Guess Who Came to Dinner
One December, sometime in the late 70s, a doctor in Coonoor received an invitation to dinner from one of his old patients. The invitation was formal so was the dress decreed. This fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons pulled out his dinner jacket from the old sea trunk and shook out the moth balls hoping that the jacket would fit. So on the auspicious evening he set off to fulfill his duties as the friendly neigbhourhood doctor. His wife who had previous experience of such frivolity, declined graciously to accompany him.
On his drive up the hill, the doctor wondered if he could get out early. He devised various plans but abandoned them all, as the patient in question was an astute old lady who could see through all subterfuge. As he rounded the final hairpin bend on the road leading to the patient’s house, his car was stopped by a couple of white (as in Caucasian) young men in dark suits.
“We need to check the car, sir,” one of them said. Before he could respond, one of them flashed a torch into the back seat; the other opened the boot (which was unlocked). They smiled and waved him on. The doctor was very puzzled.
This bemusement heightened when he saw more dark suited men on his patient’s lawn. So it was with a sense of foreboding that the good doctor entered the house. Imagine his shock when he saw the American ambassador to India, Robert F Goheen sitting there coolly sipping something from a tall glass, as if he was in his grandmother’s house.
A small correction there, it was not his grandmother, it was his godmother. And the lady in question was none other than Marie Buck. Many old timers in Coonoor would remember her, all of 90 driving her old Willis jeep all over town, dressed in her trademark blue denim dungarees, coloured shirt and red headscarf tied in the land girl style.
|The 1954 Willys Jeep which Marie Buck used to drive|
I once remarked to my father on how well she drives at that advanced age and he replied, “She used to ride a horse when she was in her 80s".
Coonoor has always had its share of rich and famous. Some of them visit just once in a while; some others stay and make a difference. Some people leave and no one knows, while some others are missed. One of those of made a difference is Marie Buck, the person who started the Family Planning of India clinic in Coonoor and spent the last 14 years of her fruitful life in this hill station.
My father then told me that she was a director of Simpsons and the wife of the famous Harry Crowe Buck who started the YMCA College of Physical Education in Nandanam, Madras as Chennai was then known. In 1919, Harry Buck arrived in Madras from Springfield, Massachusetts with a mission to set up a college for physical training similar to one in Springfield. That he accomplished and followed it up with more. He did much to make physical education a part of the school and college curriculum in the Madras Presidency. He also played a big part in forming the Indian Olympic Association, as well as selecting the first Indian Olympic team. He died at the age of 59 in 1943.
Marie Buck stayed back in India and continued working with the less fortunate. She joined Simpsons, a company in the Amalgamations Group, as Welfare Director in 1946. It was here she set up the first family planning advisory centre. She was one of the first to see the importance of the Pallikarnani marsh, a freshwater swamp, as a wetland ecosystem.
She also set up a farm not far from Pallikarnani, reclaimed the soil and grew diverse crops. Today this farm is known as J Farm belonging to the Amalgamations Group. In the early days, she would arrive in Simpsons with a car load vegetables for the office canteen.
In Coonoor, Marie Buck was a neigbhour of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw , another famous man who spent his retirement here. Later she she moved to Kotagiri where she lived till she died in 1980.
Sadly I don’t know more about this lady. I tried very hard to find out more but to no avail. I wish better records were maintained.
I would like to thank Mr Prem S Wallia, Managing Director, Stanes Amalgamated Estates Ltd and his secretary Mr JS Vijaykumar for their help in sourcing the material on Marie Buck and also for the photograph of the Jeep.