By Michelle A.L. Singer
Inspired by The Bridge’s 25th anniversary, I recently looked back at my own history with the paper as a writer. As synchronicity would have it, the first piece I wrote for The Bridge was published on December 19, 2003, almost 15 years to the day of this issue. (It was about shopping locally for the holidays.) In the same vein of coincidence, my subject here is also one I am revisiting.
In 2007 I interviewed Anne Sarcka, a community organizer and artist who has lived in Montpelier since 1978, about her father’s autobiography, Giving a Lift in Time: A Finnish Immigrant’s Story. I was delighted to be able to meet with her again, 11 years after our first interview, to talk to her about Strong Spirit, Steadfast Heart: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Man Sarcka, a book by and about her mother.
Born in 1893, Elizabeth Man Sarcka graduated from college in 1917, a notable accomplishment now, and even more so 101 years ago. Anne says of her mother, “Some strong, motivated, women came out of Barnard College at that time, and she was one of them. It was the era of the car, the subway, electrification, settlement houses, scouting for girls and boys. It was an era when some began to take women’s education seriously, and women were finally able to vote. My mother made the most of her opportunities.”
Elizabeth was the daughter of a prominent lawyer who, along with his father, founded the villages of Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens in Queens, New York. “She grew up in a Victorian family who were fairly affluent, and her father was a wonderful role model for her because he was so committed to the public arena,” says Anne. “She was ready to go all out and make as much of a difference as she could.”
Strong Spirit, Steadfast Heart is part memoir, part remembrances of family and friends, and part biography as narrated by Anne Sarcka with letters, poems, and artwork mixed in. Anne and her cousin, Laura Jinishian, compiled what is a celebration and documentation of a life that Anne describes as “remarkably purposeful.”
Elizabeth was an active leader in the League of Nations Association in her youth and met her future husband, Wayne Sarcka, when he was fundraising for the Girl Scouts. “I think my father was struck by how driven she was. I don’t think he’d met many other women like that.”
At the center of Elizabeth’s story is Spring Lake Ranch, the therapeutic community she and Wayne created in 1932 in Cuttingsville, Vermont. Having discovered Spring Lake during their honeymoon trek along the Long Trail, they returned the next year and bought a small farm property.
Elizabeth describes this era of her life in her memoir saying, “This is the story of a man and woman who—possessed with an unshakeable enthusiasm for life and an infinite faith in people—together hewed out of a rocky Vermont hillside an important center for the treatment of the mentally ill and developed a philosophy that reaches to the very core of modern ideas about mental health.” They spent nearly 30 years running the ranch and, alongside their staff, worked with hundreds of residents over the decades. To this day the ranch continues with its mission to help people regain their health.
When Elizabeth and Wayne retired from the ranch, and had seen it safely transitioned into a non profit corporation with Anne’s help, they went to Jamaica in the West Indies. It was a better climate for Wayne’s arthritis, and they lived there for seven years. Wanting to respond to the needs of their new community, and at the request of some of their neighbors, Elizabeth wrote, “We started what was intended as a literacy class for adults, but fast became a night school offering a variety of basic subjects.”
Wayne dictated his autobiography to Elizabeth in Jamaica before he died in 1968. Elizabeth then returned to her native Queens, where she worked for peace and disarmament and was recognized for her contributions well into her 90s.
When Elizabeth turned 95, Laura Jinishian wrote of her great-aunt, “One could say her life was art—the art of caring—for people, for the Earth, for peace, for the United Nations, for adult education for poor Jamaicans, helping the ill find meaning in work, in nature, and in others.” Elizabeth died in 1992 at the age of 98.
On the 75th anniversary of Spring Lake Ranch in 2007, Anne was moved to publish her father’s book and wished that her mother had a similar remembrance of her own remarkable life. When the ranch celebrated its 85th anniversary, Anne began to compile Elizabeth’s autobiographical writing as well as pieces written about her.
Strong Spirit, Steadfast Heart was a year and a half in the making and was designed by Brian Prendergast of Worcester. The beautiful result will soon be available at the Kellogg-Hubbard and Aldrich libraries and the Vermont Historical Society.
Readers can learn more about Spring Lake Ranch at springlakeranch.org.
Michelle A.L. Singer lives in East Montpelier and can be reached at email@example.com. In a final flourish of coincidence, Michelle shares a birthday with Anne Sarcka, as well as Anne’s grandfather.