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Phil and Margaret Runkel
in Panama

When People as Living Things was published I learned about Phil's past from a friend of more than 50 years. This email thread between myself (Dag), Wilfred A. Wason, living in New York (Fred) and Phil Runkel (Phil) holds the story..

Fred to Dag, Jan 30, 2004

I would like to obtain a signed copy of Dr. Runkel’s book, “People as Living Things”. Please let me know the cost. I want to give it to my granddaughter a gift.

Sincerely, Wilfred A. Wason

Dag to Fred, Jan 31, 2004

Wilfred, Good to hear from you. Phil just explained to me who you are and all. You two go back a long time. You may email your address and I will get it on its way.

Fred to Dag, Feb 28, 2004

Dag: Thank you for the book.  My granddaughter can’t wait to get the book.  I read her blurb on Phil, also told her the story of why Phil and his wife, Margaret left the Panama Canal Zone.  I wonder if he ever told you the reason.

Dag to Fred, Feb 29, 2004

No, but now I will stand by for an exciting tale.  :)  And I am sure both Phil and I will appreciate hearing from your granddaughter in due time.

Dag to Fred, Feb 29, 2004

Wilfred, I spoke with Phil just now. He laughed when I told him about your recollections. He said he has a reason in his head, but wondered what the reason might be in your head. So I am asking you to offer your version first. Pretty please. Now that you teased me, I hope to find out. I am confident Phil will offer us a look in his answer book.

Fred to Dag, Feb 29, 2004

Subject: About Runkel 

I don’t remember the year this took place.  It could have been Christmas of 1952.  I had a mishap and much of my papers were lost.  What Philip Runkel did did not make the headlines, nor was it told around, but it did have some important under currents making waves, and at a time when the Panama Canal Zone was under going major policy and administrative changes.

To fully understand the impact of this you must know how the Canal Zone was.  The Zone, as it was commonly called, was a Southern Jim Crow Agency of the U.S. Government. Administered by an almost complete Southern Staff.  It was fully segregated, White and Black.  White drinking fountains, toilets, 1st and 2nd class railroad cars, White and Colored hospitals, White and Colored towns and schools, etc.  the whole transplanted South.  Should a colored person have to go to a white person’s home, he would have to go to the back door.  Whites lived in larger and better housing, not crowded, all facilities were private.  The colored lived in much smaller and crowded housing, with families sharing bathrooms, and laundry facilities.

You get the general idea.  Whites were paid on the Gold Roll and Colored on the Silver Roll, and about 1/3 that of the average White.  The Colored did not earn vacations or sick leave.  So in a capsule that was the Canal Zone that Phil had to work in.

After Phil left the Special Engineering Division, where he was the assistant to the Office Engineer, he accepted the position of Supervising Teacher of the Carpentry and Cabinet Making; Printing; Tailoring; Upholstery; Bookbinding Shops of the newly established La Boca Vocational High School for Colored (1st High School).  There was a college for Whites.  What made Phil and Margaret decide to plan a Tea on Christmas Eve and invite the Faculties of the La Boca Colored Schools (Elementary, Jr. High, High School and Jr. College) the Superintendent of Schools and Staff, and former coworkers of the Eng. Div., we never really learned.  Absolutely no one missed the Tea.  It was for about two hours set for each group.  The first didn’t leave. The second stayed.  We were all standing about having a wonderful time.  We loved the Runkels for having us over.  No Colored person was ever invited to a White persons home before.  This was history in the making and we were all part of it.

Come January, school was back in session.  All of Phil’s requisitions were rejected.  Phil was blocked in every subtle way.  The Runkels had broken a taboo.  They picked up sticks, Margaret resigned her position as Chief Librarian of the 15th Naval District, USA Navy and flew up the Univ. of Michigan.  The rest is history.  The Schools later obeyed President Truman’s decree and was no longer White and Colored, but they still managed to get around that by establishing the American and Latin American Schools.  The Panama Canal also became States Rate and Local Rate.  The White and Colored Signs came down.

Dag to Fred, March 1, 2004

Wilfred,   Wow!!!!!  Thank you!!!!

I knew Phil is a thoroughly decent human being, but I never guessed at this kind of Panama Canal Zone, nor this kind of civil disobedience. :) My Swedish education did not cover this kind of detail in either history or geography. Is this where Phil “marched in civil rights protests”?  I should have asked sooner.

Now it is Phil’s turn.    Again thanks,   Dag

Fred to Dag,  March 1, 2004

Hi, Your very right about Phil.  He is a wonderful person.  The marches were in the USA.  If he had made any open protest on the Canal Zone in those days he would have been taken by the collar, put on the boat and send back to the States immediately.  It had to be very difficult for liberal persons to live among the bigots who ran the Canal.  Phil was kind and good to all the teachers he supervised.  He did what ever he could to make improvements and to conduct special evening classes Teacher Education Skills.

Fred to Dag,  March 1, 2004

Subject: Re: Leaving Panama Canal Zone

My reason is simple.  I have always admired Phil’s and Margaret’s courage for what they did.  It was at the risk of been thrown off of the Canal Zone forthwith.  They dared the system, and at a time when the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee was in high gear.  How can I forget this?

Fred to email list, March 6, 2004

Subject: Hold off on email

Dear Email Pals:  I am asking that you don’t send me any email, except that which is personal or important, for the next two weeks, beginning on Monday, March 8th.  I will be having an operation on the 11th.  I have to get all of my dozens of emails cleared away.  Reading  is tough with these blinkers of mine.  Thank you, until after the storm.

Phil to Dag, cc: Fred, March 21, 2004

If I had answered your question (about why Margaret and I left the Canal Zone) before reading Fred Wasons answer, I would have answered somewhat as follows.

At the time, as Fred said, I had a job as supervising teacher in a high school for black students.  Supervising teacher is roughly equivalent to department head.  As Fred said, the euphemism for black was silver roll or local rate.  Students and teachers were black.  The principal and department heads were white—gold roll.

I had sense enough to know that I knew less, far less, than the teachers in my department about carpentry, upholstery, and bookbinding (Wasons subject).  (For a few months, because of the resignation of another department head, I also supervised printing, auto mechanics, and tailoring, of which I was similarly ignorant.)  I did know a fair amount about drafting, which is what I myself taught.

As I go along in this narrative, you may notice a few differences from Fred’s account.  After all these years, we are probably both somewhat inaccurate.

From the beginning, I was sometimes an annoyance to the assistant superintendent.  For example, the librarian at the high school for white students thought it would be nice if her student-assistant could repair some damaged books.  She heard that we had a course in bookbinding, and asked if she could send her student over for a few lessons.  I was happy that she thought we could be useful, and I said sure.  (I think our principal must have approved the request before it got to me, but I have no memory of that part.)  Wason did his part for the white girl, our students were nice to her, and as far as I know the white librarian was happy.  But I got a furious call from the assistant superintendent: What’s the matter with you—letting that white girl in there with all those black boys?—or words to that effect.

But the episode that was precipitous was one arising from the Dredging Division, the most prestigious division in the Canal organization because constant dredging is necessary to keep the canal open.  One day a model of a dredge showed up in our shop.  It was five or six feet long, and built with very accurate detail.  Its usual place was in an entry hall at the head offices of the division.  It had been damaged here and there, and they had sent it to us to be repaired. That expectation was not outrageous, because we had let it be known that we would accept projects from other divisions or even from individuals if the projects could serve educational purposes.

Unfortunately, when I inspected the damage, it was clear that the model needed only a few wires straightened, some scratches filled in, a touch of paint, and the like.  It might use up two or three hours of some students time, and he or she would then know no more about straightening wires or touching up paint than before.  So I sent the model back, explaining that thanks, but the work could not serve an educational purpose.

Oh, dear.  The assistant superintendent was on the phone again.  Did you tell the head of dredging that you would not fix his model?  His words were interspersed with much sputtering and gasping.

So it was becoming clear to me that my career with the Canals school district was not promising.  I thought that similar episodes were likely to occur in the future.

Naturally, I talked over these matters with Margaret.  One day, as we talked, she said, What would you think about going to graduate school?  She knew about my conversations with Batalden about social psychology, and I had performed (in a primitive way) as organizational consultant at a convention of the clergy of the Central American diocese of the Episcopal Church.  So that is what we did, and that is how I would have told the story if I had been the first one to tell it.

Fred’s story is the larger picture.  The tea he told about was certainly part of that larger picture.

Margaret was always eager to be helpful, and I wanted to make an occasion when faculty could associate with one another merely for friendly reasons, without being limited to professional matters.  So Margaret kindly offered to put on a tea.  We knew, of course, that we would be violating some long-standing customs of segregation.  So we thought it prudent to recruit some whites whose approval would be newsworthy.  We invited the principal and department heads of the school.  (Did we invite faculty from the other high school on the Atlantic side?  My memory is wobbly on this point.)  We invited the Dean of the Episcopal cathedral and the Bishop of the Central American diocese.  I have a vague memory that we were acquainted with a lieutenant governor, but I am not sure whether we invited him.  (If we did, I don’t think he showed up.)  Fred mentioned some other whites we invited, and I am sure there were still others whom I have forgotten. Some of those whites failed to appear, but enough did appear.  The bishop stayed during most of the evening, if my memory is correct.

I, too, remember that occasion with glee.  It was fun from start to finish.  One thing that stands out in my memory is that the fun had little to do with alcohol.  We provided two large bowls of punch.  One was traditional (traditional in northern Europe and North America) eggnog—with rum in it.  The other was simply ginger ale with scoops of orange sherbet floating in it.  We had to replenish the ginger ale three times, but the eggnog not at all.  I remember that I was drinking leftover eggnog for about three months afterward.

Nobody, white or black, scolded us for that tea party.  I remember, too, as Fred said, that administrators in the school system often turned down my requests for materials for projects I had in mind, but I do not know how many of those denials were a direct result of the tea party.  Some were, no doubt, but I think some of the thwarting came merely from bureaucratic stubbornness.

But there were happier spin-offs.  We sometimes went to dinner at the dining room at the hotel provided by the Canal Zone at the Pacific side of the isthmus—was it called the Tivoli Hotel?  After that party, we never had to wait to be seated.  The headwaiter would escort us to the best table and station a waiter nearby to be at our beck and call.  One time we attended a religious play put on by a church in Panama City populated by black people.  We thought we would saunter in and sit down like anyone else.  But no; we were escorted down the aisle and plopped down in the center of the first row.  And so on.

I don’t think civil disobedience is the proper term.  Margaret and I violated no laws (as far as I know)—only customs.  And the civil rights marches were in Illinois.

Well, as one of Shakespeare’s characters said, that was long ago and in another country.  But there were some fine moments and some fine friends.

Phil to Dag, April 9, 2004

Dag:  A week or ten days ago, I sent you, with a copy to Wason, my story of how Margaret and I left the Canal Zone.  But I have had no acknowledgment from either of you.  Did you receive it? 

Dag to Phil, April 12, 2004

That was March 21 and I owe you an apology. I did indeed get it, read it with care and shared it with Christine.  Wilfred wrote on March 6 that he was going to have an operation on March 11, so please hold off on mail. He gets to be excused.

I appreciate that you asked Wilfred to go first. I can see that he in his mind latched on to the highly visible external item, while you actually had some previous, not so public reasons to seek another path.

Thank you for sharing all this with me.

This ends this thread. I never heard from Wilfred again. The story has stayed with me and I thought it was about time I shared this with others. I just called the phone number Wilfred provided in 2004, found family members and learned that he passed on two years ago, so that surgery in 2004 must have been OK.

Dag Forssell     May, 2011




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