Neighbors: Profiles of our community

a path toward peace

Melinda Clarke

Melinda Clarke

It all started with a simple act of kindness.

Fifty-three years ago, Melinda Clarke was leaving an evening poetry class at her alma mater, Penn State, when she spotted a young Japanese man standing in the street, clearly lost. Instinctively, Clarke came to his aid; she learned he had just arrived in the U.S. for a work exchange program. “He’d been dropped off at the wrong location,” she said. “I took him to a nearby diner and we started making phone calls.”

With Clarke’s help, he reached his destination — and a lifelong friendship began. Weeks later, the pair hopped on a Greyhound bus bound for the Big Apple, where they took in the sights and sounds of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. On the way back to Pennsylvania, Clarke’s newfound friend said he wanted to repay her for her good deed: His family’s flower shop in Japan needed someone to help with advertising. “I politely said yes,” she recalled. “Later on, I thought, ‘What did I just get myself into?’ and then, ‘Well, why not?’ “

On Dec. 7, 1964, the girl from the tiny Rust Belt town of Altoona, Pa., flew to Japan for the first time. In the two years that followed, Clarke embarked on a series of adventures worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. In the summer of 1965, she landed a gig teaching English and history aboard an Australia-bound cruise ship; she spent the remainder of the year hopscotching — via ship, train, plane, rickety bus and on foot — through the Asia-Pacific region.

In 1966, Clarke returned home to Altoona. There, she taught English at the local high school and penned columns and feature stories for the daily newspaper. As the years passed, she fell into a steady rhythm of life — until the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979.

Melinda Clarke inspires others to live a life of peace and purpose. She has walked the Shikoku Pilgrimage route three times since 2014 — and she’s not ruling out more pilgrimages in the years to come.

Melinda Clarke inspires others to live a life of peace and purpose. She has walked the Shikoku Pilgrimage route three times since 2014 — and she’s not ruling out more pilgrimages in the years to come.

In the weeks following the incident (which occurred not far from her home), Clarke, concerned for the well-being of her two young children, says something began to tug at her. One afternoon, a beacon of clarity appeared in the sky. “I saw ‘Hiroshima’ written in the clouds,” she said. That’s when she knew what she needed to do.

Clarke sold her home, packed her things, and with the help of a sponsor, moved her family to Japan and began teaching English to intermediate and high school students. Not long after she arrived, Clarke took on a prophecy-fulfilling side project: She started interviewing survivors of the atomic blast in Hiroshima. As she recorded the survivors’ stories, Clarke says her worldview shifted; it wasn’t long before she became a passionate advocate for peace.

Over the next two decades, she conducted more interviews; returned to the U.S. for a stretch of time; taught English in Taiyuen, China; opened her own school in Hiroshima; and presented never-before-seen films documenting the unfathomable devastation of Hiroshima to viewers all over the world.

Clarke, 76, moved to Maui in 2010, but Japan was never far from her mind. So, when she received an invitation to attend a 50-year cruise ship reunion in Nagoya three years ago, she didn’t waste any time booking her flight. There, as she reconnected with her old shipmates, Clarke says the conversation turned to the Shikoku Pilgrimage (also known as the 88 Temple Pilgrimage): a 750-mile route that loops around the mountainous island of Shikoku.

Every year, thousands of pilgrims follow the route, which is connected by 88 separate Buddhist temples. “I decided I wanted to do it — just to see if I could,” said Clarke, who lives in Kahului. So, she invested in a good pair of walking shoes, purchased a stamp book (stamps are collected at each temple) and completed her first pilgrimage in 2014. A second pilgrimage followed in the spring of 2015.

Not long after completing her third pilgrimage in December, Clarke was at home emptying some old boxes and came across the transcripts of her interviews with the atomic bomb survivors. The unexpected discovery prompted her to enter a peace essay contest inspired by the Kellogg-Briand Pact (an agreement to outlaw war signed by 15 countries on Aug. 27, 1928; it was later signed by most of the world’s established countries and ratified by the U.S. Senate). Last spring, Clarke, along with contestants from around the world, submitted an 800-word essay that answered the question: “How can we obey the law against war?” 

Her essay won first place.

In August, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, who had personally read and responded to Clarke’s essay, issued a proclamation declaring Aug. 27, 2017, “Kellogg-Briand Pact Day” to encourage “a peaceful resolution to conflicts” in the “sincere hope that nations will abide by the ‘Law of Aloha.’ “ The following month, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, who also read Clarke’s essay, presented a proclamation to the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center declaring Sept. 21, 2017, as “International Day of Peace in Hawaii.”

But Clarke’s mission to bring peace to the forefront didn’t end there. She is currently working on a book, appropriately titled “Waymakers,” that will include accounts of her interviews with atomic bomb survivors, along with messages of peace. A graduate student at UCLA restored the 35 mm films she’d presented years ago; a DVD version will accompany “Waymakers.” Once she secures funding to publish “Waymakers,” Clarke plans to send a copy to every member of Congress, as well as the United Nations and international peace groups.

Clarke has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, she hopes her story will inspire others to live boldly and with intention, and at any age. “Life isn’t over when you reach retirement,” she said. “It’s amazing what can happen when you start moving around — and now is the time to start moving.”

To learn more about the “Waymakers” project, email Clarke at mepoclarke@gmail.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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