Yesterday, soon after getting on the road, I received a notification that the world had lost a truly outstanding person, and someone who was very influential in my life. Miss Joan Hoyte died on Tuesday, just days before her ninety-fourth birthday. I am so sad now, not just because she is gone, but because I never made it back to the UK to visit her, as I have wanted to do for years.
Why was a British nonagenarian so important to me? Well . . . she was the school nurse at my boarding school in Zambia. But that doesn’t actually tell you anything, does it?
Here is what I wrote about her in my memoir, This Rich & Wondrous Earth (which was dedicated to her and one other staff member):
Miss Hoyte was the school nurse, and worked in the kitchen too, but she was so much more than that. For one thing, she was a former pupil, which seemed incredible to us. It was hard for us to imagine her ever being a little girl, but we loved it when she told us stories about her days as a schoolgirl at Sakeji in the 1930’s. Not counting a few years absence for further education, Miss Hoyte had spent virtually her entire life at Sakeji, and as I write this she is there still though not actively working at the school.
Miss Hoyte was all business and efficiency and she did not suffer fools gladly, or even at all. Though her hair was prematurely gray, she had the strength and energy of a woman half her age and she had no patience with children who demonstrated laziness, foolishness, or self-pity. She was scrupulously fair, never showed favoritism, and had a wonderful sense of humor. Miss Hoyte was so energetic and vigorous that just catching sight of her made me feel as if I simply had to jump up and start doing something useful. Although I never felt particularly close to her as a child, I had tremendous admiration and respect for her, which have grown over the years. I have never heard anyone speak ill of her and I have never observed her to say or do anything that she might regret or be ashamed of afterwards. I loved it when we would ask her why she had never married, and she would answer, “Well, I always thought I would get married and have a big family, but instead I came here and had an even bigger family!”
Miss Hoyte was the one who meted out my favorite and least favorite punishments at school. The favorite one was when I was banished to sleep in the storeroom for a whole week! And the least favorite was when I was forbidden to talk to my best friend for a month.
One of the things I truly appreciated about Miss Hoyte was her fairness. She was also very kind, in a brusque, no-nonsense way. It’s like she didn’t want people to realize what a softy she really was. I didn’t fully understand her value until I was an adult though. In the early 1990s, my husband and I were missionaries in Zambia. We had the opportunity to visit Sakeji (the school) to celebrate the retirement of one of the other teachers from my day.
Miss Hoyte had already retired—but her retirement home was right on the school campus where she could still be involved in children’s lives. Having lived in Zambia all her life, she had no interest in leaving as long as she could be healthy and active. And boy, was she active. Even in her seventies, she put most young people to shame!
She invited us over to her cottage and did such a lovely job of entertaining our children. She kept insisting that I call her “Joan,” but this is something I just could not do after so many years of respectfully calling her “Miss Hoyte.”
She instantly became something of a fairy godmother to our young children. We talked her into visiting us at our mission station a few weeks later with a couple of her friends. After a lifetime in Zambia, she had never been to that station before. I was so happy to have her. I obsessed over the food because I wanted to prove I was a good cook! We didn’t have anything fancy in our remote location, but I do remember working hard to make some good guava purée to serve with porridge in the morning, and I was so gratified when she commented on how delicious it was.
When she arrived for her visit, she brought all kinds of little goodies for the kids—from balloons to candy. They adored her—and so did I. As an adult, I realized what a genuine treasure she was. She was everything I aspired to be.
We kept in touch with occasional letters after I returned to the USA. I was thrilled to be able to return to Zambia in 2000 to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary. She was still there, and I managed to squeeze in a lovely visit with her down at the river.
Eventually her seemingly boundless energy and health failed her, and she was forced to move to the UK. When I published my memoir and dedicated it to her, I sent her a copy. Then I waited on pins and needles to see what her reaction would be. She wrote me a lovely letter telling me how much she had enjoyed it. More importantly, she validated my efforts by telling me that my portrayal of the school and its staff was very accurate. Whew! I would so have hated to disappoint her.
As the years sped by, she had more than one stroke and in her last letter to me she complained that she had become slow and stupid. Slow, maybe—but never stupid. How I longed to make the trip to England to see her one last time. But alas, it was not to be. The time is gone and I will never again see those bright blue eyes sparkling back at me.
Here is a photo of her as a young woman:
When it was shown at the reunion in 2000, someone yelled, “Miss Hoyte, you were a real looker!” Yes she was. And here is a photo I took of her in 1993, entertaining our friends’ kids:
Note the vase with flame lilies in the background. She loved Zambia’s national flower! I stole this photo from Facebook of her returning from a trip to gather flame lilies.
I’m so glad that I grow flame lilies in my garden, and that they are in bloom right now. I cut some this afternoon in Miss Hoyte’s memory.
She was one of a kind—the kind you feel so fortunate to have known. She will be missed by hundreds of former students all over the world.