- When Father Richard William Timm arrived in Bangladesh in 1952 from theological studies and graduate specialization in biology and parasitology, he established a science department at St. Gregory’s College in Dhaka (then East Pakistan) to introduce Bangladeshi students to the biological sciences while simultaneously engaged in research.
- When the cyclone and massive tidal surge of November 1970 devastated the coast of Bengal, Timm mobilized relief and for the first time encountered brutal communal conflicts and rural power struggles.
- Initiating and coordinating relief funded by foreign charities, Timm demonstrated a concern for all in need, regardless of creed or ethnic origin.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his 35 years of sustained commitment of mind and heart to helping Bangladeshis build their national life.”
To the over 100 million modern inhabitants of “golden Bengal” (Bangladesh), geography and history have dealt a cruel fate. Their once prosperous land—where waters of the giant Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers join and empty into the Bay of Bengal—is hostage to nature’s violence, and to man’s. Bangladeshis have endured an unfair share of famine, flood, communal discord, political strife, mass migrations and war. Dearth is their common lot.
Since 1952 Fr. RICHARD WILLIAM TIMM has absorbed himself in the life and struggles of the Bangladeshis. In that year, newly arrived from theological studies at Holy Cross College and graduate specialization in biology and parasitology at Catholic University of America, both in Washington, D.C., he established a science department at St. Gregory’s College in Dhaka, then East Pakistan. Over succeeding years at Dhaka Medical College, and Notre Dame College, (as St. Gregory’s was renamed), he introduced a generation of Bangladeshi students to the biological sciences. Simultaneously engaged in research, he discovered 250 new species of nematodes (parasitic worms) and produced 70 scientific papers.
When the cyclone and massive tidal surge of November 1970 devastated the coast of Bengal, TIMM mobilized relief. Distributing emergency food, blankets, medicines, and subsequently seeds and work animals, TIMM for the first time encountered brutal communal conflicts and rural power struggles. These intensified when the Pakistani military belatedly joined in the international relief efforts, and during the revolt, civil war and bloody struggle for independence that followed. His involvement revealed to TIMM the harsh, uncertain world of Bangladeshi villagers and led him to forsake teaching and devote himself wholly to rehabilitation, rural development, and the reduction of communal tensions and social injustices.
TIMM was the first Planning Officer of the Christian Organization for Relief and Rehabilitation (CORR), and later became its National Director when it became Caritas Bangladesh. Initiating and coordinating relief funded by foreign charities, he demonstrated a concern for all in need, regardless of creed or ethnic origin. Directing and monitoring projects in irrigation, drainage, health and jute handicrafts, the six-foot two native of Michigan City, Indiana, became a familiar champion, cutting through bureaucratic obstacles and moving practical assistance to the villagers. To the (now) more than 130 voluntary agencies which he brought together in 1974 to form the Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh (ADAB), TIMM was a guiding spirit. Typically, he relinquished leadership positions quickly: “This has been my role,” he says, “to get organizations going and then to let Bangladeshis take over.”
Issues of social injustice preoccupy him today. Through the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church TIMM investigated the exploitation of tribal minorities, and exposed the harmful working conditions of the poor and landless women employed as domestics, health workers, and in the garment, tea and cigarette industries. After a series of conferences on these problems, working women in 1986 urged him to organize the Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh.
TIMM concludes that Bangladesh’s pervasive poverty is caused largely by the crippling powerlessness of the rural poor. He believes that arousing the poor to awareness and action is the first step toward reform. Now 64, and Superior of the Holy Cross Fathers in Bangladesh, TIMM confides, “I have more hope in changed people than in changed structures and political systems.”
In electing Reverend Father RICHARD WILLIAM TIMM to receive the 1987 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the Board of Trustees recognizes his 35 years of sustained commitment of mind and heart to helping Bangladeshis build their national life.
First of all I should like to pay homage to the memory of theory of the late President Magsaysay, whose 80th birth anniversary we celebrate to celebrate today. When I worked in the Philippines in 1964 on a SEATO Research Fellowship on plant-parasitic nematodes, or roundworms, I recall the great affection and respect in which he was held by all. Therefore I salute him and his dedication to freedom and human rights as I receive with give with great gratitude this Award which is named in his honor.
In the Code of Procedure for the Award it says that the Award is ordinarily given for one’s past five years’ activities. Yet the citation for my Award states: “for 35 years of sustained commitment of mind and heart to helping Bangladeshis build up their nation.” I am happy that this exception has been made for me. I have probably had more careers than any previous Magsaysay Awardee—in college and university teaching; in administrative work in Notre Dame College, Caritas Bangladesh and my own religious community; in scientific research; recently in human rights activities. None of these alone would merit any award, but none of them should be considered in isolation from the others. For they all belong to one continuous role as educator. Half my working life I was an educator in institutions—an ivory tower scholar, I am reluctant to admit. But it is never too late for conversion and it was the poor the poor and the powerless, the voiceless ones, who converted me and forced me to become a practical educator.
The country I call my home Bangladesh—is known as “golden Bengal.” These are the words of our national anthem. Both the words and music were composed by that giant of Bengali literature and song, Rabindranath Tagore. In the waning monsoon months the “gob the “golden fiber”—jute—is everywhere seen throughout the land. In the cooler days of winter the golden sun bathes the countryside in its warm glow, and rice end vegetables spring from the soil. Bangladesh is not only amar sonar Bangla (My golden Bengal) butamar shobuj Bangla (my green Bengal) . In every season of the year its verdant fields and forests are vests are alive with growth.
Yet there is want and misery and the distress of frequent natural calamities. It was not always so. In the beginning the Lord said: “Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth. See, I give you all the seed-bearing plants that are upon the whole earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food.” (Gen. 1:28-29) The plethora of food from the fields no longer
reaches all the mouths that are hungry. As human greed expanded and world resources contracted, a fierce competition among rivals has too often replaced sharing and international understanding between brothers and sisters.
I accept this Award in the name of the youth and the poor and powerless of Bangladesh, the people whose lives have been touched by my efforts of the past 35 years. We cannot really share the life of the poorest of the poor. We would be dead in a week if we tried to live under the same wretched conditions. But I have tried to analyze and expose some of the reasons for their degrading poverty. It is for that reason that I have concentrated in recent years on human rights activities. If the people can be organized to understand and defend their basic rights, they can also learn to make the decisions that influence their destinies. Thus, human rights and participatory development go hand-in-hand.
I thank the Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation for the honor they have conferred on me. My best wishes and blessings to all of you who share with us in our joy this day.
RICHARD WILLIAM TIMM was born in Michigan City, Indiana, USA, on March 2, 1923 to parents of German descent. His father, Joseph, was paymaster at the Pullman Company, the manufacturer of railway cars; his mother, Josephine Otten, was a housewife. Both were devout Roman Catholics, and TIMM recalls that he and his three siblings—an older brother and two younger sisters—”were raised with a strong sense of duty, including fidelity to our religion and its practices.” TIMM served the local church as an altar boy, and attended St. Mary’s Grade School and then St. Mary’s High School, where he was taught by Holy Cross Sisters.
His first awareness of missionaries came when he was just four. Having tagged along to St. Mary’s with his brother he met Sister Cleophas—who gave him a silver-framed picture of St. Therese, patroness of the missions. Sister Cleophas later became his first grade teacher and inspired his love and devotion.
For TIMM the missionary vocation—rather than parish—always matched his personal inclinations. From earliest years he loved adventure; indeed his first memory is of being lost in the city at age three. In subsequent years he remembers his father gathering his sons into a great armchair and reading them stirring yarns of physical heroism and moral valor in exotic places. Among such tales were Winnetou the Apache Chief by Karl May, in which a white man became blood brother to an American Indian. Although in childhood games the Indians “were the bad guys,” from stories such as these TIMM imbibed an “impression of the brotherhood between all peoples.”
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