How does one begin to tell the story of a woman who was so much more than a wife, a mother, a nurse, or a missionary? She was a child of God and a servant of God for the 92 years and eight days that she spent on this earth. Very few people have had an impact on my life like this woman and yet, we were not always on the best of terms. She was, after all, my mother and there were many times when we saw the world differently. But I will never forget the things she taught me and I hope that I might one day be half the woman… half the person… half the servant of God that she was. Perhaps the best way to tell this story is to let her tell it – for she wrote most of her own obituary and reading it always fills me with wonder.
This is the unlikely story of a gal from Iowa with many warts and foibles left out. Evelyn Mildred Coovert was born on August 14, 1920, in Erie, Pennsylvania to Bennett Clyde and Gertrude Sophia Coovert. Five years later, the entire family, including Evelyn and her two older brothers, Harvey and Kenneth, moved to Davenport, Iowa. After Evelyn graduated from Central High School in 1938, a missionary friend recognized her longing to be a nurse and directed her to a good nursing school at Lankenau Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. So, off she went. After finishing her nursing training in 1942, she returned home to further her studies, completing a BA degree at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1946. (Imagine, traveling alone to study nursing in Pennsylvania and then completing a college degree at a time when most women stayed at home!)
Evelyn felt the Lord was calling her to serve Him, so she applied to the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Board and was accepted and assigned to China. To prepare herself for this service, she went to study for one year at Biblical Seminary in New York City and then went to Yale University for two terms of language study in the Chinese language. (Again, an amazingly independent woman!) Then, in 1947, she set sail for China in a converted troop ship, the USS Meigs. On reaching China, she first studied at the Peking Language School. It was there that she met her life’s partner, Richard Whitney Bryant, an ordained Presbyterian missionary. They soon fell in love and were married in Tsingtao, China, on December 31, 1948. Not long afterward, the communists took over the city and they left for Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that their first child, Kenneth Richard, was born.
They returned to the United States in 1950 and awaited reassignment to a new mission field. While they were there, their second child, Sharon Louise, was born. After a short time in the United States, Richard and Evelyn were assigned to Thailand and traveled there in 1952 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Mission Board. The Lord blessed Richard and Evelyn with two more children, John Robert and Carol Ruth, who were both born in Chiangmai, Thailand. All four of their children grew up in Thailand and became a part of that culture, returning to visit many times after they left to attend college in the USA.
From 1951 to 1963, Richard and Evelyn lived in Chiang Mai with Richard teaching at McGilvary Theological Seminary and Evelyn teaching at McCormick Hospital’s School of Nursing. (A Richard and Evelyn Bryant Memorial Endowment Fund has been established to purchase resources for these two schools, now both part of Payap University in Chiang Mai.) In 1964, after home leave, Richard and Evelyn were re-assigned to Nakhorn Srithammarat to work with the Christian schools in the south. After four years in Nakhon, they moved to Trang for another four years and then to Tungsong. During all their years in the South they were deeply involved in the life of the Putong Leprosy Colony, where Evelyn held weekly clinics, Bible studies, and developed handcrafts among the women to be sold for extra revenue for the residents there. In 1976, Richard was called to be the Acting Director of the McKean Rehabilitation Institute. He was the Director for six years, during which time McKean was honored to be visited by the King and Queen of Thailand. In 1982 Richard became the Ecumenical Secretary for the CCT, and he and Evelyn moved to Bangkok.
Over the years, Evelyn’s American family grew through the marriages and children of all four Bryant. Pictured here in the early 1990’s, (front row, left to right) Ken with daughter Christine, Carol with daughter Kimberly, Evelyn with John’s daughter Alethea, Ken’s wife, Susan, with daughter Sara, and (second row) Sharon’s son Julian, John’s wife LeeAnna, John and Sharon. Two more grandchildren (John’s daughter Ileah and Carol’s son Ryan) and three great-grandchildren (Christine’s children: Ezra, Jaida, and Angelique) were later added to this group.
Evelyn and her husband formally retired from the mission field in 1986, but soon returned at the request of the Thai church to help in various ways: with evangelistic teams, doing lay leadership training, serving as interim managers of the Bangkok Christian Guesthouse, assisting the managers of the retreat center at Pranburi and, once again, as interim managers of the Guesthouse (a total of 3 times). They are pictured here in 2004 on their last trip to South Thailand with their Thai daughter, Sunee (left), and good friend, Yindee. Their last mission venture was to the Bangkok Christian Guest House in the spring of 2006. During their years in Thailand, they saw many come to Christ and today, many of those they counseled and taught serve as leaders in the church.
In death, as in life, it is impossible to talk about my mother without mentioning my father. From the moment she said, “I do” in 1948, she saw her primary role in life as wife and helpmate of my father. They were rarely apart. Even when mission assignments took them to different places during the day, they usually were back together by evening. My father’s sudden death in 2008 was devastating to my mother, especially given her fading eyesight and recent cancer diagnosis. Despite that, she chose to return to Thailand with me in 2011 to live the remainder of her days there, surrounded by friends and co-workers she had come to know and love. She is pictured here at the funeral of her Thai daughter, Sunee, in the spring of 2012, surrounded by Sunee’s three daughters and their children – Mom’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One more great-grandchild, Navee, is pictured with Evelyn below.
After a six-year battle with lymphoma, Evelyn gently slipped from this life to be with the Lord at our home in Chiang Mai on Wednesday, 22 August 2012. I was privileged to be at her side when she breathed her last. With the help of my sister, Carol, and my two brothers, Ken and John, we celebrated her life in true Thai Christian style with seven separate services of worship (described in my blog of 12 April 2012). But there was a twist: Instead of funereal hymns, we sang her favorite upbeat, triumphant and joyous hymns. With the resurrection passages, we read her favorite passages from the Bible (Isaiah 12 and Isaiah 40 at the top of the list). And, in defiance of Thai tradition that requires everyone to dress in black, we gave everyone who came to any of the services a brightly colored silk scarf to wear in remembrance of her. More than thirty huge floral wreaths from churches, schools, and personal friends blanketed the chapel where her services were held. The scarves say it all: Mom always looked for the day when she would be able to be with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For her, death was a joyful passing into something greater and more wonderful than we could ever imagine. With these brightly colored scarves, we celebrated her life and that joyful passing with her children and many, many friends.
Mom’s body was cremated and, the day after her cremation, we took her ashes to her favorite beach just south of Hua Hin. In this photo that was taken from the McFarland House at Nong Khae, you cannot see the many condominiums that have sprung up in the years since we came here as a family for vacations together. It almost looks the way it did then. In the distance is the tiny hilltop at Kao Takiep, a traditional family hike down the beach each summer. Carol, Ken and I (John had to return to the USA) took Mom’s ashes to Kao Takiep and scattered them on the hilltop there. The next day, we went our separate ways, treasuring our memories of the life that we shared with this incredible independent woman we called Mom.