History is everything: Remembering Keith Sprunger, 1935-2022

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Keith Sprunger in Sicily, 2017, final trip to Europe (Mary Sprunger)

A partial timeline of Keith Sprunger’s life, teaching and scholarship

March 16, 1935 – Keith LaVerne Sprunger born in Berne, Ind.

1957 – B.A., History, Wheaton (Ill.) College

1958 – M.A., History, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

1959 – Marries Aldine M. Slagell in Berne

1960-63 – Ph.D., History, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; 1963, moves to North Newton to begin teaching at Bethel College

1967 – First trip to Europe

1972 – Publishes first book, The Learned Dr. William Ames

1972 – Wins E. Harbison Award for Gifted Teaching from the Danforth Foundation

1973 – Sprunger family wins 2nd prize (a copy of the Martyrs Mirror) from Christian Living magazine for the collective essay “Bernhard Warkentin: Our Study of Mennonite History”

1973-93 – With Aldine, leads seven tours to the (former) Soviet Union

1982 – Publishes Dutch Puritanism: A History of English and Scottish Churches of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th Centuries

1982-95 – With Aldine, leads three tours to western Europe

1984-90 – Diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, requiring various surgeries and chemotherapies

1985 – Wins Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award from Bethel College

1991 – Wins David H. Richert Distinguished Scholar Award from Bethel College

1993 – Publishes Trumpets from the Tower: English Puritan Printing in the Netherlands, 1600-1640

1997 – Publishes Campus, Congregation and Community: The Bethel College Mennonite Church, 1897-1997

2001 – Retires from teaching

2002-04 – Comes out of retirement to teach part-time for Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary-Great Plains

2005 – With Aldine, completes first exploration of every street in Newton and North Newton

Keith and Aldine Sprunger

Keith and Aldine Sprunger (photo courtesy Mennonite Library & Archives)

2012 – Publishes Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012

2012 – Wins Julius A. and Agatha Dyck Franz Community Service Award from Bethel College

2012 – Delivers Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel on 125 years of Bethel history

2017 – Final trip to Europe (Amsterdam and Sicily)

April 24, 2022 – Keith L. Sprunger dies in Wichita.

From the index for Mennonite Life – “Sprunger, Keith L.”

Oct. 1965 – Book review: The Reformation: A Narrative History Related to Contemporary Observers and Participants, by Hans J. Hillebrand

April 1968 – “Learning the wrong lessons” (for an issue on the Vietnam War)

Oct. 1969 – Book review: English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton, by Everett H. Emerson

Dec. 1971 – Book review: William Brewster of the Mayflower: Portrait of a Pilgrim, by Dorothy Brewster

July 1970 – “Puritans of the Netherlands”

March 1973 – Book review: The Minority Press and the English Crown: A Study in Repression, 1558-1625, by Leona Rostenberg

March 1973 – “Voices against war: A Mennonite oral history of World War I”

June 1973 – Book review: The Puritan Lectureships: The Politics of Religious Dissent, 1560-1662, by Paul S. Seaver

Dec. 1974 – Book review: The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558, by Irvin B. Horst

June 1975 – Book review: The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers, by B.R. White; Puritanism in Tudor England, H.C. Porter, editor; The Pilgrim Way, by Robert Merrill Bartlett

Sept. 1979 – “The most monumental Mennonite” (the story of the Mennonite Settler Statue erected in Newton’s Athletic Park in 1942)

Sept. 1981 – Book review: Smith’s Story of the Mennonites, by C. Henry Smith (5th edition, revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn)

Dec. 1981 – “C.H. Wedel’s synopsis of The History of the Mennonites” (with Hilda Voth)

Dec. 1981 – “Cornelius H. Wedel and Oswald H. Wedel: Two generations of Mennonite historians”

March 1984 – “C.C. Regier: Progressive Mennonite historian”

Dec. 1985 – “Mesopotamian connection: The Bethel cuneiform tablets and their journey to Kansas”

Dec. 1986 – Book review: Mennonites and Reformed in Dialogue: A Study Booklet Prepared by the Mennonite World Conference and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Hans Georg vom Berg, Henk Kossen, et al., editors

Dec. 1986 – Book review: 1984 facsimile reprint of the Martyrs Mirror

Sept. 1990 – “John Foxe’s vision of printing and progress”

March 1995 – “C. Henry Smith’s vision of Mennonite history”

Sept. 1996 – Book review: From Martyr to Muppy: A Historical Introduction to Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, Alastair Hamilton, Sjouke Voolstra and Piet Visser, editors

March 2002 – “Postcards from Bethel” (with David Sprunger)

2013 – “Another look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College and the origins of Arsenic and Old Lace

2020 – Book review: On the Banks of Jacobs Creek: A History of the Scottdale Mennonite Churches, by Daniel Hertzler

2022 – Keith had agreed to review Hardship, Resistance, Collaboration: Essays on Dutch Mennonites During World War II and Its Aftermath (Hoekema & Hoekema).

At the time of retirement from teaching, 2001

On loving history

I love history and that makes me enthusiastic about being an historian. I came to history because I loved “the story.” History is the story about people, places and things. There was no one moment, that I recall, where I was converted to history, but as long as I can remember, it was what I most enjoyed hearing and reading about. I followed my heart.

On becoming a college professor

Because I wanted to be more intensive in my subject field of history, I chose to go on for a Ph.D. and into college teaching. I have always appreciated the sense of being a part of a community of scholars – all learners together. It always seemed like the right thing to do and the right place to be.

On changes from the start to the end of teaching college

[One] technological change of no small importance was the Boeing 747, which opened up all sorts of travel opportunities for the average person. Travel at affordable cost became possible to us and that has changed teaching a great deal. Now I can teach on the basis of “having been there.” In the classroom, because of these travels, I use slides from all over – plus, ancient Roman coins, posters collected on the spot, a chunk of the Berlin Wall, and 17th-century books.

On his philosophy of teaching

I am not very theoretical or consciously philosophical when it comes to teaching. I try to tell “the story” and have as much fun and pleasure from doing it as possible – and I hope that students pick up on it. I also root history in culture – for example, the philosophical ideas and the visual look of art and architecture. “History is everything,” I say.

On teaching at a small, Mennonite, liberal arts college

When I came out of graduate school in 1963, it was a wide-open time for new Ph.D.s. I chose Bethel because I believed strongly in the mission of Christian higher education and I still believe in it just as strongly now.

My graduate school professors were not very enthusiastic about that direction and thought it was the road to oblivion. Teaching at a Christian college is not “Siberia.” There have been lots of opportunities for scholarly work and writing here.

It was a good decision to come to Bethel. The advantages have been finding a mission and a work I believe in – it has been more than just a job. And I have always appreciated the students and faculty, especially working with Jim Juhnke, my fellow historian.

– excerpted from “A Conversation with My Father” by Mary Sprunger, Bethel College Bulletin, Summer 2001

A tribute to Keith Sprunger (on his retirement)

It is, perhaps, inappropriate to arrange a tribute to such an A+ professor around three Cs, but this is where the muse has led me. For when I think of Keith Sprunger, I am reminded of three encounters that characterize Keith as professor and person. And all three of those characteristics begin with the letter C.

Competence: Competence is much too ordinary a term to characterize what I am trying to imply, but it does begin with C. And I am speaking here not of ordinary, run-of-the-mill competence; I am speaking of competence of the highest order. Allow me to make my case with my first example. …

As I recall, the story went like this. John Waltner, while teaching at Bethel, found himself at some history conference seated next to the chair of the history department of Keith’s graduate alma mater, the University of Illinois. He asked this man if he recalled a student named Keith Sprunger. The department chair responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and disgust. “Certainly I remember Keith Sprunger,” he said. “When he left Illinois, we thought he was one of the most outstanding Ph.D.s we had ever produced. But he proved a bit of a disappointment. The last thing I heard, he was still teaching at some no-name denominational college somewhere out on the Plains.”

To which I can only respond: “The college does have a name, sir. It is Bethel College. And if Keith Sprunger’s presence there was a disappointment for you, I would have to say it is all a matter of perspective. To us, that presence was an incomparable gift.” And if one had any question about the uniqueness of that gift, one could always earn two masters degrees and see if any single professor compared to Keith Sprunger as a classroom teacher. At least in my case, the answer would be a resounding “No.” …

Consistency: I will never forget the unqualified intellectual feast that was History of Civilization those first two quarters at Bethel in the fall and winter of 1965-66. I came to Bethel convinced that I would major in history, get a Ph.D. and teach at the college level. The only question was in which historical period to specialize.

As that first course with Keith began, we focused on the ancient Near East and moved quickly to classical Greece and Rome. And I thought, “Yes, this is it. I will focus on the classical world when I get my Ph.D.!” Then we moved to the one period I dreaded, the Middle Ages. (Oh, let’s be candid – I assumed they were the Dark Ages!) And to my utter amazement, I found myself at least entertaining the possibility that I would specialize in the medieval period. By now you get the picture. The same thing happened when we focused on the Renaissance and Reformation, on early modern Europe, etc., etc.

… [P]art of Keith Sprunger’s genius as a professor of history was his uncanny ability to make every period of history, every course, come alive. You would have thought every period of history was the period in which he had chosen to specialize.

Such consistency of expertise and enthusiasm was an enormous gift to his students.

Caring and compassion: Keith Sprunger’s ability to remember his former students is legendary, the envy of most of his faculty colleagues. That ability bespeaks, in and of itself, a commitment to see – and remember – each student as a unique individual. That is a precious gift. But there is more. And this story is also secondhand, but a very close secondhand.

… [W]ithin the first few days of [her] second quarter [at Bethel], [Margo, now my wife] was desperately ill. After some time in Bethel Deaconess Hospital, she went home to Mountain Lake, Minn., to recuperate. Except for some students and her employer at Bethel, she was pretty much out of sight and out of mind in North Newton.

But there was one exception. … Margo was enrolled in History of Civ that fall quarter of 1966. She had no intention of majoring in history but in those days, it was a required course (those were the good old days). And it was while recuperating at home in Mountain Lake that she received a letter from Keith Sprunger, expressing his sorrow at her illness, wishing her a speedy recovery and looking forward to seeing her back at Bethel.

Of all the gifts Keith Sprunger brought us at Bethel College, this last one, I suspect, may be the greatest gift of all.

Thank you, Keith, for your incomparable contribution to this place called Bethel College. In your scholarship, in your teaching and in your caring, you have represented Bethel at its absolute best.

Dale Schrag, North Newton (B.A., History, 1969), May 2001; retired – director of church relations, campus pastor, Bethel College

The best teacher ever 

Keith Sprunger was the best teacher I ever had. Period. Countless other Bethel students would also claim that statement.

I had no plans to be a history major. But there I was in Keith’s office, after only one History of Civilization semester, asking to become one. “And what do you plan to do with a history major?” he inquired. Keith was always concerned about his students’ future plans.

It is true that Keith struck fear into some students. He certainly got my attention with the grade he gave me on my first History of Civ test. He expected nothing less than excellence or your best try at it.

Keith taught his students how to study. He urged us to think beyond dates although I’m sure 1066 is emblazoned on all our brains. He taught students how to think, how to make decisions, how to look for meaning in what we were reading.

Keith taught many of us how to write. A returned paper commented on our thoughts but it was also marked for grammar and punctuation and suggestions for a better way to express ourselves.

Keith was the first professor to show me that learning is exciting. To watch him at work made me realize that learning could be a lifetime experience. For him, it certainly was.

Keith’s enthusiasm in class was contagious. He taught that history matters. History is about issues. The past impacts the present and the future. Keith’s extensive slide collection allowed him to integrate art, music and architecture into all his lectures. He ensured that his students were well-rounded. He gave us a desire to see the world.

The World War I oral history project Keith developed with Jim Juhnke allowed students to participate in research, to better prepare for graduate study. We learned communication and organizational skills. We learned the importance of firsthand sources.

Keith’s relationships with students didn’t stop in the classroom He held the Clio (history club) meetings in his living room. There Keith, encircled by young history majors tossing around ideas, never once made us feel naïve or less than intelligent. (Although it’s probably good that none of us heard his conversations with Aldine after we left.)

What immense trust Keith placed in all his students throughout the years! The summer of my junior year, the two of us sat in the basement of the Mennonite Library and Archives, where  he turned me loose on typing (yes, typing, no computers then) his handwritten manuscript of The Learned Dr. William Ames and creating the index for that book. “How’s it coming?” he’d ask me every so often. “Well,” I suggested, “your handwriting could be clearer.”

Keith was on sabbatical my senior year. I recently got a chuckle from him when I said that I still had not forgiven him for that. While he was in Amsterdam, I received regular postcards inquiring how things were going, urging me to do well. I still have those postcards. I have no doubt that over the years, other students received similar notes from Keith, letting them know that he was watching their progress from afar.

Keith showed immense interest in his students’ careers or graduate school plans. After my junior year, Keith gave me a paper with five graduate schools listed on it. “You will be applying to these schools,” he said. When I returned from my first semester in graduate school, I was met with “How are your grades coming along?” This was normal practice for Keith. He extended his interest and protective concern to every one of his students, keeping up with them far into their lives, asking what they were reading, how they were serving their communities, and where they had traveled. Returning students were always welcome in his home. And yes, former students’ letters to Keith told him how important he was to them, how well they understood all he had done for them.

Keith Sprunger is Bethel College to me. He changed my life and the lives of many other students, especially those of us he enticed into a history major. … His lessons will last for our lifetimes.

Sondra Bandy Koontz, Newton (B.A., History, 1970), May 2022; retired – librarian, Wichita State University; vice president for institutional advancement, Bethel College


In 2001, Bethel published “A Conversation with My Father” by Mary Sprunger in the alumni magazine, in which Keith looked back on the rewards of his teaching and scholarly career. I note that Keith and Mary ended [that] interview with Keith telling her, “My former students often send me postcards from their travels and sometimes stories or anecdotes that they say are Sprungeresque.” Mary asked, “What does that mean?” and Keith responded, “I suppose it means a great story that is entertaining, yet makes a point. Or maybe it is just a quirky, amusing story that reminds us how fun history can be.”

In that spirit, I have always treasured this photo. In October 1981, my Bethel modmates in Warkentin 3A and I dressed up for Halloween as our favorite professors, and then walked around North Newton, trick-or-treating at their homes. I was a fairly recognizable Keith Sprunger, with similar haircut, a Clio button pinned to my sweater, and a brown, well-worn leather briefcase. When we arrived at the Sprungers’ front door, it’s a measure of just how fun he was that he posed for this photo with me. Over the four decades since, as a fellow historian, I have never stopped trying to be Sprungeresque!

Rachel Waltner Goossen dressed as Keith Sprunger, left (courtesy of Rachel Waltner Goossen)

P.S. He influenced so many students and scholars from across three generations and many different backgrounds. My son Ben Goossen, also a historian, remembers how in recent years Keith (who had a desk in the Mennonite Library and Archives through his retirement) always stopped by when Ben was there, poring over German Mennonite archival records. Invariably, Keith asked what he was working on, and then offered a kind word of interest and encouragement.

Rachel Waltner Goossen, Topeka, Kan. (B.A., History, 1982), June 2022; newly retired – professor of history, Washburn University



A passion for history and lifelong learning

Each time I talked to Dr. Sprunger, I came away feeling blessed. He had a way of inspiring, guiding and encouraging me, not only during college but also any time I saw him after I graduated. He always asked about the latest teaching techniques for teaching English and if I made use of my history background while teaching literature – and, of course, when I might become a history teacher. Dr. Sprunger’s passion for history and for lifelong learning was both inspiring and contagious for me as well as virtually every student who took a class from him.

Dr. Sprunger was one of the most influential professors/teachers in my development as a student and as an educator. His engaging lectures were filled with humorous and moving anecdotes along with thoughtful questions that encouraged his students to think. He taught the value of research and how to communicate our findings. I am thankful that he was my adviser and that he encouraged me to teach.

Darrel Knoll, Hillsboro, Kan. (B.A., English, History, 1988), May 2022; teacher – U.S. History II, World History, Government, and head basketball coach, Hillsboro High School

Fearless, compassionate, all-knowing

May his memory be a blessing.

Keith and Aldine Sprunger were fearless. That’s the best word I can use to explain their bravery in taking Bethel students to Europe every two years. In January 1993 (one year and one week after the fall of the Soviet Union), Keith and Aldine introduced me to the world. I arrived in St. Petersburg about an hour after the rest of the group, having flown to Russia solo. No, it wasn’t planned that way (and it is quite the story, best told in person). When I finally arrived at our hotel, Keith gave me the biggest hug. He had been as worried about my safety as my parents.

That trip opened my eyes to the wonders of international travel. We visited St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Zaphorizhia, Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal, and stopped in Amsterdam on the way back to the U.S. to get a Western European perspective on what we had just encountered in the East. I’ve thought about my time in Ukraine repeatedly since the war there began, seeing in my mind’s eye the cities and countryside that my ancestors once called home. The best meal of that entire trip was in a restaurant in the Ukrainian countryside where we enjoyed borscht, verenike, fresh bread and other local dishes. Keith gave me that unparalleled experience.

When we got to Amsterdam, Keith and Aldine took us all to the red-light district on the first night. They knew some of us were going to go there anyway, so they took us themselves. Like I said – fearless.

Back in the States, Keith was my primary history professor. We used to call him “God” behind his back because he seemed to know EVERYTHING there was to know about European history. He started every class with “Good morning, my fellow historians!” – a practice I have modified for my own students in my own classroom. …

Keith and Aldine, along with Jim and Anna Juhnke, sponsored Clio, the Bethel history club (named, of course, after the Greek muse of history). We’d gather at their houses for meals and picnics, and took occasional club outings. The outing that remains etched in my memory was going to see Schindler’s List in a Wichita theater. When the film ended, I looked down the aisle and saw Keith sitting in stunned silence, wiping a tear from his eye. His compassion and his humanity were on full display.

I became a history major because of Keith Sprunger’s History of Civ II course. It is a decision I’ve never regretted, not even once. After learning of his passing, I found myself looking around my own classroom for evidence of his presence. I found it in a poster on my wall, purchased on that 1993 trip to Russia. I found it in my History of Civ I and II textbooks on my bookshelves. I found it in my framed certificate from the James Madison Foundation. It was Keith who first introduced me to that fellowship and wrote one of my letters of recommendation. And it can be heard in my classroom at the start of every class period as I greet my students with “Good morning/afternoon, my scholars!”

Keith, your memory and presence has been an incredible blessing. Thank you for all you gave to your students and the Bethel community. Your memory lives on through all of us.

Valerie A. Schrag, Lawrence, Kan. (B.A., History, 1995), May 2022; teacher – AP U.S. History, HIST 128/129, African-American History, Lawrence High School