Elisabeth RaţiuElisabeth Pilkington grew up in the Lancashire countryside of the UK, overlooking the industrial town of St Helens which four generations of Pilkington Brothers, the family glass manufacturing business, had transformed into the Mecca of UK flat-glass production. Her father, Colonel Guy Reginald Pilkington, served the family business as Group Personnel Director. He also served his local community for many years as Alderman of the St Helens Town Council. He was much involved in local community life: the regional Water Board, annual agricultural shows and rose growing were amongst his favourite activities. The family had distinguished forbears: Dr Richard Pilkington, a distinguished theologian during the early stages of the 16th century protestant reformation, is commemorated in a glass window in the dining hall of St John's College Cambridge. A Pilkington crusader ancestor is believed to have died on his way to Jerusalem, and is presumed buried in the Olt Valley in what is now Romania. Elisabeth's maternal grandfather established the internationally known Bristol and London-based art business Frost & Reed, known for the striking seascapes which the firm commissioned annually for printing and successful distribution throughout North America as well as the UK.
At the outbreak of WWII, Elisabeth served her country for two years as a Red Cross nurse in a Manchester army hospital followed by Social Science studies at London School of Economics. The School had been evacuated to Cambridge for the duration of the war, it was at this time 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 was married at the Savoy Chapel in London's West End in 1945. Elisabeth immediately took out Romanian citizenship, fully expecting to accompany her husband back to postwar Romania to campaign in the 1946 general election. But Ion, who had already showed 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 practiced the art of preparing Romanian culinary specialties for a demanding circle of guests and relatives. 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. Elisabeth eventually developed her culinary interests into a multi-faceted business: a successful catering business, "Mary Feast", became a successful cookery school. Elisabeth in due course also edited and wrote a number of successful cookery books.
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 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 principally 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 large numbers 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 the worldwide rallying of free Romanians his principle 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 was to be a testing time. Over the next few years, the couple traveled 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 Raţius 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 Raţius the use of their Washington home, and it was here, over a number of visits, that Ion and Elisabeth built up the extensive network of connections that was to bear fruit in the establishment a number of key institutions:
- the idea for a World Union of Free Romanians, which held its first international convention in Geneva in 1984, was born at this time;
- the Ion Raţiu Chair of Romanian Studies and Library was established here at' Georgetown University in 1989, resulting from 1989-95 endowments by the Raţiu Family Foundation, which Ion and Elisabeth had established in London in 1979;
- the Raţiu Foundation USA, a primarily humanitarian not-for-profit foundation founded in 1996 to support the work of Elisabeth's Romanian Fundatia Raţiu established in 1993, and last but not least;
- the Ion Raţiu 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. It was here that she was invited to take part in the establishment of a second Hospice project and trained as a volunteer home visitor. But in 1990 her life was to be turned upside down yet again. After the fall of Ceausescu, 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 Bucharest front door led to the establishment in 1993 of Fundatia Raţiu Romania, with the initial goal of providing treatment, in Romania, for children and young people suffering from leukemia. So successful was the Foundation's leukemia program that after only seven years, by 2000, the Romanian government had installed three bone marrow transplant units and taken on full responsibility for the care of childhood leukemia cases in the country.
Elisabeth retired from her board supervisory role in Fundatia Raţiu in 2006, handing over to her sons Nicolae (President) and lndrei (board member). Since the death of her husband Ion in 2000, she has once again made London her home, where she continues to maintain a lively interest in the activities of the Raţiu Family Foundation, the Raţiu Democracy Center, Fundatia Raţiu, 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: Bucharest Business Week, the President of Romania and the US State Department, for work with the Disabled.