An Ancestry of Courage

Nine Hundred Years in the
Life of Susan Hobbs
20th Anniversary of Her Passing 1995-2015

I first spotted her in 1983 from my living room window. She was in my neighbor’s garden and was with a group of young women. She was slender, brunette, and absolutely alive with energy. In fact, she was discussing something I could not hear, but she was actually jumping up and down with excitement. The place was the Fiji Islands. My reason for being there—I was a government advisor. Who was she? I was to find out very soon, when I was invited to dinner by someone I knew slightly who was, at that time, lodging with my neighbor. There, at the table sat this very lovely woman, and before the evening was through I had unreservedly fallen under her spell. I learned that she was an American, that her name was Susan, and that was about it. Over the next few weeks I was able to see her more often, and, well you can imagine the rest. When I returned to the USA, she still had another year in the Peace Corps to complete, and then she followed me to Bloomington, Indiana, where I held a chair at the University. Four years later, we were married. And that, by way of introduction, sets the stage.
At one point, her mother sent her some genealogical details on the family, and I started to browse through them. To say they were unusually complete is to understand the matter totally. The genealogy started, for instance, in the ninth century. Not many family trees do that, and so I became interested in her extraordinary history, about which I had no suspicion until then. She certainly never mentioned it. The ninth century reference was to two Saxon Kings. What followed was just as remarkable. The first person to catch my eye was on her mother’s side, and was the legendary Lady Godiva. The popular story had its origin in the first half of the 11th-century when Earl Leofric of Mercia married Countess Godiva. They resided at Leofric's seat in Coventry, England, whose citizens were oppressively taxed. And when Godiva tried to intervene with her husband to lift the tax, Leofric's famous answer was:
"Mount your horse naked, and ride through the market of the town ... and when you return, you shall have what you ask."
He little thought his pious wife would ever do such a thing. But we are told that, indeed, she rode naked through the town, letting down her hair so that her whole body was veiled except for her legs. And when she'd finished she returned to Leofric, who was so filled with admiration he granted to the people a charter of freedom. The citizens had agreed to stay behind their doors during her ride. No mention was made in the original sources of “Peeping Tom,” the "inquisitive" tailor who was supposed to have looked out at Godiva as she passed, being struck blind as a result. This part of the story was added on, it is thought, by 17th-century antiquary, William Camden, who visited Coventry and was shown a wooden effigy purporting to be of the unfortunate tailor. The effigy, which still survives, is now thought to be of St George.
The next intriguing person in her ancestry, again a fighter for the rights of the citizenry, was called Sir George Yeardley (sometimes Eardley). Sir George was born in Staffordshire, England in 1587 and became a scholar, a soldier and a pioneer of democracy. In 1609, because of his experience in battle in the Netherlands, he was asked to accompany the “Gentleman Adventurers” to help protect some of the first settlers in the new colony of Virginia in the New World. The colony of Roanoke had already disappeared without trace. On behalf of the Virginia Company he set sail on the Deliverance, heading for Jamestown VA, the first permanent English settlement in colonial North America, which had been founded two years earlier. A fleet of nine ships owned by the Virginia Company of London departed from Plymouth, England with fresh supplies and additional colonists for the new British settlement at Jamestown. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir George Somers on board the flagship, the Sea Venture, who is commemorated by this plaque at his home town of Lyme Regis. During a fierce storm the Sea Venture was separated from the rest of the fleet. Somers was at the helm as he fought the storm, and deliberately drove the ship onto Bermuda's reefs to prevent its foundering. All 150 crew and colonists survived, and ¬¬¬were landed on the uninhabited north-easternmost island of the archipelago. Though everyone survived (a few did go on to kill each other later), some set sail in a small boat to find Jamestown and were never heard of again. But over the space of the next nine months, the remaining survivors managed to build two new ships from the wreck of the Sea Venture, which they named the Deliverance along with a second ship called the Patience, and rather later than they had been expected, they sailed into Jamestown to the great surprise of all who lived there. Indeed, the story acquired such fame, having been written into a book by one of the survivors, William Strachey that, it is said, it inspired Shakespeare to write his last play The Tempest. It is also worth mentioning that the ship that carried Sir George also carried a gentleman, John Rolfe, who later married Pocahontas.

Not only did he marry this iconic figure from American history, but John Rolfe went on to establish the Virginia tobacco industry. Sir George established the defenses of the starving colony, fought off the Indians, was knighted by King James I, and sent back to Virginia, where he served as Governor three times. During the summer of 1619 the settlers were invited by Sir George to meet, and under his guidance worked out the first Independent Legislature in North America. The King was not happy because it made Virginia considerably more liberal than England itself. But, the Constitution survived, and went on to be incorporated, in part, in the Constitution of the USA over 150 years later. Finally, as a result of the shipwreck, it was decided to leave some people on Bermuda to claim it for the British Crown, and it remains a British territory to this day, and the sinking Sea Venture is shown on the coat-of-arms and the flag of Bermuda. 

[1] Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhattan Indians, is best remembered as having “married” Capt. John Smith after saving him from execution. There is no evidence that they were married, and she was any way, about 12 years old at the time, though they were certainly friends. Capt. Smith was badly injured in a gunpowder explosion, he returned to England, leaving Pocahontas behind who believed him to be dead. She went on to marry another of the passengers on the Deliverance.

[2] When other long-term consequences of his arrival in North America was that 400 years later, his descendent Yeardley Smith plays the part of Lisa Simpson in the cartoon feature The Simpsons.

Next in line on the maternal side comes yet another key figure in the rights of man—signer of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791). Indeed, Hopkinson was such a remarkable man in so many ways that it is strange that he is not better known. He was, in turn, among the first graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, the first American composer, a well-known poet, a judge, a corresponding friend of Thomas Jefferson, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was also an accomplished musician. His father was a friend of Benjamin Franklin , his library was famous, and he was a founder of the American Philosophical Society. That seems like enough to ensure fame for anyone, but in addition, he did design one quite well-known feature of American life: the “Stars and Stripes.” Of course, not everyone agrees with this, especially as for the last one-hundred years this honor has been given to Betsy Ross. While it is perfectly possible that Betsy Ross (a seamstress) may have made the first US flag, the story of her “designing” it was announced by her grandson at the US Centennial celebrations in 1876. Ms. Ross made shirts for Mr. Washington, and so she was very well-connected, but that is as far as it goes.
[3] Franklin bequeathed his library to Hopkinson.

Mr. Hopkinson, we do know, wrote to the government authorities claiming that he had designed numerous devices for the US government, following the request by Congress for a uniform, recognizable flag. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution from its Marine Committee:

"that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."


Verity, Susan and Peter Hobbs with the reproduction of Hopkinson’s flag after Congress recognized his role.

The Hopkinson Flag, 1777

It is significant to note that in 1777, Hopkinson was the Chairman of the Navy Board's Middle Department; the Navy Board was under the Marine Committee, and this lends strength to his claim. But, most convincing is a letter that Hopkinson sent to the Continental Admiralty Board at the end of May, 1780. His letter stated that he had designed the United States flag, continental currency, a seal for the Admiralty and Treasury boards, and a Great Seal for the United States, among other things. Hopkinson referred to these designs as "Labours of Fancy." He further stated that although he made these designs free of charge, he would appreciate receiving a "Quarter cask of the public wine" from the government as a token of gratitude. He never got it, but the reason was that people felt he was a civil servant and therefore was simply “doing his job.” In a very familiar way, even in those early times, the whole matter drowned in bureaucracy.
It is interesting to note that the first flag, which had 13 stars and 13 stripes to represent the 13 rebellious colonies, used six-pointed stars (as appeared on George Washington’s family arms) rather than the more-familiar five-pointed stars that we see today. The weight of historical evidence now points rather convincingly in favor of Mr. Hopkinson as the designer of one of the world’s most recognizable icons. But not one American schoolchild in 100,000 would know who he was if you were to mention his name. Betsy Ross, however, has been commemorated on US postage stamps, in well-known paintings etc. Sometimes a good story is better than the weight of evidence. This is illustrated in this extract from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (above) questioning the information given to visitors at one of the most famous monuments of the Revolution—the “Betsy Ross” House in Philadelphia.

Moving now to Susan’s paternal side of the tree we find yet another person who has serious problems with the officers of authority, and is a personal friend of another great revolutionary. In this case, the antecedent is The Reverend John Wheelwright (1592—1679). He was born in England, and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge, which was at that time a breeding ground for Dissenters and dissidents. He graduated in 1618 and went on to be the vicar of the English town of Bilsby. There he married in 1631, and in 1636 he was driven from his church for preaching “Nonconformist” ideas. Like many religious Dissenters of the time, he sought a less-oppressive environment, and with his wife, mother-in-law and three children sailed for America, arriving in Boston in June of 1636. Initially he was well received, but soon his ideas become too radical for the establishment in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Wheelwright, and his sister-in-law were openly proclaiming the right of “Free Speech.” This became a central point in the rival candidacies of the two people seeking the Governorship of the Colony. Wheelwright’s candidate of choice, Vane, was defeated by the much more conservative Winthrop, and Wheelwright found himself dangerously exposed before the conservative establishment. He publicly proclaimed, in a sermon, his opposition to a fast that had been imposed, and Winthrop seized the occasion to ban Wheelwright from the Colony with immediate effect.

Along with his equally-outspoken sister-in-law Anne Hutchison he left for the neighboring colony of New Hampshire where, about 50 miles (80 kms) north of Boston he made a land deal with the local Indians and acquired a property that was to become the site of the town of Exeter NH on the 3 April, 1638. This was to become, a century later, the home of America’s best-known private school Phillips Exeter College, where one of the residences is still called Wheelwright Hall. The town was initially composed of Wheelwright and his family, along with some religious sympathizers. However, their small colony was not to last as the Massachusetts Bay Company founded a town called Hampton, into the jurisdiction of which the tiny settlement of Exeter fell. So, once again they had to move because the banishment order was still in place, and Wheelwright would find himself in prison if he set foot in Massachusetts territory (though, in this case they were expanding to encompass him). And so the family moved to the State of Maine, where there was no chance of incorporation,
In 1643 his sister-in-law Anne—his staunchest supporter—was murdered by the Indians, and in the belief that time heals all wounds, Wheelwright petitioned the authorities in Boston to readmit him, and in 1644 they did.
Elsewhere, things were also changing and in 1656 Wheelwright set sail for England where, since 1649, his old college friend from Cambridge days, Oliver Cromwell, had defeated, and executed, King Charles the First, and was now, since 1653, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (or Republic) that had existed since 1649. Wheelwright was received by Cromwell, who remarked that he had been more frightened of Wheelwright on the football field, than of any army set against him by the King. During his six-year stay in England, Wheelwright saw the illness and death of his old friend in 1658, who, tyrannical though his methods were, had brought a level of religious freedom to the country previously never seen. He also was in England to see the “Republic” quickly fall apart and collapse under Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard, so that in 1660 Parliament decided to bring back the monarchy in the person of Charles II (it having executed Charles I in 1649 and thus terminating the monarchy for the only occasion in British history). In 1662 Wheelwright returned to New England and lived in Salisbury Massachusetts until his death at the age of 87.
 Having become acquainted with this story through the voluminous 32-page family tree, I came across something very strange that, otherwise, I would never have noticed. The best-selling American author John Irving published a book in 1989 called A Prayer for Owen Meany. My wife was always trying to get me to read new books, and we were on holiday and she told me this was simply a “wonderful book,” and that I must read it. With ancestors such as she has, you do not easily disregard instructions. So, I read the book. The first thing I notice is that the protagonist of the book is called Wheelwright, lives in Toronto, Canada, and came originally from the USA. I found that interesting because all these factors described my father-in-law Peter Wheelwright Hobbs. As I read the book, the coincidences started to increase until at one point it was mentioned that the Wheelwright in the book is missing the top of his middle finger. This was simply too much because that precisely described my father-in-law’s condition. I immediately asked my wife “Didn’t you see a resemblance between anyone in this book and someone you know?” She thought for a while, and said “No.” I went through all the points in the book that tallied with her father. “That is strange,” she remarked.

[4] Author of The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules etc. 

Naturally, the next time I met Peter W. Hobbs, I asked him “Is there any reason why a central character in a book by John Irving should resemble you in every way?” He looked very surprised, and could think of none. “Is there no connection between the two of you?” “Well,” he replied, “we did both go to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. I went because of an old family connection.” Later he wrote to John Irving and received a very long and fascinating response confirming Peter as the model. All because of this “troublesome priest” 400 years ago.

So, I was in inspirational company through Susan including her grandmother Mitzi’s close friendship with E. B. White, which almost brought Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little into my distant circle of in-laws. In fact, I had no inkling of any of this even when we got married in 1990, exchanging our marriage vows in Welsh; a language she had acquired alongside Hindi. The hardest thing we could ever have imagined is that though the marriage would be eventful and exciting, it would be very painfully short.

Though Susan died tragically young, she was part of an extraordinary event that became caught up in one of the biggest changes in modern history. In 1990 I was a visiting professor at Moscow State University (MGU). This was an extraordinary time to be there, and part of that visit is recounted in my book “Strange Places. ” Things were very difficult because of the political situation at that time, and many of my professorial colleagues left work early in order to try to find food, for the shops were empty at that time. After my course was finished, I was asked if I would like to spend some time at the MGU research center in Kabardino-Balkaria. I agreed, though I had no idea where that was even though I was in the Geography Department! It is, of course, in the North Caucasus, and MGU maintains a Glaciological Research Center there. The Director of the Center was a wonderful man named Nuris Urumbaev, from Kazakhstan. We became good friends and went up Mount Elbrus, on whose side the Institute was situated. On that occasion we were accompanied by his ten-year old son Eldar who appeared to have been born on skis. At the end of my stay, I invited Nuris and Eldar to come to America to help Eldar learn English. They said they would.

[5] Strange Places, Interesting People. 2006. New Bulgarian University Press (in Bulgarian). English edition to be issued during 2015 

On day in early February 1992 I received a fax in Russian in my office. The name was Urumbaev, and so I assumed this was notification of his intention to come. I gave the telegram to one of my Russian-speaking students and asked her to confirm this. I sent it to her by fax, and almost immediately she called me on the phone. To my great surprise she told me the fax was from Eldar, and it informed me that his father had been killed in an avalanche on Elbrus. Could he (Eldar) come anyway? This was an astonishing request, not least because I knew how very difficult it was to send a fax from anywhere in the USSR—not least for a child. I consulted my wife, and she immediately said “Yes,” and started rearranging the house. “But wait,” I said, “I do not know if he has a mother, and anyway how can a child arrange to come to the States?” “Oh, there is always a way.”
With the aid of my Bulgarian student, Voiko Tanev, I managed to establish contact with Eldar, and learned that he did have a mother, a Russian who lived in Moscow. He also had two brothers. I wondered what they thought, and Voiko wrote a long letter in impeccable Russian (he had been a Moscow correspondent for a Bulgarian newspaper). Eldar’s mother eventually agreed that it would be good for him to come, and perhaps, go to school, and especially get out of Russia at this very difficult time. That sounded simple enough, but she discovered that he could not travel without a parent because of his age, and she had no wish to stay in the USA because she had two other sons. It seemed impossible.
The following day I received a fax from another Russian, Roman Zlotin, who had attended a conference I had organized in 1989. He had paid leave and wanted to spend a year at my University. For some reason I told him the story—I have no idea why—and he said “What a great story.” I then said that it seemed impossible. He then told me that members of the Academy of Sciences had special travel privileges and their own passport office. Thus, he was able to overcome that difficulty. Then, I had to leave the USA to take up my Fulbright award in Sofia at the New Bulgarian University. Now the situation had become a triangle Moscow, Sofia, Indiana. For one week during my Fulbright, I had to attend, with Susan, a conference in Vienna. Literally as we were leaving the apartment on Graf Ignatiev, the phone rang and Prof. Zlotin told us that because of the inflation, he had to find another $400 for Eldar’s ticket. I was within two hours of flying to Vienna, and in the Russia and Bulgaria of 1992 this was an impossible task.
So we ended up in Vienna in a very depressed state. There was only a two-week period before we would return to Indiana and Eldar was due to accompany us. Without the ticket he could not receive his passport. For two days we tried to think of everything, but could come up with no ideas. At the last session of the conference, an Englishman was delivering a paper, and after he finished, one of the audience asked if he might receive a copy of the paper because the supply had run out. The speaker said that he certainly could, and if the questioner would leave his business card he would send it to him, but it would take a couple of weeks because he was leaving for Moscow that evening. We exploded out of our seats and rushed up to him almost out of control. Thus it was that Mr. Paul Collins of the Royal Association of Public Administration carried with him an envelope with four $100 bills.

Waiting for Eldar on the day before his scheduled arrival

And so it was that Eldar, bearing a red Soviet passport, arrived in the USA in August 1992. He settled in easily, very quickly learned English, and became part of our family. On January 28th 1993, exactly one year to the day after his father had been killed, a huge avalanche descended on the Research Institute destroying it and killing many students. The same day, at the one-year anniversary of Nuris’ death at a ceremony in Kazakhstan, his brother died at the graveside.
Eldar did very well and was very happy. We had established an extended family with his mother coming to visit, and my visiting them. The problem was that, at the end of his high school, Eldar would have to return to Russia because he had neither a Green Card nor any right to stay. So, among us all, we decided to adopt him. This turned out to be relatively easy (in the context of the other Byzantine rules) because it was governed only by the laws of the State of Indiana. He still would not be an American, but he would have the right to stay. However, we could not travel with him because, even though he was legally our son, he could not re-enter the USA.

Three weeks to the day after we adopted him, Susan visited the doctor for a pain in her ear, and was diagnosed as having Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes which is more “survivable than many,” we were told, but still dangerous. This was a tremendous blow to us, and she had to start treatment immediately, and was frequently in hospital after that. The situation regarding Eldar became very serious now, and we pressed our attorney about getting Eldar a Green Card because he might have to go spend some time with his mother, and under the present circumstances, he could not come back.
Eventually, an interview was arranged with the Immigration Services in Indianapolis. The case was very complicated, and the fear was that they would refer it to Washington and it would never be seen again. Just as the attorney predicted, the Immigration Officer (a lady who had formerly been a nun and much-given to referring things), found the case entirely too complicated, and made the very suggestion of which we had been warned. “Will you be able to come back? I need to ask Washington some things” she asked. Susan looked straight at her and said “I have a terminal form of cancer and unless the answer comes back soon, and I mean soon, I will never be able to come back—ever.” The Immigration Office looked shocked and went totally gray. Susan, quite remarkably, never looked to the outside world as though she really was sick until the very end. “Would you all wait outside, please” the ex-nun asked. We did, and after a short time we were readmitted. She asked Eldar to raise his right hand, and repeat what she said. To my total amazement, on the table in front of him was a Certificate of Naturalization. No Green Card. He was going to walk out of the room a citizen of the USA—which he did. My attorney looked as though he had been hit by an asteroid.
And so he became an American and our son. That was in November, and on the 7th day of the following March, Susan died. We were totally devastated. I thought Eldar should spend time with his other family while I sorted things out, and so he went, with his new US passport, back to Moscow. Soon after this his middle brother, Timur, died and then his grandfather passed away. The world was disintegrating fast. We were in a very dangerous state now, especially without the 1,000 years of Susan’s genetic history to support us, and I have to say that we did not do well. He came with me when I received the honor of being made Doctor Honoris Causa of the New Bulgarian University, and then he vanished for some time.
During that time I did not see him, hear from him, or hear of him. He had completely disappeared. The one day I was sitting in my garden when a strange car pulled up my drive. The person who got out looked vaguely familiar, and as I have had many, many students, some of whom come back to visit, I sometimes have to feign that I can identify them. I know that I know them, but that is all. I could not place this person at all. It was a hot day, and so I invited him indoors, where I asked him if he would like anything to drink. “Water will be fine” he said. And then, he reached behind him without turning round, and took a glass out of the closed cupboard. Only three people knew where the glasses were: one was dead, I was the other and so this had to be Eldar! I think I concealed my shock well, but I was confused because the wild fellow who went away was replaced by a serious-looking man with short hair, a black suit, a white shirt and a tie. I said the first thing that came into my mind, “You look like a minister from the local church!” “I am,” he replied.
We shall never know how Susan, with her grit and determination would have steered this family. However she, in true “Williams style” as she put it, showed us a face of courage and selflessness that we shall never forget. I well remember that she was working on the Friday before the Tuesday on which she died. She held on to life until her brother, another Williams graduate, flew in from Seattle. They sat together and she died. Even in the direst of circumstances she had matters under control until the time was right for a suitable end to a short but remarkable life.

[6] She was a graduate of Williams College (Class of 1981).

If you would like to read a lot more of the Susan story you should read this book available from New and used copies are readily available online.


Life is full of “What Ifs”. We are not going to indulge in that fruitless exercise here, except perhaps to mention that Susan, who died twenty years ago this coming March 7th 2015, would have been only 55 today after her last birthday on November 6th 1994. This emphasises, perhaps better than anything else, how ridiculously young she was when she died that Tuesday all those years ago. My late colleague, Prof. William Siffin, who employed her as his assistant, described her to me as “frighteningly organized with a mind like a steel trap. I just love her.” She was, as I came to find out, just the latest in a genealogical line that included Anglo-Saxon Kings, signers of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of America’s most renowned school, and the voice of the cartoon character Lisa Simpson. And that was just the beginning. So, I thought, I would write this tribute to her, not just as the truly extraordinary person she was, but as the latest in a long line of remarkable people on both her maternal and paternal sides. This takes us away from the unavoidably maudlin nature of most “memorial” literature and puts into context someone who is not just gone, but genetically must have had so much to offer, even when compared with what she had actually achieved during her attenuated tenure on this earth. With an ancestry like this, what would or could she have done? Oops, we are back to the “What Ifs” again. But it does make you wonder.
A final word. If you have any pictures of Susan, I would really like to have copies, since so many of mine were lost.
Randall Baker
February 2015.
(photographed above at the time we were married).

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Prev Next

Студената война на горещо място

Студената война на горещо място

Чрез двамата автори, взели участие в проявата на Студената война в Африка, за пръв път виждаме отвътре съветската военна авантюра в Етиопия и по-странното – разузнаването в Източна Африка. Авторите...

Read more

King Husain and the Kingdom of Hejaz

King Husain and the Kingdom of Hejaz

His reputation is one of thirst for the glory of the Caliphate; cruelty in his treatment of opponents; and a system of arbitrary, autocratic rule amounting to despotism. On the...

Read more



Later, as a representative of the US-Congress funded Edmund S. Muskie program, he came to the South Caucasus regularly to select candidates for graduate fellowships in the USA. This is...

Read more
Cart empty