Konrad Kingshill and Carolyn Ryberg Kingshill have made a lasting impact on perhaps more people than any missionary couple of modern times in Thailand. I want to take a few moments to show my
appreciation, in behalf of many.
Konrad was a refugee from Nazi Germany who fled to America via England, in order to go to college. He graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska with a triple major in math, chemistry and
physics. After a couple of years teaching in a junior college in the USA he agreed to come to Thailand in 1947, even though he did not know where it was. His job was to teach math, physics and chemistry in Christian College of Thailand, which did not yet exist – and was not permitted by the Thai government for more than a quarter of a century. In other words, Konrad was not one to be thwarted by impediments.
In the interim, so to speak, he accomplished a daunting amount: he mastered Thai language, did anthropological research on Northern Thai village life resulting in a break-through study that was the standard on the topic for 50 years, acquired a PhD from Cornell University, and married Carolyn Ryberg who was a student of music at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois – whom he chanced to meet through Dr. Ralph Robbins, a relative and fellow refugee, who taught music at Mac.
The interim continued. Konrad and Carolyn were a formidable presence wherever they lived. In Chiang Mai they helped establish a school for missionary children, recruited the daughter of the British Consul General to be the first teacher and acquired one of the historic mission residences for the school. It is now the famous Chiang Mai International School, the first such school outside of Bangkok. Meanwhile, Konrad turned The Prince Royal’s College into the premiere private school in town, and the finest school of its type in the country at the time, by helping it transform by adding a
co-educational secondary division, another national first. In Bangkok, Konrad rescued another faltering boy’s school and helped it build a new campus facility and continue as the school of choice for Bangkok elite, but with scholarship provisions for the non-elite. Bangkok Christian College is one of the best-known primary and secondary schools in the country.
Since the Thai government was still not ready to let private institutions of higher education be established, Konrad was invited to work his magic on the other 22 schools of the Protestant Church of Christ in Thailand. To do that, he was installed as head of all of them. His job was to pry them out of the grip of certain leaders, to insist on educational quality controls unequivocally, and to make sure
new leaders were made ready when their time came, and that every program was excellent. In the city of Nan, where Konrad and Carolyn lived for a while, two schools had to be merged to form a new one. I venture that if Konrad had not succeeded, not only would most of those 22 schools have closed, but another 20 Christian schools would not have been founded in the wake of their success. The Thai government sent groups to study and copy these “best practices”.
Carolyn was by no means hidden behind Konrad’s shadow. Her legacy today might be said to be the revolutionizing of the music of the CCT. It is hard to exaggerate how “undeveloped” church music was in 1950, even though hymn singing is the life-blood of Christian worship and evangelism. Everywhere she went Carolyn established choirs, gave piano lessons and made sure music was taught in schools, which fed into church music. One prominent Christian university president
credits her days singing in Carolyn’s school chorus in Nan with her conversion to Christianity – and those like her are in the hundreds –completely without aggressive evangelism that had become fashionable.
Finally, the Thai government yielded, allowing private institutions of higher education to be chartered. Konrad was recruited to assist CCT leaders in fulfilling the government’s ever-expanding requirements. It became obvious that “people in Bangkok” would have been relieved if the CCT had given up, but Konrad was not easily diverted. Whatever new challenge or delay they threw in the way, he persisted. In 1974 Payap College was granted a charter. The college had a thrown-together feel, being located on two campuses, miles apart, in facilities built for other purposes.
Carolyn became a music teacher in the Humanities Faculty, which expanded by incorporating the theological seminary’s Department of Church Music. Before long, she was head of her own Music Department and astutely recruited students as well as faculty members including missionaries and outsiders like talented, eccentric Bruce Gaston. Today the College of Music is one of Payap’s banner colleges, consistently attracting more applicants than can be accommodated. I feel that improvement of the quality of church music is one of the most remarkable changes in the Thai church in the last five decades, thanks to Carolyn and the new generation she encouraged, as well as availability of affordable keyboard instruments. For her accomplishments, her alma mater, MacMurray College, granted her an honorary Doctor of Music degree a few years ago.
As Payap grew Konrad continued to help in the expansion. A new campus was the most urgent need, but that was an immense undertaking. A breakthrough came when the college was offered 4 acres of land near the Mae Kao River, outside the city. Working with a team, other land was bought using bank loans. The second break came when Konrad was told by a US Congressman of grants being made for American Schools and Hospitals Abroad, almost all of them in Israel up to that point. The first ASHA grant covered the costs of 4 buildings and campus infrastructure; more grants followed. Konrad’s attention to details was legendary, assuring sustainability and protection for Payap. The college expanded into enrollments in the thousands with stunning new brick buildings and covered walkways.
In my opinion, Konrad’s most significant contribution to the well-being of thousands of personnel in the CCT was almost an after-thought (as it seemed at the time). He engineered a retirement
program for all CCT employees working in schools, hospitals and churches. This was a key to realistic welfare for teachers and pastors that encouraged candidates to work in these programs. Again, the government has copied Konrad’s plan.
When retirement time came, Konrad and Carolyn established residence in Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, California. Konrad said that he had to be out of easy reach if Payap was to move forward without deferring to his status as a founder and patron. He was honored with an Honorary Professorship by the Payap Board of Trustees. Carolyn moved out of Chiang Mai and away from the Music Department, but filled in a few years until her own retirement as a missionary in residence in Pahk 8, southwest of Bangkok. Konrad was honored again by having an assembly hall in the International College Building named for him. Carolyn is honored by having the main concert
room of the College of Music named the CRK Recital Hall. She said future students would be relieved not to have to remember a long name of someone they never knew.
In February 2014, Payap University invited Konrad and Carolyn to come back to participate in the 40th anniversary celebrations. [See the picture of KK and CRK on the porch of Paradonparp International House at that time] The first night back in Thailand, Konrad fell in the bathroom and never fully recovered. He died on February 28, 2017 in Pilgrim Place. Carolyn is staying in Pilgrim Place near family and many retired missionary colleagues.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.