age?

As an 11-year-old junior high school student in Los Angeles, I was overly curious about everything. One day I was walking down a hall at lunchtime and happened to notice through an open door a dignified-looking gentleman with a shock of white hair and a big gold tooth, reading something colorful while spooning up soup from a thermos. I went in and asked about the book, and it turned out to be an Esperanto text from Poland. I asked and he answered a lot of questions, and I went away with some literature about Esperanto, my appetite whetted. His name was John Clewe, who was active in the Esperanto-Klubo de Los Angeles (EKLA). He was also a Christian Scientist, as was my mother, so before long she was letting him take me to the weekly club meetings at the Clifton Cafeteria in downtown LA.

I was also an avid reader of science fiction, and in that club I met kindred souls who later became quite important in that field — Forrie Ackerman among them. At 12 years of age I was sort of the “mascot” of the club. I had a LOT of teachers there — mainly Charles Chomette, Joseph Scherer, Paula and Don Parrish, and others. It was an exhilarating experience which set me firmly on the Esperanto track.

Could you briefly describe the American Esperanto movement when you became active in the late 1930s and early 1940s? What was different then, aside from the available communication technologies?

At that early age, my knowledge in the ’30s and ’40s was limited to the activists in the Los Angeles area. There was a surprisingly large number of them, including those living in Long Beach, Orange County and other environs.

I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t join any organizations (other than EKLA). Later, in 1943 I think, I did join the Esperanto Association of North America (EANA). Through reading Amerika Esperantisto (AE), the organ of EANA, I became aware of other local and regional organizations. I also conducted a lively correspondence — usually by postcard — with Esperantists in other countries, whose addresses I got from AE. I even played chess with someone in Vladivostok, losing badly. I later found out that I was actually playing the entire Vladivostok Chess Club … no wonder I lost.

During WWII you served in the Navy and even taught Esperanto on the ship where you served. Was there much interest in Esperanto among the sailors? Did you contact local Esperantists in the countries you visited?

I joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, and after some training was posted to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB42) which was being fitted out in Newport, Rhode Island. I was then a Yeoman 3rd class and was soon in charge of a pre-commissioning office that combined quite a few elements. I’m told that I gained some fame in Newport for my telephone-answering patter: “Navigation, education, welfare and recreation, legal beagle, small stores and the chaplain’s office is right next door, Harmon speaking, sir!”

I was still corresponding with a number of foreign Esperantists, and when the Roosevelt took its shake-down cruise to the Caribbean and Brazil, I made arrangements to meet Esperantists in Rio de Janeiro. It did not escape the notice of my shipmates that Harmon had a number of people waiting for him on the pier, including a few nubile females. Explanations later led to an Esperanto class on the ship. Later, on voyages to the Mediterranean area, I met Esperantists in Lisbon, Marseilles, Piraeus Greece, and North Africa.

ELNA is now more than 60 years old, and you’ve been involved with it since the beginning in 1952. How did it start?

The history of the origin of ELNA is covered thoroughly in my book, History of the Esperanto League for North America which is available from the Book Service. Very briefly, ELNA was born of a rebellion by a number of EANA members against the oppressive and dictatorial attitude and actions of the then president of EANA, George Alan Connor. In 1955, because of his continuing diatribes against UEA and its leaders, Connor became the first — and only — member expelled from UEA. EANA then withdrew its affiliation with UEA, and ELNA was named the U.S. affiliate shortly thereafter by UEA. Those interested in more detail on this are referred to the History.

In the 1950s I was still putting in 6-day weeks at the Santa Fe and didn’t have a lot of time for extracurricular activities such as Esperanto, apart from founding (with Bill Wanzer) an Esperanto club in Long Beach. I joined ELNA at the outset and have been a member ever since.

It must have been difficult for an organization like ELNA to work without a central office for more than 20 years. How has the situation in changed since it got its own CO and Director?

Bill with Sabrina the cat.

First of all, although I established the central office in Emeryville in 1975, that was not the first central office; the Schulzes had found a small office over a bank in San Mateo in 1972, with Charles R. L. Power as the first director. I strongly suspect that the Schulzes also anonymously paid the rent and at least part of Power’s salary. I had a lot of discussions with the Schulzes during the early 1970s, and found that we three were absolutely in harmony with respect to the need for a dependable central office for ELNA’s continued existence. Cathy Schulze played a key role in keeping things together prior to establishing that first central office, coordinating correspondence between the various working groups, and starting an Esperanto book service (located in a bedroom of their Hillsborough home at first). Generally the elected officers coordinated the activities of ELNA in the 1950s and 1960s — outstanding were Frank Helmuth and Conrad Fisher in that regard.

Through the efforts of a great many people some sort of newsletter got published occasionally during that time. Newsletters to the members are extremely important to the morale and stability of any organization. Among the editors during that period were Dave Richardson, Ferd Carlson, Donald Broadribb (in Australia!), and Robert Davis. Money was always a problem. ELNA had no significant financial backing, and the hat was passed almost constantly to keep afloat, but ELNA’s members never failed to provide enough for a starkly bare existence. Mark Starr and Margot Gerson in New York founded the “Esperanto Information Center” (EIC) in 1964 to ease the burden on ELNA. In early 1967 the ELNA Board had to suspend publication of the newsletter, and made a deal with EIC to produce one until ELNA had the resources to pick up the pace again.

I just plodded along tenaciously, keeping people working, trying out something new if it looked promising. Some of those things worked. Others didn’t. Money was always a problem.

You lived in Japan in the mid ’70s and were active in different Japanese Esperanto Organizations. How do the American and Japanese Esperanto Movements compare? Are there more similarities or differences?

I was sort of “commuting” to Japan during the late 1960s as Matson’s Manager of Pricing, working out rules for containerization with other shipping lines in the conferences there. I had a lot of time to meet and befriend Japanese Esperantists — including my “older brother” Ken Kawakami and my “younger brother” Yoshimi Umeda. After moving to Tokyo in 1972 for a three-year stint as a manager of United States Lines, our social life became almost totally centered on Esperantists and Esperantist groups there. I found myself wishing that the U.S. could have such a coherent and large active group! Of course Japan had the edge, as there the population is pretty much concentrated in a relatively few locations; while in the U.S. Esperantists are almost a diaspora. Japan has several separate regional organizations — in Tohoku, Kansai, Kanto, and other areas; but JEI — the Japana Esperanto-Instituto — welds them together with an annual all-Japan conference. Wish we could do that here!

You’ve been a Board Member of ELNA for a total of 35 years (1958-1960) and (1966-1997), and also its President (1976-1981). What were the main achievements of the organization during that time?

I was merely one among many serving in high office in ELNA. Perhaps my talent for organizing and finding people for the many jobs within ELNA did play some sort of role. Looking back, it is difficult for me to pinpoint any “milestones” during my tenures. I just plodded along tenaciously, keeping people working, trying out something new if it looked promising. Some of those things worked. Others didn’t. Money was always a problem. Somewhat later, John Massey provided a very generous donation to found a Capital Endowment Fund, to help assure ELNA’s continued existence. That Fund has now grown to a third of a million dollars, and its yearly income helps pay the bills. (Hint: Donations or bequests to the ELNA Capital Endowment Fund are always welcome!)

Apart from ELNA, you also were (and still are) very active in the World Esperanto Association – UEA, which made you an honorary member in 1992. Could you say more about your activities in UEA?

Aside from being Chief Delegate, while a Committeeman I served six years as Chairman of the Nominating Committee, which seeks out appropriate candidates for the top offices of UEA. It is reported to be the toughest job in UEA. I am proud of the fact that during my tenure, UEA elected two non-European presidents: Lee Chong Yeong of Korea (second Asian president) and Keppel Enderby of Australia. Both served UEA well. I’m not quite sure why UEA honored me with the Honorary Member title — there were many others who did more than I did; but I was a faithful worker in the vineyards for many years, and I suppose that I must have gained a certain reputation among the other Committeemen. In any event, I am proud of the distinction, and of the Honorary Member distinction awarded to me by ELNA.

Your wife Lucy is a very active Esperantist. How did you meet? Are any other members of your family Esperantists?

We’d need a whole new article or issue for me to fully answer this about Lusi. She has done a truly amazing thing in producing the 16-lesson video course Esperanto Pasporto al la tuta mondo. She found the author, found the cast (all of whom worked without pay), found the perfect director (Judy Montell), almost single-handedly raised the sum of over $300,000 to make filming and production possible. She interlaced the filming with the classes at SFSU to provide a steady stream of extras. She pulled rabbits out of hats constantly. I’m truly proud of her.

How did we meet? We’ve been married for 43 years now, but I still remember the first time I saw Lusi at a Democratic party after an election in Southern California. We were married shortly thereafter and have been teammates ever since. As to other family members, only my grandson Justin has seriously taken to Esperanto, although I sent several others to Esperanto courses including those at SFSU. (And talk about edzperanto, Justin nearly married a beautiful Hungarian girl whom he met at the SFSU courses!)