Not many historians have the opportunity to mentor four generations of students and colleagues.
My dear friend Robert Kreider ’39, whose influence as church leader and Mennonite intellectual spanned the globe, did it with irrepressible curiosity, grace and a twinkle in his eye.
Robert became a mentor and friend to me in the mid-1980s, just as his storied career as an architect of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) development and refugee resettlement programs, president of Bluffton (Ohio) College and peace studies professor at Bethel was giving way to what would become a prodigious, decades-long retirement. My professional identity as a historian was barely underway in 1983, when I returned to Bethel to complete an internship at the Mennonite Library and Archives as part my history graduate program at the University of California. That year, he was both directing the MLA and laying plans for a very active retirement from Bethel.
Over the next four years, I assisted him with a variety of Mennonite history ventures. Several of his books-in-progress, including a work commissioned by MCC, Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger (1988), provided opportunities for scholarly collaboration. On research trips, he introduced me to his wide circle of friends and contemporaries. In Akron, Pennsylvania, he helped me understand intricacies of MCC’s history by sifting through files and conducting interviews with MCC workers with global perspectives. During our writing/editing sessions afterward, he taught me more than anyone else about the historian’s craft and artistry.
“I think of the campus Green, last October at Fall Fest; an hour walking around the circle, crowds of people, everywhere old friends, stopping to chat, some conversations about deeply personal matters, others about the little and the great issues of life. A sense of peoplehood, of belonging. … I think of convocations, Krehbiel Auditorium full of students, hearing addresses of urgent public concern, but best of all: the question period, with students raising their hands to ask thoughtful questions. Liberal arts at its best—a listening, probing, seeking community of learners. Sacred space.”
A few years later, I enjoyed Bob and his wife Lois’s hospitality while we organized personal and family files in preparation for his future writing projects, including memoirs My Early Years (2002) and Coming Home (2012). Downsizing—what he wryly called “clearing the desk”—was a formidable task, given his lifelong habit of accumulating books, papers, photographs, artworks, poetry and cartoons on subjects that interested him.
He was a gifted writer. Unlike many scholars, he often wrote for popular audiences through the church press, community newspapers and congregational and college campus gatherings. He had an accessible writing and speaking style. Although one might expect irony from social critics, he preferred a more direct approach, offering alternative perspectives so that readers might consider new angles. For example, his essay “A Hymn of Appreciation for Kansas” begins with a mildly sardonic quote: “Oh, if it weren’t for those monotonous hours crossing Kansas to get to the mountains of Colorado.” His quick rejoinder: “The plains of Kansas—monotonous to some, but a land of delight to those with eyes to see . . . driving west on Highway 96 in late June is not a monotonous test of endurance across a flat surface of boredom. It is a journey of infinite delights for those with . . . the sense to receive.”
He emphasized the importance of brainstorming, of testing ideas with others. His careful choice of words influenced generations of students’ use of language; decades back, he had begun employing in his own writings the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description,” illustrated here in a 2008 address about Bethel College that Bob titled “Sense of Place”:
He also was quick to say that he “felt the tug of the world beyond the campus.” Among the themes that illustrate his influence as mentor, historian, churchman:
- Historical integrity in writing—doing inductive research, rather than coming to conclusions deductively
- Being attentive to the “shadow” side of history: disappointments, roads not taken, failures
- Fascination with human relationships and their complexities: he often observed that women in family history are the “keepers of the network”—letter writers, card writers, diarists, recorders
- A preference for pluralism—always looking for streams and patterns; finding a richness in people’s varied stories
- A dislike of certitude and authoritarianism and arrogance
- A love of metaphor and analogy. He’d ask: “Was the content of those letters ‘bread-and-butter,’ or reflective?”
- The notion that “the margins” are important, which he forged during his Civilian Public Service leadership in the early ‘40s. He’d say: “CPS people were in the margins of World War II . . . but in the long stretch of history, isn’t that where we find meaning?”
- Being reflective. In 1985, Bob penned a memorandum titled “A Kind of Credo: My Biases, Preferences, Particularities as They Relate to Mennonite History.” Many of his signature phrases are here, including “the search for motifs, patterns, themes, designs.” He concluded: “I admire those who are committed with passion to causes—missions, peace, justice—[though] often I find their efforts as strident, abrasive and counterproductive. But they are to be preferred to the indifferent . . . .”
- An abiding interest in passing on Christian faith and discipleship to future generations. Here, he used the language of “wonder,” “blessings,” “hope.”
Looking back over his life, he wrote with gratitude about the last four decades in Kansas. “I have been energized,” he said, “by a fresh start, a second chance—Bethel years following the Bluffton years. I cannot escape a feeling that our move west [in 1975] was touched with divine leading and grace.” He added, “I have only a handful of friends my age or older with whom I can be in conversation. Surviving longer than others, I am called to nurture friendship with those who are younger.”
He had a name for this quest: “Finding Kindred Spirits.” Across his expansive, inquisitive journey, he found many kindred spirits, and I am so fortunate to have been one of them.
- Bethel College, B.A. in history
- University of Chicago School of Divinity, M.A. in social ethics
- Civilian Public Service (assistant director, CPS Camp #5, Colorado Springs; educational secretary, MCC-CPS, Akron; director and co-director, Mental Health Section, MCC-CPS)
- Relief work with MCC in Europe
- University of Chicago, Ph.D. in European history
- Bluffton College (professor of history; academic dean 1954-65; president 1965-72)
- Member of MCC Executive Committee
- Established MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program during sabbatical
- Bethel College (professor of peace studies; director, Mennonite Library & Archives; interim academic dean 1978-79)
- Editor, Mennonite Experience in America book series
- Recording secretary, Mennonite World Conference
- Curator, Kauffman Museum traveling exhibit “Mirror of the Martyrs”
- Completed and published Anabaptist/Mennonite Timeline
- Director, Kansas Institute for Peace and Con ict Resolution (KIPCOR)
- Helped acquire Jan Luyken copper plates from the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror
- Wrote and published Mirror of the Martyrs (with John Oyer); Hungry, Thirsty, A Stranger: The MCC Experi- ence and When Good People Quarrel (with Rachel Waltner Goossen); Christians True in China; collection of articles and essays, Looking Back Into the Future, and memoirs My Early Years and Coming Home
- Established the Marpeck Fund with brother, Gerald Kreider ‘42