Peace Pilgrim's 28-Year Walk For 'A Meaningful Way Of Life' On Jan. 1, 1953, Mildred Norman gave up her name — and possessions — to become Peace Pilgrim. She walked across the U.S. and Canada for 28 years, subsisting on handouts from strangers to spread her message of peace.
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Peace Pilgrim's 28-Year Walk For 'A Meaningful Way Of Life'

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Peace Pilgrim's 28-Year Walk For 'A Meaningful Way Of Life'

Peace Pilgrim's 28-Year Walk For 'A Meaningful Way Of Life'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

On January 1, 1953, a woman set off from the Rose Bowl Parade, with a goal of walking the entire country for peace. She left behind her given name - Mildred Norman - and took up a new identity.

Independent producer Zak Rosen has been looking back on the remarkable life of Peace Pilgrim.

ZAK ROSEN, BYLINE: When Peace Pilgrim started out, the Korean War was still going on, and an ominous threat of a nuclear attack was on the mind of many Americans. And so with "Peace Pilgrim" written across her chest, she was walking, as she called it, coast to coast for peace.

For 28 years - the entire length of her journey - she never used money, ever. She gave new meaning to the word minimalist. She wore the same thing every day; blue pants and a blue tunic, which held everything she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. That's it.

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ROSEN: In July of 1981, the day before she died, Peace Pilgrim was interviewed by Ted Hayes, the manager of a small radio station in Knox, Indiana.

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RICHARD POLESE: I was driving along a road in Ohio at night, and I saw this figure; white hair, with some kind of white lettering, walking along the road and then as I drove by, kind of dashing a bit, out of the way of the traffic. And I had no idea who it was.

My name is Richard Polese. I'm a book publisher and editor.

ROSEN: Years after Polese saw her walking on the side of the road, he met Peace Pilgrim, and they became friends. A decade after she died, he and some other friends collected her writings in a book.

POLESE: Peace is what we called her. We called her by her first name, Peace. (LAUGHTER)

HELENE YOUNG: My name is Helene Young, and I am the sister of Peace Pilgrim. And I am 97 years old. I live in Cologne, New Jersey, two miles outside of Egg Harbor, where Peace Pilgrim and I were born and raised.

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YOUNG: She was very much what they called a flapper, in those days. She had to have the latest clothing. So she made so many changes in her life to a very simple, basic life.

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YOUNG: We were brought up without a formal religion or politics. We were taught to think for ourselves, not follow the sheep.

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ROSEN: Fifteen years passed between this striking moment of clarity, and the official beginning of her pilgrimage. To prepare, one of the things she did was walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one year. Peace Pilgrim was the first woman to do this.

YOUNG: She was not interested in being a mother. And that was why she knew that she could handle the pilgrimage - because she did not leave a family behind. She and her husband were divorced because she thought he should be a conscientious objector. And his sergeant told him that was grounds for divorce.

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YOUNG: The first year, she was thrown in jail for vagrancy. And they found out she wasn't a commie, so they let her go.

POLESE: She would gather the women prisoners together, and teach them a little song and a little chant called "The Fountain of Love." And she'd had them do this. So she - her mission - she felt that prisons and jails were wonderful places to carry on a mission. She had no fear.

ROSEN: The motto she had sewn on the back of her tunic when she started out, walking coast to coast for peace, quickly became outdated. By 1964, she had already walked 25,000 miles. Eventually, she stopped counting. As she became more well-known, Peace Pilgrim began getting invitations to speak at schools and churches. That's what brought her to Knox, Indiana, in the summer of 1981.

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ROSEN: Was there anything about her that you remember?

TERRY BAU: We didn't know who it was, at first, not until it was in the paper.

My name is Terry Bau, and I'm just a housewife.

TONY BAU: And my name is Tony Bau, and I run the business here, Bau Collision Repair.

ROSEN: Peace Pilgrim, a woman who spent her life walking thousands of miles through every state and most of Canada, lost her life riding in a car.

POLESE: Tony and his wife, Terry, were outside in the yard when the accident occurred.

TONY BAU: About 75 to 100 feet up the road there, approximately - right where that utility pole is, there.

TERRY BAU: I got on the side of her. She was still alive when I got up there. I was talking to her, just telling her everything would be OK. That's about all I remember.

POLESE: Peace Pilgrim really ended up in the hands of the right people, just by serendipity.

TONY BAU: Even though we didn't know her - we didn't know any of her writings or anything like that - we still lived her life, you know, because I believe in exactly what she believes in; being free, and try to have a more peaceful world amongst people.

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ROSEN: Peace Pilgrim's journey ended on the side of that road in Indiana, 30 years ago. But her followers say they continue to find meaning in her message, and to be inspired by her example. For NPR News, I'm Zak Rosen.

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CORNISH: Zak Rosen is an independent producer based in Detroit.

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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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