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It’s National Women’s Month, which seems like a perfect time to reflect about an exceptional South Jersey woman named Mildred Norman Ryder, known to most as Peace Pilgrim.
In 1953, at the age of 45, Ryder decided to leave behind her life as a farm girl in Egg Harbor City and walk across the country carrying nothing but a comb and a toothbrush. On her back she wore a homemade shirt that proudly proclaimed her new name and mission: Peace Pilgrim.
Over the course of 28 years and more than 25,000 miles, Peace Pilgrim traversed the United States seven times, tirelessly spreading the message that world peace was only attainable if we first looked for peace within ourselves.
“With everything going on in the world, I think we can all benefit from a little dose of Peace Pilgrim,” says Belmar author Merry Brennan, whose new biography, Peace Pilgrim: Walking Her Talk Against Hate, was released last month. “She is a role model on so many levels. Beyond the obvious message of peace, hers is a story about listening to your heart, putting one step in front of the other, and living with joyful purpose, no matter what.”
Available either as an e-book or 168-page paperback, Brennan’s work chronicles the life of Peace Pilgrim, who lived off the land and the kindness of those she met. She slept outdoors, took shelter in bus stations and parked cars, and once even rested on the front seat of a fire engine in Tombstone, Arizona. Brennan says that whenever Peace Pilgrim ran into trouble, “her sole response was love.”
“As I researched and wrote this book, Snooki and her Jersey Shore exploits were monopolizing so much media space that I wanted to scream: ‘Move over Snooki. This is a real Jersey Girl,’” says Brennan. “I’m committed to spreading Peace Pilgrim’s legacy to a new generation of readers, who deserve a different kind of female role model. With every step she took, every meeting she had with groups or individuals, her message was about how even a small person, with a small life, can make a big difference.”
Peace Pilgrim was killed in a car accident in 1981 at the age of 73, but her story and message endure.
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Nick DiUlio is New Jersey Monthly’s South Jersey Bureau Chief. In addition to regularly contributing to the magazine, he has written for Slate.com, Miller McCune, Paste magazine, and numerous regional and lifestyle publications. He is also an adjunct teacher of magazine writing at Rowan University. Email Nick at email@example.com