Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden gems: Ted Studebaker (1945-1971)

by Virginia Harness, archival intern

It may be unfair to say Ted Studebaker is a “hidden gem.” In the Church of the Brethren, anyway, he is a something of a legend. At the time of his death, Ted’s story even warranted a spot on the ABC news. He was anything but unknown. Still, as time passes and the wars of the last century become more and more distant in the cultural memory, it seems important to revisit the service of a man whose philosophy seems more relevant than ever in our conflict-ridden world.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ted’s story, here is the short version: Ted was a young man from Ohio, a member of the Church of the Brethren, who opted for alternative service when the draft board came knocking. He volunteered to go to Vietnam as an agricultural worker for the Vietnamese Christian Service (VCS), and served in the village of Di Linh for more than two years (he opted to stay for a third, although his required service was over).

Ted Studebaker on porch Photo by Howard Royer
Ted sitting on a porch in Vietnam.
Ted Studebaker feeding chicks
Photo by Howard Royer
Ted feeding chicks in Di Linh, Vietnam.

Montagnard villagers with rice polisher
Photo by US Army
Montagnard villagers with rice polisher in Di Linh, Vietnam.

He fell in love with a fellow VCS worker from Hong Kong, Lee Ven Pak, and they were married on April 17, 1971. A week later, Viet Cong shelled Di Linh, sending its occupants running for the bunker. However, when the Viet Cong entered the village, Ted Studebaker wasn’t in the bunker. He had returned to his bedroom, and there the soldiers found him. Ted was shot and killed, at the age of 25.

Ted worked with an ethnic minority in Vietnam, whom he refers to as the Montagnard, a term dating back to French Colonial days. As the name implies, the Montagnard people dwelt in the highlands of Vietnam, about 140 miles northeast of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. They spoke their own unique language, requiring Ted to learn not only Vietnamese, but also the local tongue, Koho. He worked on numerous projects during his time Vietnam, including a project to raise a new kind of chicken that would produce more meat, and bringing agricultural technology to the remote village, such as a rice polisher.

Although their time together was short, Ted was clearly very much in love with his wife and fellow service worker, Lee Ven Pak, or ‘Pakdy’. According to an account written by his brother Gary, Ted said of his fiancé: “I’ve never known such a real and honest person as Pakdy, humble too by golly! There just isn’t any other way…war or no war, I’m getting married. Yippee!” Their wedding invitation was written in four languages: English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Koho.

Studebaker wedding invitation
Image courtesy of BHLA
The cover of Ted Studebaker and Lee Van Pak's wedding invitation, 1971.
Ven Pak Studebaker
Photo by Howard Royer
Ven Pak Studebaker

Before he left for Vietnam, he posed the following question to his home congregation: “What can I do about man’s inhumanity to man?” Ted lived his answer every day until his death, and his story makes us ask the same question of ourselves, even 40 years later.