As the float plane’s pilot passed over Dureno in northern Ecuador, Bub Borman cast his first view on a village of Cofán Indians in 1955. After they landed, he had an amiable conversation with the village chief, Guillermo.
For Bub and his wife, Bobbie, the next several decades produced a profound understanding of the language and culture of the Cofáns. They gained insights into people’s lives, their families and aspirations, their hopes and sorrows. After learning the language, the Bormans established an alphabet of its sounds, then added literacy training to the Cofáns. With help from tribe members trained as translators, Bub assembled the Cofán New Testament as well as the abridged Old Testament.
A Childhood of Sibling Companionship in Illinois
He applied himself to these task with the same devotion and diligence that he had manifested since his childhood in St. Charles, Ill. Born to Elmer and Lavina Borman on May 2, 1926, he was called Marlytte. Family lore cites his paternal grandfather as observing, “Poor little guy, who gets such an awful name.” Called “Bub” in childhood, he made it his legal middle name later in life.
Accompanying his father to job sites, Borman learned house construction. He developed practical outdoor skills and had a knack for fishing and shooting. Taking his kit-made kayak out for a test run, he found himself lonely for the companionship of his sister, Lynn. Later she bought his kayak, and he assembled another. The two siblings enjoyed being outdoors together, whether fishing, exploring or kayaking.
In his teens, Borman found forgiveness of sin and direction for his life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. He joined Chapelstreet Church (formerly called First Baptist of Geneva) in Geneva, Ill. During these years, he also developed a passion for airplanes and aeronautics. He built models of warplanes for use in military identification classes.
Borman graduated in 1944 at the top of his high school class. After joining the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), he trained in radio operations. Upon his discharge, Borman’s GI Bill benefits funded his education at Columbia International University (formerly Columbia Bible College) in Columbia, S.C. He also continued to take flying lessons.
Assigned to Mission Work in Peru
While in college, he struggled through classes in Greek, even as he found Spanish a challenge during high school (where he attained straight A’s nonetheless.) Guiding Borman and giving him success was his belief that upon undertaking an endeavor, he would determine to do his best and carry through on the commitment.
Following Bible school, he sensed God’s prompting to serve in overseas missions. The newly formed Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) of Wycliffe Bible Translators attracted Borman, whose skills included airplane flight and mechanics, radio operations and Bible. He accepted a JAARS assignment in Peru. He lacked flight hours possessed by other pilots, but enthusiastically embraced such flight-related jobs as co-pilot, radio operator and plane mechanic.
Along with his passion for flight, however, Borman warmed to the idea of a different vocation. Not his first love nor his greatest strength, Bible translation stood before him. He determined that if he were to fall in love with a woman called to such a work, he would surrender his dream of flight and become a Bible translator.
Returning to the U.S. in 1953, he met just such a woman, Bobbie Agnew, who had assisted with translation work in Mexico. Within a short time, they married. In 1954 the Bormans arrived in Ecuador as Wycliffe missionaries. They worked under the auspices of the mission’s sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Their initial assignment was to learn the sounds of spoken Waorani, codify the language, teach literacy to the Waorani and translate the Bible into their language. However, they were asked to take over work already begun among the Cofán and agreed to devote their efforts there.
Meeting the Challenges of Ministry to the Cofáns
In April 1955 the Bormans arrived in the jungle community of Dureno. “Everyone was drinking up the chicha [manioc beer],” he later recounted, “For the entire month, the only time they stopped was to drink the ayahuasca [yajé], a ritualistic hallucinogenic drink, the ‘dream vine.’ It was a depressing time for us.”
However, the Borman home soon became a social hub, with Cofáns visiting every day. Setting to work and assisted by Cofán language helpers, the missionary couple began their linguistic and literacy project endeavors.
Bub never felt adequate for translation, readily citing his earlier difficulties with Spanish and Greek. Additionally, a host of problems challenged him and Bobbie, including Bub’s health setbacks that included malaria and hepatitis A.
In the village, community development needs presented themselves every day. The Bormans’ move to a jungle base at Limoncocha afforded them more concentrated efforts on translation.
“Their two-story house was painted blue and in the basement he had a shop,” remembered a neighbor, Esther (Turner) Leslie, who grew up with the Borman children. “Uncle Bub* was always doing some kind of woodworking project, the most auspicious of which was a beautiful wooden boat. I also remember that they had enough hammocks slung in their living room for each family member to have his own.” Borman “had laugh lines all over his face and he never seemed to stop smiling,” Leslie said. “He was upbeat and happy and enjoyed what he did.”
By the early 1980s, Ecuadorian government antagonism to foreigners—and specifically to Wycliffe staff translating indigenous languages—arose and the government ordered the mission agency to leave Ecuador. However, Ecuador soon reversed its position on Wycliffe; some missionaries returned, including Bub and Bobbie. They began working from the capital city, Quito.
“My wife typed and ran off copies of the first Cofán dictionary,” a colleague, Gene Zacharias, said. “Bub was so appreciative and encouraging. He never criticized if she had trouble spelling a word.” Together, the Bormans devoted 50 years to Cofán translation work in Ecuador. Afterwards, during retirement in Dallas, they made frequent trips to Ecuador to visit the Cofán and their sons’ families. He spent his last years living with the family of a son, Richard or “Rick” in Bailey, Mich.
Borman died on Aug. 28, 2018, at the age of 92. His wife, Bobbie, preceded him in death. Survivors include three sons and a daughter. They are: Randall (Amelia) Borman of Ecuador, Richard (Susan) Borman of Bailey, Michigan, Ronald (Esther) Borman of Ecuador; daughter Sharon (Allen) Larsen of Dallas, Texas; sister Lynn (Earl) Shepard of Las Cruces, N.M.; 20 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews. All four of their children have been or are in mission work. In Ecuador, their oldest son, Randall (Randy), and their youngest, Ronald, (Ron) work among the Cofán, serving them in practical and spiritual ways.
*It was common in the Ecuador missionary community for adults to be referred to as “uncle” or “aunt.”