James Scherer

James Scherer

“Be prepared for an exciting adventure and allow yourself to be influenced and transformed by the things that you see and do. Enter as far as possible into the mix of things.”


James Scherer, Bachelor, Yali Middle School, 1946-1949

By Aaron Lichtig, Lingnan (University) College, 2002-2003

Jim’s affiliation with Yale-China (then Yale-in-China) began in 1945 when he was a community service-minded Yale undergrad. Through his position as a Dwight Hall cabinet member, he met Kenneth Leverett, Yale-China’s personnel director, who encouraged him to consider a position as a bachelor in Changsha. After careful deliberation and a year deferment to study theology, Jim in 1946 boarded the SS Fairport, a China-bound commercial vessel with 12 passenger berths (none labeled Economy Plus or International Business Class) in Galveston, Texas. The ship traversed the Panama Canal, stopped in Hawaii for degaussing - a process that prepared it to repel mines; this was, after all, just a year after Hiroshima - then sailed north to Shanghai, arriving on Aug. 31, 1946, the day before Jim’s 20th birthday. After another few weeks sailing down the Yangtze and riding rough-hewn railways, he found himself in hardscrabble post-war Changsha.

There, he came face to face with the “poverty, brokenness and destruction that had occurred during the Japanese occupation and many tremendous infrastructure and human needs. Hunan hospital, across from the Yali school, had been used during the war and been desecrated by the Japanese, who kept horses there.” Jim and his teaching partner Steve Whittlesey ‘45W also faced a new and seemingly impenetrable language. “The Mandarin that I learned at Yale was not the language that was spoken in Hunan,” he said, rocking back slightly and recalling the dissonant twang of Changsha hua. He taught at Yali for three years, impacting numerous lives, improving his language skills, and guiding his students through a time of great change. An explorer at heart, he also got the chance to travel widely in China, sailing in a sampan to visit a sacred mountain near Chengdu, overnighting in Buddhist monasteries, and hitching rides on the back of Kuomintang army trucks on the northern part of Burma Road. “Exploring old China was a very exciting thing. I was very happy go lucky then,” Jim recalled.

In addition to linguistic and geopolitical challenges, Jim found something else in Hunan - love. Early in his tenure at Yali, he met Frances Schlosser, a career missionary and then Dean of the Yale-in-China affiliated Nursing School and fell hard for her. The pair married on Easter in 1948 with the Governor of Hunan Province (whose son was a Yali student) and much of Changsha’s international community in attendance, and firecrackers popping in the air overhead. Following a honeymoon in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, they lived together in Changsha until June of 1949 when Yale-in-China, in the face of consolidation of Communist control over the country, instructed the bachelors to depart. And not a moment too soon. By October, the Communists had established the People’s Republic and a xenophobic fervor gripped the region. The one Yale-China employee who did not depart Changsha, senior site representative Dwight Rugh, was soon charged with imperial crimes and antiquity theft. “He had to wear a dunce cap and march down the street, but they finally let him go home,” Jim remembered.

After returning to the US, Jim first attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, then moved to the Chicago area for further training. Following his ordination by the Lutheran Church and the birth of two children, Jim and Frances set off for Japan where he served as district missionary for the North Kyushu diocese, helping the church re-establish itself after the war. “It was a very rich and challenging life,” Jim said. “I was constantly struck by differences and similarities (between China and Japan), the characters being same but read in quite different ways.”

The family finally returned to the US for good in 1957. After finishing up a doctorate through a joint program at Union and Columbia, Jim took a become Dean of a training school for missionary personnel in Maywood, outside of Chicago. Ten years later, the school merged with others to form a Lutheran seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood where he worked until his retirement in 1992

. Jim currently resides in Oak Park, Ill. with his wife Liene Sorenson, a former librarian whom he married in 2012 (making Jim a newlywed again at age 86!). Though he has not lived in China since the ‘40s, it’s never far from his thoughts. “I’ve been back 6 times over the years,” he said. “Last time I was dazzled by the speed of construction of the hi-rise buildings all over China, including Changsha (which he visited for Yale-China’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2006). But I was also struck by the increasing gap between the wealthy and the very poor.”

What advice does the “Dean of Yale-China Fellows” have for those just starting their fellowship and career experiences? “Be prepared for an exciting adventure and allow yourself to be influenced and transformed by the things that you see and do. Enter as far as possible into the mix of things.” No matter how much China changes, this advice will always ring true.

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