Margaret Ping, who spent most of her very long life helping and inspiring other people, died Saturday at Billings Clinic. She would have been 104 in May.
She was born in Missouri, raised in Hardin and worked and traveled around the world. She helped bring Habitat for Humanity and Edlerhostel to Billings, and in 1994 she became the second recipient of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Award from Rocky Mountain College’s Peace Institute. In 2014 she received the YWCA of Billings’ first Meritorious Service Award.
She volunteered one day a week at her beloved Big Horn County Museum in Hardin and one day a week at the Habitat for Humanity office, in recent years calling reluctantly on her legion of friends to give her rides to the many places she needed to be.
Candace Forrette, a good friend and one of her drivers, said Ping was “absolutely the most generous, wonderful person I’ve ever met.”
Others spoke of her in similar terms.
“She just loved people and saw good in everyone she met,” said Lyn Hamilton, whose friendship with Ping stretches back 60 years to Maine. “She gave me the courage to go to college and get a degree.”
Carolyn Crouch said Ping was the kind of person “who could sit down with a king or a homeless person and talk the same way.”
Claire Coleman said that in recent years, she would drive to Habitat for Humanity every Thursday to pick up Ping and take her to lunch with the League of Women Voters.
“And then I would take her back to Habitat for Humanity so she could continue volunteering,” Coleman said. “She was something else, one of a kind.”
Claire Oakley said Ping “worked to make this world a better place, and for so many of us, she was a mentor. … It just made me happy to be with her.”
Mark Moak, whose portrait of Ping is at the top of this story, said, “If we canonized Protestants, she would get it, I think.”
The Rev. Steve Gordon, the pastor at Mayflower Congregational Church, which Ping attended for many years, said she was “so well loved by the people of this church. Men and women looked to her as a role model, a mentor.”
She attended services as recently as the week before her death, Gordon said Sunday evening.
“There was an empty place in church today, and people felt it,” he said.
And though she wanted her own funeral services to be at Mayflower, Gordon said it was decided that the church simply wasn’t big enough. Services for Ping will be held instead at another congregational church, First Church in downtown Billings, this Saturday at 2 p.m.
Ping was born in Liberal, Mo., on May 11, 1912, and her parents moved to Hardin to open a store in 1916. Hamilton said Ping’s mother was also involved in lots of organizations, and her father was the kind of person always willing to help others.
At Billings Clinic on Saturday, Coleman said, someone brought up a story Ping used to tell about the day she boarded a train in Hardin to go study at Oberlin College in Ohio, a progressive school in those days. Some townspeople told her parents they should be worried because Oberlin was open to African-American students.
As she heard it, Coleman said, “Margaret’s parents’ response was, ‘We hope so.’”
After earning a teaching degree Oberlin, according to a story Lorna Thackeray wrote for the Billings Gazette on the occasion of Ping’s 100th birthday, Ping went on to New York to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She started her volunteerism in those days, working at a settlement house in the New York slums that catered to the needs of immigrant families.
In 1936 she accepted a job with the YWCA in Pueblo, Colo., and she would stay with the organization for 39 years, working in Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit and Hawaii. In the early 1960s she was director of the Billings YWCA for four years. She also worked in Lima, Peru, and for 10 years in Mexico City.
Hamilton met Ping when the YWCA of Boston sent Ping to Maine to run a girls camp. Hamilton had directed the camp the previous summer, when it was still privately owned, and she was asked to come back to help Ping learn the ropes. They became great friends in the process and Ping, 20-some years older than Hamilton, urged her to earn a college degree and said perhaps she, too, could work for the YWCA.
Hamilton ended up studying at Rocky Mountain College and Ping gave her free room and board during her studies.
“I know there are many, many other people she helped through college,” Hamilton said. “She helped people wherever she thought she could.”
In later years, when Hamilton was indeed employed by the YWCA, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, she and Ping would often travel together, visiting Europe, New Zealand and Latin America. Ping remained fluent in Spanish to the last, Hamilton said.
She also loved camping, and the last time they camped Ping was 87. The only concession she made to her age was agreeing to use a cot, rather than sleeping on the ground.
Ping wrote three books and was the co-author of two cookbooks, both related to the Big Horn County Historical Museum.
Her other books are “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” “Three Defining Years in a Long Life” and “Letters Home from the Mexico I Knew.” The latter book, printed privately in 2012, collects letters she wrote home while working from 1945 to 1955 in Mexico City.
The letters and accompanying text describe the joys and trials of life in Mexico, including bad roads, health problems and food allergies. She also describes going through a labor strike and petty bureaucratic squabbles.
In one passage she described legal obstacles on the train trip to Mexico: “A young official came back to my Pullman car to ask if I had been vaccinated. I assured him that I had been, and showed my certificate which he told me wasn’t valid and that I would have to be vaccinated again before I could continue the journey. … But he could arrange everything. He returned a few minutes later, having donned a white coat, and without touching me, handed me a piece of paper which said that that day, in that place, I had been vaccinated for small pox. I don’t remember whether the service required a tip, but soon we were on our way.”
In addition to writing, Ping took up painting in recent years, partly to have something to do when increasing immobility kept her at home. Gordon, the Mayflower minister, said most of her works were little paintings of clouds and sky, which she gave to her many friends.
Claire Oakley said she loved to bake for Ping and often took her to concerts and other events. Starting when Ping turned 95, Oakley’s birthday presents were cookies, one for each year of Ping’s life, which she wrapped 10 to a bag so Ping could freeze them. Oakley could make the cookies in a single batch until a few years ago, when it began to take two.
On Saturday, the day Ping died, Oakley made three batches of cookies in her honor, and she’ll be bringing them to the memorial service this Saturday.
Forrette, the director of Global Village in downtown Billings, a nonprofit fair-trade store that sells handcrafted clothing and other merchandise from around the world, said Ping was one of the people who helped found the store in 1987.
For many years, it had been Forrette’s pleasure to drive Ping to Hardin on the first Wednesday of each month to work at the historical museum, built on land donated by Ping’s family. Forrette recalled that one Wednesday, when Ping was about 95, she was looking out the window of the car and said, unprompted, “I wonder what interesting things today will bring.”
The last couple of days have been difficult, Forrette said, because she couldn’t stop thinking of the loss of her friend.
“I had to remind myself that she belongs to everybody,” she said, which helped. At the same time, she said, she realized that in a sense Ping belonged to no one because she was so resolutely independent. And she never really slowed down, Forrette said.
“She was involved in the world and in life right up to the end.”
David Crisp contributed to this story.