Enchanted by Ethiopia

Harry Atkins ’47 intended to spend his life in Ethiopia, but the Communists forced him out in 1978 after 30 years as a missionary, teacher and school adminis-trator. With his wife, Blanche, he returned to California, bought the Monterey Bible Bookstore and began a new career. Thirty years later, the couple had to leave another ministry unwillingly. Declining sales and competition from chain stores and the Internet compelled them to close the business. “We just couldn’t afford to stay open,” Harry says. “We were the last mom-and-pop store left in downtown Monterey.” He misses recommending books, counseling customers and praying with people, noting that his competitors don’t provide this kind of outreach.

Harry grew up in Watsonville, Calif., where his parents and grandparents tended apple orchards. He studied at the University of Chicago for several years but transferred to Westmont to get a biblically based education. The family atmosphere appealed to him, and Professor Kenneth Monroe inspired him to major in history. “He gave me a love of history that lasts to this day,” Harry says. Earning a master’s degree in African history at the University of Oregon, Harry also did graduate work at Multnomah Seminary. His plan to serve with a missionary agency in Africa fell through when they turned him down because of his youth, so he got a job with the Ethiopian government instead teaching high school. The Italian fascists had killed many educated Ethiopians, and the government sought to reestablish schools.

Undaunted by a lack of textbooks about Ethiopia, Harry wrote his own, completing both a history and a geography book about the African nation. An avid traveler, he also authored “Ethiopia: Land of Enchantment,” illustrating it with his own photographs. The book became a best-seller and led to his membership as a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain.

When his contract with the government ended, Harry joined SIM, known then as the Society of International Missionaries. He met his wife, Blanche, through the organization, and they raised four children in Ethiopia. Harry planted churches and founded and directed an institute that trained teachers, but his major contribution was establishing the largest private school system in Ethiopia, which enrolled more than 100,00 students. He served as superintendent for many years and became well acquainted with Emperor Haile Selassie, who visited some of the schools and supported them financially.

Revolution not only ended Harry’s work but undid much of what he accomplished when the Communists took over the schools. In a few years, the uprising reversed much of the progress achieved after World War II. Harry has only returned once to the country he knew so well and still loves.

He worries about keeping busy now that he has retired. He intends to garden, keep up with his 11 grandchildren and travel as much as possible. At the age of 80, Harry has visited 83 countries. “One of my goals in life has been to visit as many countries as I have years,” he says. “Right now, I’m ahead.”

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