Remembering Moritz Thomsen

Loren Finnell  (Ecuador 1964-66)

It was a Saturday afternoon on a summer day in 1964, and we were in a respite from the daily grind of Peace Corps training at Montana State College (now Montana State University).  The two of us were somewhat comfortably situated on a rocky ledge in the wilderness areas outside of Bozeman, watching the roaring flow of the river below and the passing wildlife, as well as taking in the breathtaking view of mountainous terrain.  Mostly, however, we were just glad not to be in language lab repeating Spanish dialogues that we barely understood the meaning of or rushing off to learn something about the geography and political history of Ecuador. We were free to enjoy what we were going to be doing for the next 36 hours…….absolutely nothing!

My friend, who I was just getting to know, was a 48-year-old, chain smoking, pig farmer from California, and I was a recent college graduate from the Midwest, who had hardly ever strayed away from small-town Indiana.  Neither one of us had a real clue about where our adventure was about to take us, and we had scant time to even consider it, given the 6:00 am to 9:00 pm daily schedule we were being submitted to.  Given our age difference, and our dissimilar backgrounds, we were unlikely soul mates, but in fact, we were on a fast track to becoming life-long friends.

My new friend’s name was Moritz Thomsen.

Moritz, a very liberal thinker in many ways, had been born into a well-known family, whose patriarch was a prominent member of the Republican Party, and he was estranged from his father, having turned his back on the opportunity for wealth and notoriety that would have come along with same.  His life path eventually took him to California, where for some reason (I do not remember the reasons why), he became a pig farmer.  While pursuing this business venture, he also began building a brand new house on the property, eventually failing on both counts.  Moritz had such a soft heart that he could not come to terms with the thought of slaughtering these animals that he cared for on a daily basis.  He literally loved them.  In the end the pigs were living with him in the unfinished house and he was sleeping with them at night in order to keep warm.  The end result was bankruptcy.

When he writes about walking around the table contemplating the Peace Corps application in the first page of his book, Living Poor, he really had no other choice.  It was either that or live in the streets.

Moritz was of medium height and slight built, and his weathered, tanned and leathery face reflected his smoking addiction and his lifetime of working out in the sun.  I don’t think he ever owned more than two or three pair of torn jeans and some worn out shirts and tennis shoes.  At least I never saw him in anything else.  He was easy to engage in conversation, and he was never afraid to say whatever was on his mind, things that were sometimes controversial and oft times humorous.  For instance, when asked by the psychiatrist in Peace Corps training about whether he related more to his mother or his father, he rather directly replied, “It’s none of your business.”  One of his favorite sayings was, “That’s about as funny as a turd in a punchbowl.”  He likewise massacred the Spanish language right up to the sad end of his life.  Notwithstanding, he was also like a loveable little teddy bear, which you wanted to hold and protect, and he had no enemies.  I think it was those latter qualities that kept him from getting “deselected” during the extremely demanding training that we were subjected to.

Whatever the case, Moritz did go on to serve a disjointed tour and a half of duty as a volunteer, interrupted by some medical leave in the U.S. to deal with a lung infection.  Both of his work sites were on the coastal side of Ecuador, first a short stint in La Union, a very small village near Santo Domingo, and then later in Rio Verde, a small village north of Esmeraldas that could only be accessed by walking along the beach at low tide.  In both cases his mandate was to do the work of an agricultural extension agent, teaching the farmers in the area about ways to improve their agricultural practices (use of fertilizers, pesticides, care of animals, etc.) so as to increase production and thereby make more money.

Moritz was a fantastic writer.  All during our Peace Corps tenure in Ecuador, he sent regular articles to the San Francisco Chronicle.  They were extremely humorous and poignant, and he later put them together in book called Living Poor, unquestionably, in my own mind, the very best book ever written by an ex-volunteer about their Peace Corps experience.  Moritz never returned to the U.S., remaining in Rio Verde, where he purchased a farm in partnership with one of the families he had assisted during his tenure as a volunteer.  His idea was that by developing a model farm and showing how successful it could be, he would be able to convince the famers of Rio Verde to follow his example. 

During this time he wrote two more equally incredible books:  The Farm on the River of Emeralds and The Saddest Pleasure, both of which are now out of print and virtually impossible to find.  The first of these basically describes the development of the farm with the family he befriended (and who befriended him), highlighting both the small successes and the many setbacks.  The second book centers on next phase of the model farm and his eventual separation from both the farm and the family he was partnering with, before returning to Guayaquil to live the remainder of his life.

On one of my consultative trips to Ecuador in August of 1989, I located Moritz in Guayaquil by visiting the owner of a bookstore (a contact provided by another former volunteer) and asking about his whereabouts.  I found him in a squalid, two-room walk-up apartment, which he never left due to his advanced emphysema, albeit still smoking.  We reminisced for awhile, and then I had to go.  Moritz was the epitome of “living poor,” and a wonderfully loving and talented person.  He was the embodiment of what Kennedy was looking for in a true Peace Corps volunteer.  Moritz succumbed to cholera less than two years after my visit.

Pat Joseph, a San Francisco-based editor and author visited Moritz soon after I did and wrote: “…his books were grand and valuable and important for the simple reasons that he wrote about important things and chose to live a life stripped down to its essence.  He wrote about himself with such honesty, in the end, that just when you thought he had confessed everything, he would open a new vein and bleed some more.”     

In the end, even though he had difficulty dealing with many of the situations he was confronted with in Rio Verde (described in the abovementioned books), I think it was fortunate that he found the Peace Corps (and that the Peace Corps found him), as he would have been even less capable of coping with the cold realities of life in the United States.

I remember him especially during this 50th year anniversary of the Peace Corps.  He might have been living poor, but he was surely rich in friends, and I am proud and honored, to have him judge me to be one of his Peace Corps buddies.

Loren Finnell is the President and Founder The Resource Foundation (New York City) with 47 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations (NGOs) worldwide.  Prior to establishing The Resource Foundation in 1987, he headed his own consulting firm for eight years, supporting the programmatic and management needs of U.S., Canadian and developing world NGOs in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  From 1972 to 1979, Dr. Finnell helped found and develop Private Agencies Collaborating Together (PACT), a U.S.-based international consortium of NGOs, serving as its Deputy Executive Director.  Dr. Finnell had two tenures with International Voluntary Services, as Program Director in Washington, DC (1971-72) and as Staff in Laos (1966-68) during the time of conflict.  In the interim, he was Project Officer for the International Development Foundation, serving in Colombia and Ecuador. His international career began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador during 1964-66.  He has visited 44 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia on multiple occasions.  In honor of his life’s work, The National Peace Corps Association selected Dr. Finnell to receive the 2006 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service at a ceremony in the Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.  He received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, from Manchester College at the May 2008 graduation exercises.  In 2009, the Foreign Policy Association invited him to become a Fellow, and in 2011, he was invited to become a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.