Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

Biographical Sketch

by Marion Frank-Wilson,

Eleanor Vandevort was born in Bellevue, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1925. Her father was a bank officer in Pittsburgh, and her mother was a school teacher. In an attempt to find a way to feed the family through the depression years, her father had sold the family home in Pittsburgh and moved them to Wexford when Eleanor was almost 6. In Wexford, they had a 45 acre farm which they cultivated to produce the food needed for survival during those difficult years. Her father had by then lost his job but would still go to Pittsburgh every day. Meanwhile, her mother who had lived in the city all her life, tried to keep the household together by learning how to butcher, can, smoke, and preserve food.

Eleanor was the middle child. Her brother, Malcolm, was four years older and would later become a minister and spend years in Ethiopia with his family. Her sister, Jeanette, who was three years younger, became a nurse and stayed in the area. As Ms. Vandevort characterizes her sister and herself during this time: "She was more fearful of things than I. I delighted in discovery."

Eleanor went to a small one-roomed school in Wexford and remembers that she always enjoyed foreign languages and learned some German and Latin while in high school. Consequently, it seemed like a natural choice for her to major in classical Greek when she started at Wheaton College as a freshman in 1945.

Ms. Vandevort points to her parents as having the strongest influence on her Christian value system. They had both been Christian people who read the Bible to their children and encouraged them to study it for themselves. Later, as Ms. Vandevort recalls, when she became a freshman at Wheaton College, World War II had just been over, and many of the students at Wheaton College were returned soldiers who were looking for new meaning in life after the horrors of the war. Many of them had returned to college specifically to become missionaries in war-torn areas. Eleanor says of this time: "I kind of fit in with those people which made for a comeraderie during those 4 great years. Of course, the future seemed totally possible. It was a high calling to translate the Bible for people since the Bible made all the sense in the world to me as to the meaning of life." (June 2003, e-mail) It was at Wheaton College where she met her life-long friends, Elisabeth and Jim Elliot. Elisabeth would later write the preface to Vandevort’s 1968 book, A Leopard Tamed.

After she graduated from Wheaton College in 1949, she went on to study linguistics for 13 weeks at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Norman, OK, and then left for the Southern Sudan where she would work as a missionary for 13 years, under the United Presbyterian Church. She stayed there until 1963 when she and all other foreign missionaries were expelled from the country.

After her return to the U.S., she stayed with Elisabeth Elliot for 7 years in New Hampshire. By her own account, "the seven years in NH my head was in a cauldron. Not a matter of medicines and physicians, but a desperate attempt to understand." (June 2003, e-mail). It was during this time that she wrote A Leopard Tamed. Writing the book was a way to deal with her experiences in the Sudan, to express her thoughts about missionary work, language, translating the Bible, most of all about Kuac, a Nuer who converted to Christianity, became a pastor under the Presbyterian Church and worked on Bible translations with her. In fact, A Leopard Tamed is mostly about Kuac, his life as a pastor and as a Nuer, and his dilemmas and problems within the Presbyterian mission – problems which, as she realized, were closely connected to mission policy in general. By her own admission, she felt extremely discouraged when she returned from the Sudan, mostly by "the approach of mission policy toward the people, which hurt me. That is what the book is really about." (June 2003, e-mail)

While she wrote A Leopard Tamed, she also tried to get reacquainted with American life, which was like "learning a new language". Eventually, in 1970, Ms. Vandevort would join the staff of Gordon College, a small liberal arts college in Wenham, MA, north of Boston. She stayed there for 21 years and was a faculty advisor for freshman with undeclared majors. Ms. Vandevort is now retired and lives in Dillsburg, PA.

13 Years of Missionary Life in Nasir/Southern Sudan >

Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others