rom the moment I learned about Irene Wakeham Lee, I wanted to meet her. She was born in 1912, the year the RMS Titanic sunk, was in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and had dedicated most of her life to serving others overseas. At 105, she is walking history, her life rich with stories.
When I visited Irene at her country home, I found her editing a book. She was tall and lean, with pale blue eyes that radiated intelligence, strength, and kindness. Her handshake was firm, her mind sharp, and her wit delightful.
I sat down beside her and listened intently as she shared memories of serving the Lord she loves, memories that I'd like to share with you.
Laurie: When did you decide that you wanted to be a missionary?
Irene: I wanted to be a missionary for as long as I can remember. Mission work was a tradition in my family. My father had served in Egypt, my mother in England, and my two older sisters in Africa and Brazil.
I spent my childhood on the Michigan campus of Emmanuel Missionary College (EMC), now Andrews University, surrounded by missionaries on furlough. I listened to their stories with great interest and read as many mission books as I could. In those days, the common conception was that if you were really consecrated and wanted to serve the Lord, you’d go overseas to be a missionary. That’s what I wanted to do!
Laurie: What was life like for you as a child?
Irene: We didn’t have indoor plumbing in our house, and we used an outhouse. I can remember when we got electricity. When we visited my grandmother in Wisconsin, we went to church in a horse and buggy, and when it got dark, they lit kerosene lamps. I was around 13 the first time I used a telephone.
Laurie: Where did you serve?
Irene: When I was in my late 20s, I sailed to Hawaii from my home in California to teach at Hawaiian Mission Academy. It’s hard to imagine now, but Hawaii was considered a mission field in those days. Most of my students were non-Adventists, so the academy was a real mission school. While there, I witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and continued to teach throughout the war. [See Irene’s story, “Life Interrupted,” on page 20].
In 1946, I learned that faculty were urgently needed to rehabilitate Philippine Union College (PUC) after the war, so I volunteered to go. I wanted the pioneering life! Later, I taught at Mountain View College, which is also in the Philippines. I also taught at Oakwood College and Antillian College in the United States.
Laurie: Did you see anyone’s life significantly change while you were a missionary?
Irene: Yes, the life of a young man named Filmo, a former student of mine in the Philippines. Filmo came from a family with a long military tradition. His family became Adventists when he was young, and Filmo chose to be baptized. He loved Jesus, but when he went to live with non-Adventist relatives in order to attend high school, he became careless about his conversion.
After he graduated, Filmo was conscripted for military service. He was captured and forced to participate in the infamous death march and serve as a prisoner of war. In prison, he met a soldier who had a Bible. Filmo asked to borrow it, but the man refused because he used a page or two a day for toilet paper. When the soldier died shortly after, Filmo read the Bible and became closer to God than he’d ever been. But it didn’t last.
Eventually, Filmo was released with the stipulation that as soon as he recovered his strength, he’d be put in the Japanese army. He narrowly escaped, finding passage aboard a ship going to his home island. Just before the ship reached land, there was a terrible typhoon. Filmo pled for God’s protection and safely reached home where he joined the guerrilla forces.
It was during one of his encounters with the Japanese invaders that he met an Adventist family. They inspired Filmo to continue his education at PUC after the war ended. His ambition was still along military lines. He was initially selected by the government to be sent to the United States for further training, but he was disqualified on one point: he needed at least 60 hours of college credit. So Filmo came to PUC.
At PUC, Filmo was treated kindly by the faculty and students, and he renewed his commitment to God. What the Lord in His mercy tried to do but could not on the battlefield, in the prison camp, or on a stormy sea, He accomplished through the steady, day-by-day influence of a Christian college. This helped me realize that we were really making a difference in many of our students’ lives.
Laurie: Were there times when you experienced God’s protection?
Irene: His protection was evident all the time. Many times, our vehicles broke down, and God rescued us. One time, just as I had gotten out of a jeep without looking carefully enough, a car came whizzing along. If it had had another coat of paint, it would have hit me!
Once, when I was teaching at Mountain View College, a swarm of locusts was about to descend on our cornfield ripe for harvest. The students had asked me to join the faculty in praying that our food would be spared. While I walked to the chapel to join them, I heard the buzz of a plane. It was a government plane coming to spray the locusts. The pilot told me later that it was his day off, but he had been impressed to do everything he could to save our crop. The Lord had started to solve our problem before we even prayed!
Then there was the time I was robbed. I had just made a purchase from a street vendor in Manila when a man grabbed my wallet and ran. I chased him, and then a van filled with young people who had seen what happened picked me up, and we followed him. When we reached the thief, the police had already caught him. They gave me my wallet back, and the next day, the man’s family begged me not to press charges. I forgave him. He must have been an amateur.
Irene: Mountain View College urgently needed someone to upgrade its ministerial training program from a two-year to a four-year degree, and James Lee was hired for the job. He and his wife, Marguerite, moved from South Korea, where James had been born and served as a missionary for years. I was the registrar as well as an English teacher, so I worked with James to create the curriculum.
On Sabbath afternoons, James and Marguerite hiked with the ministerial students to nearby villages, where the men would preach, and the women would teach the children songs and tell them stories. I often accompanied them on these excursions, and we became good friends. Eventually, we were able to start quite a few churches this way.
Later, the Lees and I returned to California to care for our aging parents. During this time, Marguerite passed away, and I received several requests from the General Conference to return to mission service. After my mother’s death, I reported that I was ready to serve, but James had other plans.
He invited me to the wild animal park in San Diego to see the creatures in their natural habitats. I would say to James, “Look at that lion with its big paws," or "Look at the giraffe with its long neck." He turned to me and said sweetly, “I have found a deer.” That’s when it started. That was our first date. We were married when we were both 70 years old and enjoyed 30 happy years together.
A Tribute to a Faithful Teacher
“Few missionaries who have served in the Far Eastern Division [now Southern Asia-Pacific Division] have made a greater contribution or have touched more lives than has Dr. Irene Wakeham. For more than 24 years, she was a teacher, counselor of students and friend to many students and faculty at Mountain View College and Philippine Union College. . . .
“The contribution she has made is more, however, than merely teaching young people how to express themselves in the English language. She did this well. . . . But far greater has been her spiritual influence upon hundreds of Filipino young people. As they sat in her classes and saw a teacher who reflected the Master Teacher, their lives were changed. They loved her. They enjoyed being with her. They would come to her home or go on trips with her, for it was fun and comfortable to be with Dr. Wakeham” (B. E. Olson, “A Tribute to a Faithful Teacher,” Far Eastern Division Outlook, March 1971, p. 14).
Laurie: What were some of your rewarding experiences?
Irene: There are many. One was seeing the first graduation of the four-year ministerial students. I felt that we were really supplying the field with something that was badly needed.
It was my privilege to leave the Philippines having trained half a dozen English teachers with master’s degrees. They then taught at new colleges that started after I returned to the States.
Another precious experience was when, after a year of hard work on the part of students and teachers at PUC, 19 Japanese prisoners of war were baptized at the school baptistry. The men started the Sabbath day by joining us for Sabbath School and church accompanied by their armed guards. They were served dinner in the college cafeteria and then listened to another sermon before the baptismal ceremony.
Hundreds of spectators had gathered about the outdoor baptismal font and watched quietly as the candidates took their places. In spite of the bitterness against the Japanese that most Filipinos still felt, there was a spirit of sincere Christian fellowship during the ceremony. Fourteen of the prisoners were under sentence of death. Although some of the men had known a little about Christianity before the war, not one had ever become a member of any Christian church.
After their baptism, the men climbed into their truck, the guards took their places, and, as the audience sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” they returned to the prison to await the execution of their sentences.
Laurie: Why do you think you’ve lived such a long, healthy life?
Irene: I get asked that question a lot! I attribute my longevity to good genes and the good fortune of being born into a Seventh-day Adventist family who taught me the principles of a healthy lifestyle. I’ve also chosen to be reasonably conscientious about keeping healthy. And lastly, I’ve always had a warm relationship with God that has relieved me of so much stress. I’ve been able to roll my burdens on the Lord. He’s awake all night anyway. I might as well let Him take care of them!
Irene Wakeham Lee will turn 106 on June 28! Brighten her day by sending her a birthday card or note to the address or email below, and we’ll make sure she gets them.
Irene Wakeham Lee
c/o Adventist Mission
12501 Old Columbia Pike
Silver Spring, MD 20904