Tuesday 11 Sep 2018

Ecolint Mourns the Loss of First Pupil Loïs Meyhoffer

Foundation Archivist Alejandro Rodríguez-Giovo's eloquent obituary for Loïs Meyhoffer.

In principium erat Loïs (In the beginning, there was Loïs)

Loïs Meyhoffer, the International School of Geneva’s first student, passed away peacefully on Friday 7th September 2018. On the 19th of November she would have been 100 years old.

No document in any archive, however rare, precious and evocative, can match in value the eyewitness account of a live human being. Someone who can tell you vividly what happened, because he or she was actually there, and moreover was an integral part of the historical event, is the ultimate source, next to which all others are but pale derivatives. Alas, with the passage of time such direct witnesses become increasingly rare, and the reliability of those who survive sometimes wanes, as the physical consequences of extreme old age take their toll. 

About a decade ago I had the privilege of getting to know Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of World War I, not long before he passed away. He was 111 years old at the time (the same age as Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings), but entirely compos mentis and still a patient, gentle and wise interlocutor. I chose not to tire him with the innumerable questions that came to my mind: although unfailingly courteous, Mr. Patch spoke in a sleepy, hoarse whisper, with a remote look in his eyes, as if he already glimpsed the au-delà.  He reminded me of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: “But I am done with apple-picking now. / Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.”

In contrast, there was never anything remotely somnolent or detached about Loïs Meyhoffer, Ecolint’s first student (as page one of our school’s original, handwritten register – dated 17th September 1924, and carefully preserved in a display cabinet in the Archives – testifies). For decade after decade, and until a few days ago, Loïs could provide upon request a preciously precise and reliable account of Ecolint’s initial, endearingly tentative steps. She was the first young mind shaped by the school, and eventually she reciprocated by becoming a repository of its most fundamental principles: a constant point of reference by which our noble institution could take its bearings, in a fickle world all too frequently swayed by fraudulent fashions and pernicious ideologies.

Loïs Meyhoffer visiting refugees on behalf of the World Council of Churches in 1954

After living abroad in pursuit of her further studies and of humanitarian work for the World Council of Churches, to which she devoted much of her professional life, Loïs eventually returned to Geneva and resided autonomously until last year at the same address in Champel (a handsome art déco building adorned with colossal caryatids) where she was born in 1918. Only when her health declined in 2017 did she move into a nearby rest home; nevertheless, she could not have remained more alert and sharp-witted. Many of us who are four, five or six decades younger had reason to envy her memory and mental agility. One had to keep on one’s toes when speaking to Loïs; affable though she was, she pounced unerringly on inaccuracies, fallacies and fuzzy thinking, dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s not pedantically but soberly, with matter-of-fact precision. 

Assembled school in 1925, Loïs is sitting in the front row, in the centre.

Loïs was a flawlessly trilingual, deeply cultured, well-informed and profoundly reflective person. Barely a few weeks away from rounding off a century, she continued to pore over Le Temps every morning and to take an active interest not only in scholarly or classic works but also in contemporary fiction: during one of my most recent visits I found her immersed in Paul Auster’s mammoth novel 4321, a hefty tome that posed a physical challenge for her tiny frame. Not content with merely observing the world, Loïs always sought to engage with it critically and constructively. She had little interest in small talk or idle chit-chat; even in the 100th year of her life, conversations with her quickly became substantive and relevant to world affairs well beyond her personal milieu. Loïs never ceased to care quietly but intensely about how things are and how they ought to be. 

From an Ecolintian perspective, what was most notable about Loïs was her uncompromising commitment to our school’s core values and ideals. They were deep-rooted in her; she was, after all, the daughter of Ecolint’s first director, Paul Meyhoffer, a distinguished educator from the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau who earlier in his life had pursued theological studies and was the author of Les idées pédagogiques de Luther (1909). It would be fair to say that her father’s Christian, and specifically Protestant, ethos – which he shared with his fellow Genevois Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross – is one of the humanitarian strands that has crucially contributed to our school’s identity, together with pacifist convictions, a multi-cultural outlook and a firm belief in the “equal value of all human beings” (famously affirmed in Article 4 of our Charter). 

Over the decades, Loïs came to be seen as the chief guardian of Ecolint’s moral mission. What she had to say about how we have indulged ourselves with grand, lavish facilities instead of devoting our resources to scholarships for Third World students might have been uncomfortable to hear but was salutary. In Loïs’ view, all that the school needed to provide were “good teachers, books, tables, chairs, paper and pencils or pens” – the rest she deemed superfluous window-dressing. Nevertheless, Loïs never pulled rank on the grounds of her seniority, or attempted to interfere with the running of the school. It was always Ecolint that sought her out, and – although she was generous with her time – she could not have been more self-effacing; the fascination with which she was regarded never ceased to bemuse her.

First Ecolint class in 1924

In our earliest, iconic photograph, dated 17th September 1924 – when Ecolint had a grand total of eight students and three teachers – Loïs is the six year-old girl sitting in the foreground, shading her eyes. Since then, she loyally followed the development of the school and continued to take a loving but critical interest in where we are heading, now that the number of students has soared to 4,500 and tens of thousands of Ecolint alumni are disseminated throughout the world. As evidence of her perennial engagement, here are some reflections that she contributed in connection with the Alumni World Reunion and our 90th Anniversary in 2014:

“En pensant à la prochaine réunion mondiale ou nous célébrerons les 90 ans de l'Ecole, je voudrais proposer un nouveau défi. 1924, l'année de la création de l'Ecole était une période d'euphorie. La "grande Guerre" 1914-1918 venait de se terminer, la Société des Nations était  née permettant aux peuples et aux nations de régler leurs  différends par le dialogue et l'arbitrage plutôt que par la guerre. Mais une génération plus tard éclate la seconde guerre mondiale.  Cependant l'Ecole a continué à œuvrer pour la paix, engageant dans cet effort ses enseignants, ses élèves et les milliers d'anciens dispersés aux quatre coins du monde. Et la tâche n'est toujours pas terminée, les conflits se multiplient. Que faire ? Ne pourrions-nous pas engager une réflexion sur la place et le rôle des minorités dans nos sociétés: minorités ethniques, linguistiques, religieuses ou raciales. Il y en a partout, dans tous les pays, dans toutes les sociétés, ignorées ou bafouées par la majorité. Si l'on pouvait reconnaître leur légitimité et leur valeur et leur donner leur juste place cela permettrait peut-être d'éviter des conflits. Apprendre à se tolérer, à reconnaitre la valeur de l'Autre, à le respecter. Tous sont nécessaires pour former une société humaine riche de toutes les cultures, de toutes les croyances. Nous pourrions engager la communauté de notre Ecole à réfléchir à cette question en vue de notre prochain anniversaire. Ce serait vraiment le rôle de notre Ecole qui est l'exemple même de cet enrichissement par la différence. Montrer que c'est possible et proposer des voies à suivre pour mieux vivre ensemble serait une tâche intéressante pour tous, pour les élèves actuels comme pour nous leurs aînés.”

To borrow a Voltaire witticism: “Si Loïs Meyhoffer n’avait pas existé, il aurait fallu l’inventer.” But thankfully she did exist, and as recently as September 2017, on the occasion of Ecolint’s 93rd birthday, she was faithfully on call to address our students in the Greek Theatre. It will be difficult to conceive an Ecolint in which Loïs is not available as an overarching witness and ultimate point of reference. But if you want to imagine her lovingly but sternly supervising Ecolint’s integrity from a loftier plane of existence, feel free to do so; there could be no worthier appraiser looking over our shoulders.

Loïs Meyhoffer addressing La Grande Boissière assembly in September 2017

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