Alex Schmoke dedicated his life to South Africa

April 26, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

On April 4, Murray Alexander Schmoke Jr. -- the mayor's younger brother -- died in a traffic accident near Pietersburg, South Africa. Young Schmoke, 25, had gone to the rural community in the Northern Transvaal as a volunteer last January to teach English to black school children.

And while Mr. Schmoke's family and friends mourned his passing, mourned the loss of a bright, energetic young teacher with a freewheeling spirit and an incandescent smile, I kept thinking of a line from Rudyard Kipling: "By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

I never met Murray Alexander Schmoke Jr -- a Baltimorean known as "Alex" to his friends. But I admire his courage. I envy his commitment. Mr. Schmoke put his career on hold. He emptied his bank account. He laid his life on the line to assist with the birth of a nation, a birth that is being made official starting today as South Africans hold their first multiracial elections.

In short, he did what I have only dreamed of doing.

"Alex understood that much more than the vote at the ballot box is needed to defeat the ignorance that accompanies the sickness of apartheid," wrote Brother Edwin Mantshiu, principal of Pax School, the Catholic mission school in South Africa where Mr. Schmoke taught. "He knew that children's minds are fresh and eager to learn. He knew what sacrifice the parents of our children make to pay the tuition and send their children so far away for an education. He knew that he could make a difference in ways that transcend any election."

Mr. Schmoke's father, Murray Alexander Schmoke Sr., shared Brother Edwin's letter with me yesterday. The letter was written both as a tribute to an extraordinary young man and as an open appeal to other extraordinary men and women to take up his cause.

"It has been very sad for us to lose Alex so soon," concluded the South African clergyman in his letter. "We have so much work to do and we needed him and others like him so much. South Africa has a chance now . . . But we need more people like Alex . . . We still have room for men and women like Murray Alexander Schmoke Jr. We will always have room."

Mr. Schmoke's father says his son's interest in South Africa crystallized last April, after he worked with a program in Washington, D.C., that helped train black South African doctors. After that program, Alex applied to work with the Peace Corps, but was turned down because that group now seeks workers with specific technical skills.

While teaching at Friends School in Baltimore he was accepted into a volunteer teaching program run by Georgetown University. When Georgetown suspended the program because of potential political violence associated with the elections, Alex and several others used their own money to get there.

"Alex felt his teaching would have a tremendous impact," said the elder Mr. Schmoke. "And he felt that now was the time to go, while he was still a young man and had the support of his family.

"We were very concerned, of course, because of the violence," Mr. Schmoke continued. "At the same time, we recognized that this was a great opportunity for him to learn about the other half of the world. I felt he would be a better person for it. And when he came back, he could convey his experiences to his students here."

Alex Schmoke's letters home were full of enthusiasm about his experiences, said Mr. Schmoke. He taught English to three 11th-grade classes a day. One class had 57 students.

"He fell in love with his students," said Mr. Schmoke. "He had no discipline problems at all. He said they all were eager to learn, committed to education. Not only that, Alex loved the food."

Brother Edwin, writing from so far away, has issued an appeal for our help in this monumental birth of a new nation. "Come and teach the children and the adults," he says. "Our best weapon is education."

And Murray Alexander Schmoke Jr. heard the call. He lost his life, but I cannot conceive of a nobler cause for which to die. He showed a courage and commitment the rest of us can only envy. And admire.

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