Mary Hazeltine

A Family History of Bridging Cultures

As a young child, Mary Hazeltine lived in Chengdu when Nanking University relocated to western China during the years of Japanese occupation. Despite wartime conditions, her father, William P. Fenn, saw opportunities for his students. “The picture of China that Allied soldiers got was limited,” she said during a recent interview. “So students at the Christian universities were a kind of bridge between the two cultures. My father said it was a chance for them to present a picture of China that was understandable to outsiders and to create a positive image.”

Mrs. Hazeltine’s family has its own history of bridging cultures. Her grandfather, Courtenay Fenn, was a Presbyterian missionary who wrote Fenn’s 500 Characters, an early Chinese-English dictionary. Her father began teaching in China in 1923 and became the United Board’s director in China in 1942; he spent nearly three decades working for the United Board, including 19 years as its general secretary. She and her husband, Barrett, have held teaching positions in Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia, and today, many years after her family left China in 1947, she still feels “a certain comfort level” when she travels to mainland China and Taiwan.

Dr. Fenn died in 1993, but Mrs. Hazeltine finds there are still “very strong cords” between his work and the United Board’s current programs. “He recognized a need to build Christian-based leaders in countries around the rim of Asia,” she said, leaders who understood “the importance of service to their community, their university, and their country.”

He also practiced his belief that “quality education needs quality faculty” in his work as an educator and administrator. “He felt the United Board could make such a contribution by strengthening faculty,” she recalled. “Maybe someone is teaching with a bachelor’s degree but could be more effective with a higher degree, or would benefit from a better understanding of what it takes to do research.” Creating fellowship opportunities for young faculty members to go abroad and earn advanced degrees has a ripple effect as well – colleagues at the host institution learn from the fellows and, ultimately, new knowledge and skills are brought back to the classrooms of the fellows’ home campuses.

Mrs. Hazeltine occasionally looks through her father’s correspondence to refresh her memories of the family’s years in China, but one of her convictions needs no reminder: “Through people-to-people contact, change begins.”

The United Board is grateful to Mary and Barrett Hazeltine for sharing their memories of Dr. Fenn and for their longtime support of the United Board.

(First published in Horizons in April 2013)