David Carey was born in 1913 in Malaysia to British parents. For most of his elementary and secondary education, he attended boys’ boarding schools in England. When he was seventeen, his family immigrated to Canada. World War II started while he was attending Oxford University as a Canadian Rhodes Scholar. He decided leave school in order to enlist, but did not qualify for military service because of cancer. During the war, he worked for the Canadian Department of Labor. After the war, he spent about twenty-five years volunteering and working for Moral Re-Armament. Carey worked another fifteen years as the public relations director for Up With People, a spin-off of MRA. In 1983, he retired to Asheville, North Carolina. Besides having an active civic life in his retirement, he is known for his tennis ability. He started playing tennis regularly at the age of 65 and he has won 31 USTA national senior championships in singles and doubles. He won the 2000 world singles title in the 85-age bracket and has held the number one US ranking in the ninety-year-old age group. Regarding playing in the men’s 90 division, he is quoted as saying, “Yes, there were more than two of us playing in all these tournaments!” When the weather is okay, he plays tennis three, or four times a week.
What part of Malaysia were you born in?
I was born on Carey Island on the west coast of Malaysia, not far off the mainland. We used to have to cross to the mainland by launch – a half hour trip. Today, there is a bridge that goes across to the island. Tigers used to be able to swim across. My uncle–Dad’s brother–had gone out to Malaysia from England to do some work for one of the sultans and in part payment the sultan gave him this island. My uncle called it Carey Island. Because it had an equatorial climate, he thought maybe he could clear the land and start putting in rubber. This was in the early 1900s when autos were being invented. He wrote my father who was his younger brother and said, “Why don’t you come out here and help me do this?” That is why my father went out. He had met my mother earlier and after he got settled a few years in Malaysia, he said to her, “I think it’s time we got married and you come out here.” I was the first non-Asian born on the island. Historically, that’s how it all got started.
In the equatorial climate of Carey Island before the days of air conditioning there were fans hung from ceilings in the houses. Little boys pulled strings to keep the fans moving. Servants did the cooking on wood stoves and water was captured in barrels during the monsoons. You checked your shoes in the mornings to make sure a scorpion hadn’t spent the night there. My mother recalls putting me in my perambulator out in the garden when I was a young baby. Looking out of the kitchen window she saw a monkey sitting on the handlebars of the perambulator looking in at the little character that looked like him. That was life in those days.
How many siblings did you have? What is your family background?
I had two younger sisters. My first sister was born on Carey Island. The other was born in India, where my father was stationed in World War I. Both have since died.
My mother was a housewife. She had grown up in England. Her family had owned a cutlery business in the north of England in Sheffield. The boys in the family had died early and she was slated to take over the family business. She was due to go to Cambridge to take a business course, but her mother got very sick and she had to stay at home to nurse her. That was a typical sort of English background. She was a very typical, north England, capable lady. Very loving.
My father was at loose ends in England and he was going off to Canada to make a living. He and my mother met on the ship. She was going out to visit relatives in Toronto after her mother had died. She had nursed her for a year, or two and needed a break. They got engaged on the ship and never saw each other again until she went out six years later to join him in Malaysia where they got married. Interestingly enough, her father said, “I’m a little concerned about you going to Malaysia to marry this guy I’ve never met, so I’m sending your sister with you and giving you both return tickets in case you change your mind.” Her sister later married the fourth officer on the Titanic. He survived. I remember talking to him about the sinking of the boat.
I was born in 1913 on Carey Island, Malaysia and at age five and a half my family took me back to England. I had my sixth birthday at a boys’ boarding school. I stayed in England at boys’ boarding schools – first Hillcrest and then Sherborne – until I was seventeen. I saw the family once every three years when they had saved up enough vacation time to come back to England and stay for a couple of months. I lived with family friends and relatives on the island of Guernsey during school vacations. When they were old enough, my sisters joined me in England at a girl’s school.
Then in 1929 the world depression hit and Dad thought it was time to retire. He chose to settle the family in Vancouver, Canada where he had once worked. I finished high school there.
How would you describe your father? What was he like?
My father was a very good athlete and was invited to play tennis at Wimbledon and he played soccer for Malaysia. He taught me at around four years of age to play tennis, golf and cricket. I enjoyed it. I remember playing billiards with the end of a golf club. That was typical of Europeans who were out in the tropical countries.
The relaxation on the plantations in Malaysia was the sports clubs. Work on the plantations started at four, or five in the morning when it was cool. You worked basically until noon when it got hot. You had your siesta and then you went to the sports club and played golf, tennis, or billiards. You spent the afternoon there and then you came back home for dinner.
Was it traumatic to leave at the age of five and a half and be away from your family?
Looking back, it was just part of life. I moved from a colonial atmosphere where I played with native boys. In fact, I spoke Tamil before I spoke English. That was life. We were a family together at meals. Going to England to school was something a lot of other people did, so I wasn’t unique. The school was very friendly. It was a small school with about thirty, or forty boys. At age thirteen, I moved to a bigger school called Sherborne where they had about four hundred boys. I was there until I was seventeen. You didn’t feel unique, because other kids were in the same position. Other families had immigrated to India, or Africa and sent their kids back to school in England. You adjusted.
Most of my vacations were spent with my aunt and uncle (father’s brother) on the Island of Guernsey. He had a son who was about my age, so we spent a lot of time together. Looking back, I just felt it was just part of life. It wasn’t something unusual, or terrible. I didn’t feel lonely. One vacation, my uncle couldn’t take us. I don’t know why. A family said they would take me for the Easter vacation. He was one of the directors of my father’s company based in London. It was quite an experience for me as a thirteen-year-old. His Rolls Royce arrived at the front door at 8:17 every morning. He caught the 8:25 [train] to London and it came back at 5:27 and the Rolls Royce met him and brought him to the house. At seven o’clock, the gong rang and it was time to change for dinner. Maids would run a bath for me. I had to wear a tuxedo every night for dinner with a stiff shirt and collar – the whole works. The ladies wore long dresses. After dinner, there was coffee and then they’d shift the furniture around, roll back the rug, put on the phonograph, and we all danced together. Then the men would go into another room and play billiards. This was every night. Tuxedos every night. For a thirteen-year-old, it was a very grown-up experience. I’ll always remember it. You never felt that you were lonely. You felt you were enjoying something that not very many boys of thirteen experience. I look back on those years as interesting and different, not as lonely.
Communication with the family was only by letters. There were no telephones. The letters took three, or four weeks to go back and forth. You always looked forward to when you got one. Every Sunday I had to write letters to them. I knew other boys were in the same position.
Then in 1930 we moved out to Canada. I didn’t finish my fifth year at Sherborne. I missed that time very much, because I was going to be on the school cricket and rugby teams and in all the activities you worked for in your school years. But it was a growing up time. We were a family once again under one roof. My father found a house he liked in Vancouver and bought it on the spot. He paid $5000 cash. [Editor’s note: about $65,543 in current Canadian dollars]. In 2001 the owner said he would put it on the market for $750,000.
In Vancouver the local high school placed me in the twelfth grade. My sisters attended junior high. Having been in boys’ schools all my life, I found myself in a class with thirty girls and three boys. Early in the year, the drama club needed a butler with an English accent. So I was involved and having played rugby at Sherborne, I tried out and made the team. The adjustment was pretty quick. I didn’t feel empty in any sense, or disadvantaged. We were a family for the first time in years. I hadn’t lived with my sisters and mother and dad since I was five years old. You took that all in stride. Looking back, it helped me to adjust to people very quickly which was helpful later in life.
Around Easter my father said to me, “I saw an ad in the paper for an athletic director at a boys’ private school in the area and I thought you’d do as well as anybody, so I sent them an application in your name.” After a few days, I got a call saying, “Would you come up for an interview?” I went for an interview and they said, “You are what we’re looking for and we’d like to hire you. We will pay you $25 a month. You’ll live at the school. We’ll give you free board.” I was thrilled. I accepted and I left high school and started there the next week.
I was there for two years. I thought maybe this is a good career. I was making $25 a month. [About $327 in current Canadian dollars] The headmaster was making $500 a month. I thought, “Well, this is a pretty good career to get into.” I figured I needed a university degree to get into teaching, so I left the school to go to the University of British Columbia. It was another period of moving ahead.
I found that I adjusted quickly to university. I was on the rugby team and captain for two years. I got involved in student politics and was student body president. I found I could make a contribution in that field. We had some problems with the students wanting to strike and demonstrate and march to the capital. We settled that one, got it changed very positively and got a very good reaction from staff and students. I was able to give some leadership and make a difference. Generally, I thought I made a contribution to the university.
When the Rhodes Scholarship possibility came up, I thought it would be an interesting experience. Nobody else applied at the time. The committee that selects the Rhodes is a combination of faculty and business types in the community. They had the background of what I had done at the university. I applied in my third year. They said, “You are accepted as far as we’re concerned, do you want to go?” I said, “No, I’d like to finish my degree and go at the end of my fourth year.” No one went that year and I entered Oxford the next.
What values do you think your family emphasized?
Treating others as you would treat your own family. We were always good friends with the workers on Carey Island. I played with all their children. The families were treated well. Dad imported South Indian laborers. He gave them contract work. After two, or three years they had a choice to have their way paid to wherever they wanted to go, or the company would pay for their wives and children to come to Carey Island. The company would provide housing, schooling, hospitalization, and all that. Most chose for their families to come and join them. Each family had a house and a tree in its garden. The wives did some work in the fields, but they never were allowed to work further than walking distance from their homes. If there was a crisis, they got back to their homes very quickly. They went back for their meals and could prepare meals for their children and/or older people in the family.
How would you describe yourself as a boy?
I was very active in sports. I was on the school cricket, soccer, and rugby teams. In English schools, if you were a good athlete, you are welcome anywhere. It’s the epicenter of life. I was quickly part of all that was going on.
Did you have any major challenges while growing up?
Sherborne School was a very pleasant time. It was a growing up time with no problems. In general, my life was very much surrounded by family, uncles and aunts, or friends. If my uncle and aunt didn’t take us for vacations, we seemed to have friends, or other relatives who were happy to take us. We never felt like a problem. In one instance, the headmaster of my school said, “We would love to have you join us for the summer.” They had a marvelous Scottish grouse moor. Grouse was a huge delicacy in England at the time. I learned how to shoot grouse and how to catch trout in streams with your hands. It was a terrific summer.
What did you study at UBC?
My major was history. My minor was Latin. Latin was a compulsory subject in English schools, so I was fairly good with Latin. I was so active in the university that I wanted to major and minor in subjects I could do fairly easily.
I was very affected by two, or three of the professors. They were extraordinarily capable people. The professor who taught history was capable not only in his knowledge of history, but in the way he presented it. It was very easy to absorb. I became good friends with a couple of these professors. They helped me build my character and my ideas.
In what way did they do that?
Through their friendship, their knowledge, their humanity. We were adjusting as a family. I’d been away from home soon after we arrived in Vancouver teaching school. I saw the family on weekends every couple of weeks. My sisters were growing up very fast. I didn’t know them. The professors were stabilizing factors in this growing up period in my life.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
Yes, I did. Basically at Oxford, I made a lot of friends. I was expected to be very active athletically. I was expected to be on the university rugby and cricket teams. However, in the freshman trials in rugby, I wrecked my knee and was on crutches most of that year at Oxford. I got off crutches later in April and I played rugby on the number two team. I played on the cricket team briefly. I left Oxford, because the war broke out at that particular time. Bombs were dropping on Britain. I thought it was time to get back to Canada and get enlisted, any way I could help the war effort in Canada. That’s why I left Oxford after my first year.
Interestingly enough, when I was about seventy, I said to my wife, “I wonder if I could go back and finish my year at Oxford.” I wrote the Rhodes Trust and said, “I left, because war broke out and couldn’t finish. Can I go back now and finish my degree?” I got a nice letter back saying, “I don’t think so.” I never got a chance to go back, but it was worth a try.
One of the interesting factors early on in my life: A Christian-oriented group, mostly English, some French, and quite a few Americans traveled across Canada. They had been active in England. The man who started it had done Christian work in China and was in touch with Mahatma Gandhi. He had also been a leader of Oxford students and business types. He and his friends came across Canada with a Christian message. We believe in Christian virtues. Are we living them in an absolute way? They talked about honesty, unselfishness, purity, and said, “Why don’t we put the word absolute in front of these and begin to live that way?” He got a great response in Vancouver. People got involved and strikes got settled. Broken families got reunited. It made a great impression on our family and brought us together in a fresh way.
While I was at Oxford, something that affected the rest of my life was the involvement with the program, which at that time called itself the Oxford Group. Later it became known as Moral Re-Armament or MRA. This was a very moving factor in my growing up. I found a very active operation in Oxford when I got there. They were dealing with a lot of the strikes and problems in England in the pre-war days. It was important to get them dealt with before war broke out in order that production could be at maximum.
One of the things that was obviously needed after the war was how do you get Europe back on its feet again after being bombed. Our work got very involved in doing that. I spent a lot of time–about four years–putting the pieces together, helping to do that successfully as a volunteer. In many ways, I felt that I could make a contribution.
In 1947, I was part of a 150-person NGO (Moral Re-Armament, MRA) asked by the Allied High Command to go to Germany and help re-establish contact with the German people. German officials had interacted with Allied officials since the end of the war, but the German people had remained in isolation. As an instrument of mass communication, MRA used a ninety-person stage musical comprising a cast drawn from Europe, Asia, and the United States. My assignment was to interact with the German media.
Recently the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in a report dealing with post-war Europe cited MRA’s work as the “the main factor” in the France-German Accord. The report states, “This astonishingly rapid accord is one of the greatest achievement in the entire record of modern statecraft.” During the post was years MRA also had a volunteer group based in Japan. They reported to General MacArthur and were helping to put the pieces together again in Asia. I was there for several short periods.
The net result of this multi-year operation was the beginning of the healing of the deep animosities caused by the war, and the beginnings of economic cooperation between France and Germany. This effort helped lay the human and moral basis for the French-German coal and steel plan, which eventually evolved in to the beginnings of the European Community. Both French and German governments honored the unique contribution MRA made to the reconstruction of Europe by awarding Dr. Frank Buchman, founder of MRA, with the highest awards their countries awarded a foreigner.
In the post-war years with MRA I recall being in the south central part of France in Lyon and I got to know the editor of the newspaper quite well. We were having a post-war conference there and we had invited some Germans to come. They had been to our conference center in Switzerland. They made a very sincere apology to the French after the way the Germans had occupied France. And Lyon was where the French resistance had headquarters and just about every corner had a crucifix for some French resistance fighter who had been shot by the Germans. The feeling was very great. These Germans made a great impression with their very sincere apology about he treatment of the French during the Germen occupation.
I talked to the editor on Monday morning and I asked, “Do you have any comments about the weekend conference?” He said, “Well, I tell you this, after that Sunday evening I went home. I went down to my basement where I have been collecting files of all the stories of the atrocities the Germans committed during Occupation. I was determined that my children and their children and their children would never forget what the Germans had done.” And he said, “I took all those articles and threw them into the furnace. For the first time, I’ve seen hope for the future of Europe.” That was something–feeling like you had a part in it.
There was a French lady we got to know. She was a member of the Socialist Party in the French government, but she had been very active in the Resistance Movement during the war. To get her to tell what the Underground was planning to do, the Nazis tortured her son in front of her. You can imagine her reaction and her bitterness during these post-war years.
She was invited to come to one of the conferences MRA held in Switzerland for countries to talk about how to handle the post-war years. When she heard a German delegation was coming, she locked herself in her room and for four days she never came out. We had to put meals outside her door. After four days, she called on her phone in her room to one of the people who were running the conference and said, “What time is your morning session?” He said, “Eleven o’clock.” She said, “I would like to speak at that session.”
We all wondered what she was going to say. She got up and talked about her experiences and said she always blamed the Germans for what they did, but she said, “I’ve come to realize it’s not what the Germans did, but it’s my hatred and my fury that will keep on making German-French hostility a sore spot in Europe”. I’d like the public to hear me apologize to the Germans for my hatred and bitterness over the years and if you’ll allow me, I would like to spend the next two months speaking in Germany about this change in my life. How I can build now with the Germans is something for the future for the whole world” This she did.
Later when Konrad Adenauer, the German Chancellor, was invited to Paris, he spoke on national radio and said, “I am the first German Chancellor who has come to Paris who hasn’t been at the head of an Army.” He said, “The reason I am here is because of a French lady.” He talked about this lady and what she had done for European unity. Soon after Adenauer and the French Foreign Minister met and planned for the European Union. I was fortunate to have a part in the restructuring of Europe. Very rewarding.
After you left Oxford, you did not join the military. Is that correct?
I joined up, but when I went for my physical, they asked me my background and I had to tell them that I had developed cancer after an old Rugby injury and was still under treatment. I tried to get into the Navy and the Army. They turned me down automatically. So I volunteered to work with a group of people to help settle industrial disputes. Working under the Labor Department during the war we were very active in the settling of disputes, selling war bonds, and other supporting activities. That was my war service.
When we moved to Asheville in 1983, I got involved in civic activities very quickly. My wife and I helped to start a Mediation Center that’s still going strong. The center helped introduced mediation into the schools. One of the reports said that mediation was saving thousands of hours of school suspension, because of settling things amicably.
With my wife, Peg, we developed a series of lectures on how to face retirement: how do you move into retirement in a friendly way, a useful way? The Army heard about us and we were invited to do lectures to some “soon-to-be” retirees at the Army Missile Base in Huntsville, Alabama. We went down for two to three daylong sessions. I helped start the College for Seniors, an adjunct to the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It’s designed for retired people to get a chance to hear their contemporaries speak on topics from Roman literature to how to play bridge. Also, I volunteered at the local hospital and hospice for several years.
On playing tennis.
At school I was always athletically involved. However, in Europe after the war, you were lucky if there was a bowling alley much less a tennis court, or golf course. My father was a very good tennis player and was invited to play at Wimbledon to represent Malaysia, but he didn’t go. It was an expensive trip at the time. I learned tennis at an early age and I started to pick it up when I retired.
In the 85s age bracket tournament played in South Africa, I was number one in the world. I won the tournament! I lost the finals the next year in Australia to the player I beat in South Africa. Tennis life has been very interesting and rewarding.
Are you still in an age group?
The USTA doesn’t have a 95 age group yet, so I’m waiting for them. I think they’ll have one soon. At state, regional, and national tournaments you get to play at nice tennis clubs around the country – Boston, Palm Springs Pinehurst, etc. You meet a lot nice people from different backgrounds. It’s been fun for us. My wife and I travel together and treasure the tennis friends we’ve made over the years. Because the 95s don’t have an age group, I think my tournament play at that level of competition is probably over. By the time they have enough of us 95 and older to make a bracket, I’ll be a little bit too old.
So what would you say to anyone young or old about going beyond mediocrity and living a rich and meaningful?
I’d say it’s your choice. Nobody is going to make you do anything. It’s there for you to choose if you want to. The other thing is why settle for mediocrity, when you can go for the best you can. We are here on earth basically to make things better, or to live a useful life. To do that, you need to live by certain standards of honesty and unselfishness, not just by standards that everyone else may have, but also by God’s standards, or your own absolute standards. That was the basis for our MRA operation. It demanded a certain discipline and we were all volunteers.
During our marriage my first wife, who died of a brain injury in her early 60s, was also a MRA volunteer. We I lived in twenty-four different houses but we were always the guests of people. The kids benefited greatly. They experienced a lot of different ways that houses were operated and various ways of living. I don’t think they suffered from it. Call it a different type of life compared to what most people live by or enjoy these days. But I think we all benefited from it. It was hard at times, but you seldom missed a meal.
My son is happily retired after a successful business career. My daughter is a grandmother twice and directs the bus system for Head Start in the state of Oregon, My wife and I are enjoying our retirement life in the mountains of Asheville, NC. Our condo is on the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains and recently we had a bear on our patio enjoying our bird feeder.
Now at soon to be 98, I’m enjoying my three-times weekly tennis, catching up with lifetime friends, and watching our great-grandchildren grow up from across the country.
No regrets, only very happy memories and appreciation for the chance I’ve had to live a useful like. And thanks to Cecil Rhodes for getting me started.