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Elisabeth Pilkington Ratiu

1921 – 2016

A descendant of the glass manufacturing family, Elisabeth Pilkington Ratiu graduated with a degree in Social Science at the London School of Economics and was the wife of Ion Rațiu from 1945. With the Pilkington Family, she established and endowed two remarkable ventures: the Fairfield Hospital and the Rainford Trust – a leading grant-making charity. As a trustee of the Rainford Trust, Elisabeth was personally involved in supporting large numbers of social and humanitarian projects.

From 1974 onwards, she supported her husband in his worldwide rally for the cause of free Romanians and, after the fall of Ceausescu, she accompanied her husband back to Romania. In 1993 she founded Ratiu Foundation Romania, with the initial goal of providing treatment for children and young people suffering from leukemia. The Foundation’s leukemia program was so successful that after only seven years, the Romanian government had installed three bone­ marrow transplant units and had taken on full responsibility for the care of childhood leukemia cases in the country. Her work was recognized by several organizations: the Romanian Presidency, the US State Department and Bucharest Business Week. 

Elisabeth Ratiu at Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation London, 2011

During the last Romanian presidential elections, in November 2014, Elisabeth Ratiu’s eyes were filled with tears at the sight of the Romanians standing in line to vote in London. “How much it would have pleased Ion!” she said then to her son Nicolae, who accompanied her. Touched by the love that her husband had for Romania, Elisabeth Pilkington Raţiu was always a great supporter of the democratization processes taking place in our country.


Elisabeth Pilkington grew up in the Lancashire countryside of the UK, near the industrial town of St Helens, an area which was transformed by four generations of Pilkington Brothers into the Mecca of the UK’s flat-glass production. The family had distinguished forebears: a Pilkington crusader ancestor is believed to have died on his way to Jerusalem and is presumed buried in the Olt Valley of what is now Romania; Dr. Richard Pilkington, an important theologian involved in the early stages of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, who is commemorated in a stained-glass window in the dining hall of St John’s College, Cambridge; Elisabeth’s maternal grandfather who established the Bristol and London-based art business - Frost & Reed-, one of the oldest art galleries in the UK.


At the outbreak of WWII, Elisabeth served her country for two years as a Red Cross nurse in a Manchester army hospital and then followed some Social Science studies at the London School of Economics. The School had been evacuated to Cambridge for the duration of the war, and it was at this time that she met the young Romanian postgraduate student and diplomat, Ion Raţiu, who was studying for a second degree in Economics on a British Council Scholarship, following his refusal to return to Marshall Antonescu’s Nazi aligned Romania in 1941.


The couple got married at the Savoy Chapel in London’s West End in 1945. Elisabeth immediately took the Romanian citizenship, fully willing to accompany her husband back to post-war Romania to campaign in the 1946 general election. But Ion, who had already shown disturbing signs of tuberculosis prior to their marriage, collapsed in the autumn of 1946 and entered a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. Here they were joined by their first son, Indrei, born in 1946, and shortly afterwards, in 1948, their second son Nicolae was born. Meanwhile, Elisabeth entered fully into the spirit of a Romanian household. She learned Romanian, and patiently practised the art of preparing Romanian culinary specialities for a demanding circle of guests and relatives. She eventually developed her culinary interests into a multi-faceted business: from a successful catering business, “Mary Feast” became a successful cookery school. Elisabeth also edited and wrote a number of successful cookbooks.


Besides her family life, she found time to apply her social science skills working full-time as an almoner (social worker) for a leading London hospital. As her sons grew up and left home for boarding school in the English countryside, Elisabeth became increasingly interested in mental health conditions within her own London community of Kensington and Chelsea. After further study and a growing commitment to her local community’s mental health services, she was eventually elected Chairman of Kensington & Chelsea “Mind” – a leading British mental health service provider.


Following the death of her parents, Guy and Margery Pilkington, Elisabeth, her four brothers and other close Pilkington relatives joined forces to establish and endow two remarkable ventures: the Fairfield Hospital (which carefully retained the original structure and gentle atmosphere of Fairfield House, the Pilkington family home) and the Rainford Trust – a leading grant-making charity focused primarily on those parts of the world where Pilkington Brothers, the family firm, conducts its business. As a trustee of the Rainford Trust, Elisabeth was personally involved in supporting a large number of social and humanitarian projects. Besides Fairfield Hospital – which today ranks as one of the leading private hospitals in Britain’s north-west – Elisabeth also retained a soft spot for the innovative St Helens Hospice – where the terminally ill could find peace and respite during their final days. It was at this time, having regained her British citizenship, that Elisabeth also began to visit her Romanian in-laws yearly, and came to explore most comers of her husband’s native Romania.
 

When Ion, from 1974 onwards, made his worldwide rally for the cause of free Romanians his priority, Elisabeth recommitted to his cause, agreeing to leave behind the interests and businesses that she had patiently built up over the course of their marriage. A woman of strong faith, she described this particular life-step as “her road to Emmaus”: a road on which she knew she would indeed meet her Lord – provided she kept her eyes and ears open…. It would be a testing time. Over the next few years, the couple travelled extensively for the first time, visiting Romanian communities throughout the world, including exotic side-trips to Easter Island, Pitcairn, Tahiti and even trips up the Nile and the Amazon. It was during their Amazon trip that the Rațius met and soon befriended the young Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis and his American wife Gail Percy, daughter of Senator Chuck Percy of Washington DC. The Percy family subsequently offered the Ratius the use of their Washington home, and it was here, over a number of visits, that Ion and Elisabeth built up an extensive network of connections that were to bear fruit in the establishment of numerous key institutions:

 

  • the World Union of Free Romanians, which held its first international convention in Geneva in 1984, was born at this time;

  • the Ion Ratiu Chair of Romanian Studies and Library was established here at’ Georgetown University in 1989, resulting from 1989-95 endowments by the Ratiu Family Foundation, which Ion and Elisabeth had established in London in 1979,

  • the Ratiu Foundation USA, a primarily humanitarian not-for-profit foundation, founded in 1996, to support the work of Elisabeth’s Romanian Fundaţia Ratiu established in 1993, and last but not least,

  • the Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture, the prestigious annual event for democracy campaigners from around the world, organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars based on Elisabeth and Ion’s experience of Washington hospitality in the 1980s.


During this period, besides their visits to Washington DC, Elisabeth and Ion divided their time between England, Switzerland and the USA, where Savannah, Georgia was home to Ion’s shipping business, Regent Line. There she was invited to take part in the establishment of a second Hospice project and became a volunteer home visitor and care-taker.


In 1990 her life was turned upside down yet again. After the fall of Ceauşescu, Elisabeth chose without hesitation to accompany her husband back to Romania and to an uncertain future. She participated in Ion’s 1990 presidential campaign and courageously experienced first-hand the brutal bullying tactics of the Romanian National Salvation Front in its efforts to quash all opposition to its neo­ communist candidate Ion Iliescu.


The daily stream of desperate health cases at Elisabeth’s front ­door in Bucharest led to the establishment of Fundaţia Ratiu Romania, in 1993, with the initial goal of providing treatment, in Romania, for children and young people suffering from leukemia. The Foundation’s leukemia program was so successful that after only seven years, the Romanian government had installed three bone marrow transplant units and took on full responsibility for the care of childhood leukemia cases in the country.


Since the death of her husband in 2000, she has once again made London her home, where she maintained a lively interest in the activities of the Ratiu Family Foundation, the Rațiu Democracy Centre, and the World Mental Health Association in which she played an active role over so many years. In recent years, Elisabeth’s work has been recognized by awards from several organizations, including Bucharest Business Week, the President of Romania and the US State Department, for work with the disabled.


May she rest in peace

In memoriam - Elisabeth Ratiu (1921 - 2016)

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