When Robert S. Kreider died Dec. 27, 2015, at age 96 (his memorial service was Jan. 2, 2016, on what would have been his 97th birthday), he may have been the last living bridge to the Mennonite institution-building era of the 20th century. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone still alive (Albert J. Meyer and John A. Lapp might come to mind, but Robert Kreider was their elder by more than a decade) who was so intimately and intricately involved with the creation and early nurture of many of the Mennonite institutions we now take for granted.
Robert Kreider was born in 1919 to Amos (A.E.) and Stella Shoemaker Kreider at Sterling, Illinois, where the Kreiders were members of Science Ridge Mennonite Church. When Robert was 2, the family moved to Goshen, Indiana. Amos taught at Goshen College – which closed in 1923 for a year because of fundamentalist-modernist struggles within what was then called the “Old” Mennonite Church. During that year, Amos served as pastor of College Mennonite Church in Goshen and commuted to Bluffton, Ohio, to teach at Witmarsum Seminary. The Kreiders moved to Bluffton in 1926. Amos taught at the seminary until it closed in 1931, whereupon he became pastor of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton.
Robert graduated from high school in Bluffton in 1935 at age 16, and moved with his family to North Newton, where his father had accepted a teaching position at Bethel College and Robert enrolled as a freshman. He graduated in 1939 with a degree in history.
The first 20 years of Robert Kreider’s life were, as he himself was quick to note, a collage of experiences within different Mennonite communities and worlds – academic institutions, Swiss German and “Russian” ethnic backgrounds, plain churches to those with stained-glass windows and beautiful organs.
After graduating from Bethel, Robert went to the University of Chicago School of Divinity, earning a master’s degree in social ethics in 1941. With the United States entering the Second World War at the end of that year, Robert was conscripted as a conscientious objector. He spent the next four years in Civilian Public Service, mostly in administration – he was assistant director at CPS Camp #5, Colorado Springs, educational secretary for Mennonite Central Committee-CPS in Akron, Pennsylvania, and director and co-director of the Mental Health Section of MCC-CPS. MCC then had 26 units operating under the auspices of CPS in mental hospitals across the United States – the roots of the Mennonite mental-health institutions that endure to this day.
Robert and Lois Sommer were married in 1945 and spent 1946-49 as relief workers with MCC in Europe. When they returned to the United States, Robert also returned to the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in European history in 1953. In 1952, he took a position in the history department at Bluffton College, where he stayed until 1972, also serving as academic dean, 1954-65, and president, 1965-72.
During those years, Lois Kreider and a colleague began, in Bluffton, the first thrift store connected to an MCC Self-Help Crafts (which became Ten Thousand Villages in the late 1990s) shop. After the Kreiders and their two youngest children moved to North Newton in 1975, Lois helped establish a similar store in Newton – the Etcetera Shop. Eventually, Lois would travel around North America helping start close to 100 thrift stores, which now generate millions annually that is given to the work of MCC.
Also during that time, Robert established MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) in Africa and Latin America while on sabbatical in 1961. From 1959-74, he served on MCC’s Executive Committee.
In 1975, Robert became professor of peace studies at Bethel College where, over the next decade, he finished out his academic career. He was also director of the Mennonite Library and Archives during this period, served as interim academic dean during the 1978-79 school year, and co-edited Mennonite Life with James Juhnke. He became an editor for the Mennonite Experience in America book series starting in 1975, staying in that role until 1998, and he was recording secretary for Mennonite World Conference, 1978-84.
Although Robert may have officially retired in 1985, it marked the beginning of a fruitful “second half” of his life, three decades based in North Newton just steps from the Bethel campus. To start, from May 1985 to August 1986, he was the founding director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR), located at Bethel. In 1986, Faith & Life Press, the publishing arm of the General Conference Mennonite Church, published the Anabaptist/Mennonite Timeline, developed by Robert and his youngest daughter, Ruth Elinor, a graphic designer. The Timeline has served countless Mennonite congregations, Sunday school classes and college students as an important educational tool ever since.
In the late 1980s, Robert and John S. Oyer of Goshen College established the Martyrs’ Mirror Trust in order to acquire the newly discovered 23 existing copper plates from Jan Luyken’s etchings that illustrated the 1685 edition of the Martyrs Mirror (the plates were purchased in 1988). From 1988-90, Robert curated a traveling exhibit, “Mirror of the Martyrs,” that now resides permanently at Bethel’s Kauffman Museum, and he and Oyer wrote Mirror of the Martyrs, published by Good Books in 1990.
Between then and 2012, Robert wrote, co-wrote or compiled three books (Hungry, Thirsty, A Stranger: The MCC Experience and When Good People Quarrel, with Rachel Waltner Goossen, and Christians True in China); a collection of his articles and essays from the 1930s through the 1980s, Looking Back Into the Future (published as a festschrift by Bethel College’s C.H. Wedel Series); and two memoirs, My Early Years and Coming Home.
In 1992, Robert and his younger brother, Gerald, a businessman, established the Marpeck Fund with the aim of fostering cooperation among administrators and faculty at Mennonite colleges and seminaries in North America. In 1995, he was a driving force behind the traveling exhibit “The Gift of Hope,” created at Kauffman Museum for the 75th anniversary of MCC. In November 2007, when Robert was 88, he traveled to Khiva, Uzbekistan, with James Juhnke to finalize a cooperation agreement between Kauffman Museum and the Ichan Kala Museum in Khiva, which has an exhibit about the “Great Trek” Mennonites who lived in nearby Ak Metchet from 1884-1935.
Robert was, and Lois still is, a long-time active member of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton. Lois has volunteered at the Newton Etcetera Shop for 40 years, and continues to weave rugs there. They have been fixtures at campus events – concerts, lectures, plays, exhibit openings and, for four years, grandson Ben Kreider’s home soccer games. Probably the last Bethel event Robert attended before he entered hospice care was the Nov. 21, 2015, opening reception for “Beyond the Martyrs Mirror: The Prints of Jan Luyken,” curated by Rachel Epp Buller and Bethel student Alexandra Shoup and hung in Bethel’s Regier Art Gallery.
The following interviews were conducted in an attempt to flesh out some of Robert Kreider’s contributions during his “Bethel years,” 1975-2015.
Rachel Waltner Goossen is a professor of history at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas. She wrote a tribute to Robert that appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Bethel College alumni magazine Context.
In the 1983-84 academic year, I had an internship at the MLA, when Bob was still interim director. I worked there with him for a year. I was a master’s degree student in history at the University of California-Santa Barbara, so this was part of my schooling. Bob, who was moving into retirement, offered me a position as basically a research assistant on several book ideas that he had developed and wanted to launch into. The most significant was Hungry, Thirsty, A Stranger, case studies about MCC. After that, there were case studies about conflict resolution [When Good People Quarrel], meant to be a book that adult Sunday school classes could use, on solving congregational and community conflicts nonviolently.
From fall 1984 through 1987, I worked for Bob. He essentially took me on as a partner researcher and writer of these books. We made trips together to research at Goshen at the archives, to Akron, Pennsylvania, to the [MCC] archives. We interviewed people together. He became a very significant mentor to me. I was also a close friend to several of his children, especially the younger ones. So I knew the family well.
It was just great for me. I always felt incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I needed work and he provided work. I was very interested in Mennonite history. He was esteemed. I wanted to improve my writing and editing, which I learned from him.
The other thing he did was open up his set of Mennonite historical contexts, his world. John A. Lapp and other historians who were good friends of Bob were people I became acquainted with. It was amazing. It was like having another graduate degree in the worldview of Robert Kreider. … I could see how much he loved the church, these institutions, Bethel College, other Mennonite higher education institutions, the peoplehood. He was a social historian, which was my orientation [to that genre].
We did these two book projects, but he was constantly writing things: book reviews, op-ed pieces for the Wichita Eagle, articles for Mennonite Quarterly Review and Mennonite Life. I was always asked to read and converse with him on those [and] I was also taking on some other writing projects, a couple of congregational histories. We were two writers who worked together almost every day for those three or four years.
When I entered a Ph.D. program at [the University of Kansas], I left Bob’s employment. But a little bit later, he hired me back to sort through his personal collection of materials. [Bob and Lois’s son] Dave and Heidi and their boys were moving to North Newton, and Bob needed to downsize. [The two households shared one house, with a “grandparents’ addition” built on one side.] This was family correspondence, all the articles he’d ever written, his collection of magazines (Time, Life, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, the University of Chicago alumni magazine). We ended up sitting around his dining room table with his piles of material. He wanted to downsize and also to give his collection to the MLA.
That gave me insight into his broader extended family. He had many letters from his mother and aunts. He had heritage in Illinois but also Pennsylvania. There was a lot of deeper family history that he relived during that time. It was also a lot of fun. He then gave me all kinds of stuff. … I took from his storage barn eight big boxes of Life, Look, Newsweek, newspapers from particular events from when big things had happened such as the death of JFK, the anniversaries from the dropping of the atomic bombs [on Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. I was preparing for a career as an American historian. To this day, I still use that stuff regularly. He was so happy to let me take what I wanted.
He seemed to enjoy working with a younger person. He was the mentor, I was the mentee. He suggested we have our names as co-authors [on the two books], even though he had had the vision for the books, and he had structured them. He wanted to give me a leg up as a young historian.
One coda [about mentoring]: my son Ben, now 25, is beginning a career as a historian, especially of European/German Mennonite history. So for the past five years, Ben regularly visited with Bob. Bob [was] in his 90s all this time. It [was] very significant to Ben, and not insignificant to Bob. Bob always delighted in people who loved to learn, and would do anything for a young scholar.
Bob’s style was always to ask a lot of questions, and his questions [were] always better than anyone else’s. No one else’s [had] the range, the insatiable curiosity. [He was an example of] how to be interested in other people [and] what makes [them] tick.
He often instigated communication. If you wrote to him, he wrote back. I think he got this from his mother and aunts. He often told me it was the women in the family who were the keepers of the network, although he himself enjoyed having a huge network of friends inside and outside the Mennonite church. He was an amazing correspondent. He wasn’t always [just] reacting to people writing to him, but taking initiative to keep in touch, to communicate.
Bob was a person of great breadth. He was involved with the culture and history of several Mennonite colleges, with Bluffton and Bethel the dearest to his heart. He was very devoted to Mennonite higher education, starting the Marpeck Fund with Gerald. He was very interested in the long-term health and sustainability of Mennonite colleges, and pleased that his children and some grandchildren attended them. He wanted collaboration, communication and connections across the divides. Even though he had his loyalties, no question, he believed education was vital to the ongoing sustainability of the church community. He loved being so close to campus, being able to walk to events and to [grandson] Ben’s home soccer games. He was a historian and administrator by profession but was very interdisciplinary – [interested in] sports, music, theater, the arts. He had close friends in virtually any discipline a college has. He loved, his whole life, being involved with Mennonite college communities.
He loved to talk about things and be close to people who could stimulate conversations on all kinds of things that interested him. Bob loved the Flint Hills. He once asked [a local Mennonite doctor]: “How do the Flint Hills affect your worldview?” That’s not your run-of-the-mill question. That was one of his [characteristics], to engage people beyond the obvious.
He was a churchman, first and foremost. He was devoted to congregational life, to connecting with people who were writing sermons. He often spoke in churches. He often gave sermons. Outside of his academic interest in knowledge, academia, making higher education work, foundationally, he wanted people in the churches to continue be involved with the institutions as part of developing their own faith journeys. He was on a faith journey his whole life, solidly grounded in the peoplehood of Christian churches.
I saw Bob always as a churchman, a promoter of Mennonite institutions. Those were solidly linked in his very fiber. He was ecumenical, [very interested in] engaging with people outside Mennonite institutions. He liked people who seemed more open-minded and humble, and he found them across the whole spectrum of the Mennonite world, from Old Order Amish and Mennonites to the progressives and liberals.
One of the most significant things that happened in his retirement years was the “Mirror of the Martyrs” exhibit. At one point, in the early ’90s, the Smithsonian Institution was planning to [host] “Mirror of the Martyrs.” Bob was intimately involved in this, but it was canceled. I never saw him as disappointed as when that happened, but he later became friends with the woman at the Smithsonian who had had to make that hard decision.
He was so broadly gifted. Up until relatively recently, he was still being tapped as a commencement speaker. He used language beautifully – it mattered so much to him. He loved poetry. He read it and drew from it. He loved metaphor. He had so much to draw from. He could speak across generations and backgrounds. He was never an elitist. There’s no question he had a lot of privileges –resources and privileges many others didn’t have – but he was able to reach across the divides between himself and others. One thing that was significant to me: I viewed him as a feminist. He was at least one if not two generations older than me, but when we wrote things, he was very sensitive in how we used language, in getting to the stories of women and girls that might be overlooked. He wanted the stories of people who’d been marginalized. For me as a young historian, he was a great person to learn from. He hadn’t trained as a feminist historian, but he was one, developed over the course of a lifetime.
He had significant heart issues already in the 1980s, so he was living with the notion of mortality from then on. Technology, such as heart surgery and a pacemaker, helped him live decades longer than he might have. We all benefited from that.
Rachel Pannabecker worked at Kauffman Museum for 30 years, retiring in 2015 after 18 years as museum director.
Robert was involved with two major exhibit projects, “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “The Gift of Hope,” for the 75th anniversary of MCC.
“Mirror of the Martyrs” as an exhibit concept really originated with Robert. The formation of the Martyrs Mirror Trust, to buy the known existing 23 copper plates, and writing the book The Mirror of the Martyrs was joint Robert Kreider and John Oyer. It was Robert’s idea that there should also be a traveling exhibit that would challenge audiences across the U.S. and Canada to reflect on beliefs and one’s willingness to die for one’s beliefs. John Janzen was Kauffman Museum director during that time. Robert, Bob Regier and Chuck Regier took the idea, fleshed it out and gave it a structure, with the “plaza” and burned stake at the center.
For “The Gift of Hope,” Katherine Gaeddert was museum director, I was tracking down artifacts and images and Robert was guest curator. It was Robert’s idea, again – [as with “Mirror of the Martyrs”] a traveling exhibit as well. He selected artifacts and photos and used his connections to find the artifacts. He was visionary but also [good with] the details.
He was a go-to guru for Chuck [Kauffman Museum curator of exhibits], an inspiration more than a presence to help him think about big ideas and compelling stories. Robert was president at Bluffton when I was a student there. I didn’t take any of his classes, but I was aware that he was the one who could and would develop distinctive programs, such as TAP in Africa, a dedicated January interterm at Bluffton with unique, stand-alone, interdisciplinary classes, before Bethel did it, and traveling museum exhibits. That was a new thing for an institution of our size. It’s something that Chuck embraced, and designs for, a unique, modular design with the flexibility to fit a variety of host spaces.
Robert served on the Kauffman Museum board of directors, [including doing] long-range planning, a process with several iterations. I was acting director when Robert developed something like a vision statement for the museum. It was a visionary statement about the place of Kauffman Museum in Kansas and within the Mennonite community. I’ve always appreciated that particular statement – all of it done in pre-digital days. It talks about what the museum brings, why it’s unique – things Robert could articulate clearly and memorably.
I’ve been “spoiled,” having someone like Robert who could envision an exhibit project, identify the artifacts, photos and people who need to be involved, and then encourage it to happen. Not just everyone can do that. We talk about “tacit knowledge,” all those little things and the many parts you need to know to have something work, knowing and having links to the people who can keep the project together and working properly. These exhibits wouldn’t have been nearly as rich without that.
Dale Schrag worked at Bethel College for 30 years, 1984-2014, serving variously (sometimes simultaneously) as director of libraries, director of marketing and church relations, director of church relations (only), and campus pastor. He was also staff person for the Higher Education Council of the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Bob Kreider and his brother Gerald started the Marpeck Fund about 1992.
When Bob started dreaming about the Marpeck Fund, he knew immediately he wanted to provide academic support for deans, not presidents, because presidents can always get money. Second, he had a passion from the get-go for inter-Mennonite college connections and communication. He was always insistent that there was much less of that now than there had been in his era – when he was a student and then as faculty, at least early on. There was a fair amount of professor exchange in the first half of the 20th century – his own father taught at Bethel, Bluffton and Goshen – institutions hiring each other’s graduates as faculty. The fund was originally designed to support Bethel, Bluffton and Mennonite Biblical Seminary, at that time the General Conference/American side [of Mennonite seminary education]. Canadian Mennonite Bible College [now absorbed into Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg] and Conrad Grebel College [Waterloo, Ontario] were associates.
It was a fund to encourage collaboration and cooperation among these three schools. If the deans wanted to include the other two occasionally, Bob was OK with that. There was an outline of the kinds of things Bob and Gerald were particularly interested in – anything to do with peace, conflict resolution, short-term faculty exchanges (for example, a professor comes to give a few lectures on her/his specialty), getting students onto other Mennonite college campuses.
When there was enough money, the fund got turned over to the deans. Everence manages the fund and the deans control the disbursement. … One of the first thing the deans did was let the Canadians in as full members. … Then in 2002, the denominational merger happened, and the former GC deans voted unanimously to bring in the former MC deans, so now it’s two Canadian institutions, two seminaries [Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Eastern Mennonite Seminary] and five colleges [Bethel, Bluffton, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College, Hesston College]. …
What the Marpeck Fund has done: underwritten every Mennonite/s Writing conference ever held; underwritten two, maybe three, Sounds in the Land conferences at Conrad Grebel; supported lecture/professor exchanges (for example, in 2007 when Lamar Nisly, a Bluffton professor and a Flannery O’Connor scholar, came to Bethel to give lectures for Basic Issues of Faith and Life); underwritten conferences on conflict resolution where KIPCOR took the lead; supported the Mennonite archivist meeting.
The academic deans get together once a year and Marpeck pays all the expenses. Bob was never happy with that but I fought for it. The neat thing about the academic deans, and I’ll proclaim this to the housetops – it’s the most honest, candid gathering, a warts-and-all discussion of what’s going on on their campuses, of any of the administrative gatherings. In my experience, the deans have been incredibly honest. They meet at the CIC [Council of Independent Colleges] annual meeting.
The problem with the Marpeck Fund is that it’s Mennonite higher education’s biggest secret. If you stop the average Mennonite college faculty member and ask if they’ve ever applied for a grant from the Marpeck Fund, they’ll look at you like you’re from another planet. And it’s not because the deans haven’t told their faculty about it.
Second, you can’t get more than lukewarm enthusiasm from the development offices about raising money for it. Bob’s vision was: You have all of these families where one spouse graduated from one Mennonite college and one from another, where one kid goes to one and another to another. There are divided loyalties all over the place. So what’s wrong with “Let’s give to the Marpeck Fund because then we’re giving to all of them in one gift”?
The other thing the fund does, some would say the most significant, is the faculty conference every other year [rotating among the campuses]. This started as a way to orient new faculty to the peculiar and distinctive thing that is teaching at a Mennonite college. The first one was at Hesston, sort of jointly sponsored by Hesston and Bethel. We really worked – I did a big presentation on MCs and GCs. The three new non-Mennonite faculty members from Goshen thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to turn them into Mennonites. That’s not the intention. We said [the schools] should send some new and some seasoned faculty – they can send up to five. The conference at Bluffton maybe had the greatest impact. The new young faculty members were so impressed, asking why we’re so reluctant to talk about our faith commitments? The faculty conferences have quickly switched from trying to orient new faculty to being a place for open conversation. [Bethel had its turn to host May 25-27, 2016.]
Anyone who was on the Integration Education Committee [when the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church were in the long process of merging into one denomination] and had any role in the formation of the [Mennonite Education Agency] would have simply assumed that it goes without saying that the MEA is going to knock itself out to put together these kinds of events on a regular basis. They are such a wonderful way to reinforce the connections, collaboration and cooperation among the Mennonite colleges. Today, the only reason the MEA has any role in Mennonite college faculty conferences is because the Marpeck Fund says here’s $5,000 to make this happen. If MC USA took all the money they were pouring into the MEA and put it instead into the Marpeck Fund, it would be up to $5 or $6 million and they could hire one [staff] person and [an administrative assistant] to monitor cooperative activities and dispense money. I think it would have three times the impact on strengthening the Mennonite colleges and their relationship to Mennonite Church USA.
I think the Marpeck Fund was an absolute stroke of genius.
What were Bob’s other contributions to higher education? He taught at both Bethel and Bluffton. He was academic dean at both places (although only interim at Bethel) and he was president at Bluffton.
His career on the face of it is one of substance. If you talk to Bluffton graduates – for example, Shirley Sprunger King still talks about the Western Civilization course she took with Bob Kreider. (One thing he did was to hand out pennies and say, “What can you tell me about the civilization that produced this penny?”) He came up with the model [that eventually took shape at Goshen College as Study-Service Trimester/Study-Service Term, or SST]. In setting up the Teachers Abroad Program, he made a tangential contribution to Mennonite higher education in the form of people who went into TAP and then came back and taught at Mennonite colleges, such as Fremont Regier.
When I was working at WSU [sometime between 1975-84] and Harold Schultz was president, Bethel put on two big-deal symposia on Christian education. They asked Bob to give a summary at the end, and he used baseball as a metaphor to talk about this. I was sitting behind two women, and one turned to the other and said, “Who is this guy? I love him!” I think that was a common sentiment.