Written Fall of 2012
“I always liked to travel, like my dad, so I volunteered to go to Greece as a ‘sea-going cowboy.’” After graduating from high school at 17, Gordon Beidler became a “cowboy” tending cattle aboard the Samuel H. Walker in March of 1946 as directed by the United Nations Relief Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Brethren Service Committee of the Church of the Brethren. In 1943, the BSC organized the ecumenical Heifer Project (today’s Heifer International) around the concept of “not a cup, but a cow.” Sending cows, rather than powdered milk to people devastated by the war would enable the victims of war to feed themselves.
But Gordon was just a 17-year-old looking for adventure and not sure what he wanted to do with his life, but soon found himself en route to Athens, Greece. His parents drove him to the Brethren Relief Service headquarters in New Windsor, Maryland and from there he took a bus to Newport News, boarded the ship and was off with 20 young men, 330 cattle, a veterinarian and a Brethren minister named Loren Rapp. At first Gordon was very seasick, but after 3 days he tried eating just soda crackers .“You couldn’t get me sick after that.”
Gordon remembers being awestruck by the coast of Africa and the Rock of Gibraltar, being lurched abruptly when the ship barely missed a floating mine left in the Mediterranean Sea, and giving boys in Greece some Hershey kisses. The ship didn’t go to Athens as planned because violence increased in that area, so they docked instead at Patras. There they had time after unloading the cattle to take in a tour of modern and ancient times. They even enjoyed a meal at a private home, using sign language and similar Italian and German words to communicate.
Gordon wanted to go on another cattle ship trip but after his return to Bally, Pa, his mom and dad discouraged him from leaving again. He started working for Bally Case and Cooler, Co and resigned himself to less traveling. For some excitement, he sometimes commuted to Little Eden, a Christian camp and retreat center in Onekama, Michigan for young adult weekends. One year he met a beautiful young woman named Velda who had travelled from her hometown of Archibold, Ohio. Velda recalls “going for a ride and sitting on [Gordon’s] lap.” That was in July and the following October, Gordon got up his nerve to call Velda. They had a courtship of TWA rides till their marriage at Central Mennonite Church the following July of 1951. After their wedding, Velda moved to Gordon’s home in Bally, living alongside his parents, Warren and Elizabeth Beidler.
“With two women in the house, I needed to work, “Velda recalls. “ I worked for Bally Ribbon Mills in the office, doing payroll. Then in 1953, Gordon was drafted for the Korean War and the couple went into IW service at Samuel G. Dixon State Hospital (tuberculosis sanitarium) in Mt. Alto, Pa. They worked in dietary on the third floor cafeteria, setting food on the dumbwaiter, serving food to patients and utilizing the dishwasher. “Many a day, many a night,” was a favorite expression of another IW worker concerning their duties.
Bishop John Lapp visited the sanitarium during their service year and the Bishop heard that Gordon had served on the cattle ships, he suggested Gordon write to General Lewis B. Hershey at the Pentagon about his service in 1946 and that the General may give him credit toward his current assignment. Gordon wasn’t so sure, but he sent a letter to the General anyway. A few months later, Gordon received a letter from General Hershey informing him of 25 days credit. The director of the sanitarium said, I’d like you to stay, but you’re free to go if you chose.” They left the next day and returned to Bally after serving almost 2 years at the sanitarium.
While they were in I-W, Gordon became interested in flying and took lessons at the local Hagerstown, Maryland airport, receiving his pilot’s license in 1954. After they returned to Bally and their local jobs as truck driver and Bally Ribbon Mills employee, Velda also became interested in flying and took lessons at the Allentown Airport, receiving her pilot’s license in 1959. Together they became instrument-rated pilots and joined the International Flying Farmers. In 1972, Gordon was president of the PA chapter of the IFF and as convention chairman greeted over 1000 members at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.
Gordon and Velda certainly enjoyed the new-found freedom of their pilot’s licenses, often splitting the journey with Gordon taking one leg and Velda taking the other. If they had a yen for salt water taffy, they could fly into Atlantic City, go for a walk, get the taffy and fly home again. They traveled all around the world, making almost a complete circuit. They flew through alarming fog and risky snowstorms, yet Velda, with her instrument-rated license, would provide a safe landing and an unexpected surprise to the men in the control tower and ground crew. They enjoyed this lifestyle for almost 40 years, till Velda experienced some vision problems and eventually in 1991, they both retired their wings.
But together they had plenty of fun-loving enthusiasm left, enough for Gordon to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1995. He was asked to donate to the Orchestra, but only consented if he would be allowed to conduct a song at the next New Year’s Eve concert. So, believe it or not, the caller agreed and on Sunday, Dec 31, 1995, Gordon, in rented black tie and tails, conducted Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtomusik” (from Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major) to an enthusiastic audience at the Academy of Music.
Gordon and Velda Beidler have lived a life of service and adventure, dedicated to their local Bally Mennonite Church, but also their worldwide friends in IFF. Today, they are well-known for the Valentine’s celebration they finance and produce for all Souderton Mennonite Home residents. At 81 and 84, they are an extremely active and generous couple… and a gift to the community.