After 37 years at Bethel, an industrial arts professor turned registrar reflects on what he has learned about community.
I have spoken of this publicly only once, and it's difficult to do so now. But being asked to prepare some comments on community for chapel and Context brought back the events of more than three decades ago.
I believe that a community, as Robert Bellah wrote in Habits of the Heart (1985), has a history and is a real
community of memory when it tells its stories - stories of the joys and sorrows its members experience. This is part of my story of pain and healing I found in this community.
In February 1975, LaDeen and I spent a long weekend at Lochinvar safari camp, a remote national park situated at the edge of the Kafue Flats in Zambia. With just over a year remaining in our second three-year term with Mennonite Central Committee's Teachers Abroad Program, we vividly recalled the painful reentry we had experienced after our initial three-year-term with TAP. Now we had two children under 6 and were determined that this time, our plans for returning would be more carefully considered.
We each shared our thoughts about the question
What would I most like to do when we return, and where would I want to do it? My response was clear:
If I had my choice, I would most like to teach industrial arts at Bethel College with Emerson Wiens '60, my major professor.
I had transferred to Bethel from Ohio State University because Bethel was the only Mennonite college with an industrial arts program. In my two years at Bethel, the place and the people made a profound impact on my life. Since LaDeen was also a Bethel graduate and since she grew up
on campus and had deep family ties to this area, she was fully supportive. Yet we knew this wasn't likely, since we believed that both industrial arts instructors at Bethel at that time were already tenured. So we pondered other alternatives.
A few months later, a letter came from Bethel College, which we initially set aside, thinking it was yet another appeal for money. When we finally opened it two weeks later, we were shocked to read an invitation to teach industrial arts.
One current instructor had not been granted tenure and had abruptly left. The academic dean, Marion Deckert '56, wanted a response by the end of June - just a few days away - about a position beginning in the fall. We could hardly believe this turn of events. We enjoyed Zambia very much and still had places we hoped to visit in the final year of our term. At the same time, this was my dream job, identified during our Lochinvar weekend. We immediately met with our TAP director to talk about the possibility of MCC releasing us one year early. Within two days, I sent a brief telegram to Marion, assuring him I was very interested in beginning negotiations for the teaching position.
We returned to Kansas in mid-August 1975, and I began a teaching assignment as assistant professor of industrial arts at Bethel College - fulfilling the dream we had earlier dismissed as highly unlikely.
In my three-year review with Marion, he made it crystal clear my continuing employment at Bethel was contingent upon earning the terminal degree. That prompted a move to Meza, Ariz., for three years of doctoral work at Arizona State University.
During the last year of my leave from Bethel, LaDeen and I again pondered the question
What do we most want to do at the end of this chapter? This time, the answer was less clear. Other, more lucrative, job opportunities had opened up and our whole family had come to love the desert Southwest.
In the end, we chose Bethel again, because we believed this was our place and felt strongly that these were our people. That decision was painfully tested May 14, 1990, when the industrial arts department was discontinued, ending my dream job.
That fall, our annual faculty-staff retreat closed with vespers on the steps of Memorial Hall. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I felt an increasing isolation, as though the space between me and those around me was widening. The group was receding into the distance, the speakers' voices were getting quieter.
That's when I realized this didn't feel like my place any longer.
That night I made a decision:
It's time to buy a suit. I didn't see myself as a suit kind of person. The last one I had owned was my wedding suit. But the elimination of the industrial arts department forced me to think about my future. Buying a suit symbolized for me the move into a different world where wearing suits was the norm - deciding to leave academia and try on a new identity.
I left immediately after the vesper service, not talking to anyone. As I walked home, the darkness seemed overwhelming. I no longer had a place These were no longer my people. I began looking for other employment.
During the months that followed, Bob Kreider '39 invited me to the Coffee Pot Restaurant for apple dumplings. As always, he asked probing and sensitive questions. We talked a long time about the closing of the industrial arts department. Sometime later, Patty Shelly '76 took me to Chuck's Familia for lunch and asked how I was doing.
These occasions were special because Bob and Patty didn't offer advice or consolation. They didn't minimize the pain or bring platitudes like
This may be the open door to new opportunities. They just listened.
Later that year, Interim Academic Dean Wynn Goering '77 asked me to continue at Bethel as interim registrar, beginning in fall 1991. Wynn's confidence that I could do the job reassured me that I was valued and had a contribution to make.
This signaled a profound change in my role at Bethel and in my professional identity, as I went from full-time teaching in my area of expertise to a new and unfamiliar role in administration. The change represented both a significant loss and a challenging opportunity.
Four years later, at the 1995 annual fall retreat, when I spoke in a presentation on
community about the pain I felt when my department was cut, I could reaffirm:
This is indeed my place, and these are my people.
How did it happen?
My experience of community wasn't at the institutional level. Although we rightly use the phrase
Bethel community, for me that is shorthand for how we feel about the relationship between the individual and the institution. Throughout the process of eliminating the industrial arts department, Bethel College as an institution treated me fairly and humanely, and for that I'm grateful. But being fair and humane isn't the same as being community. It is simply good business practice.
My experience of community was personal. I learned about community from the interactions I had with people after the announcement of the closing of the department. Those conversations with Bob and Patty were important because they listened to my pain. But it was more than listening. In their presence, I felt safe enough to remove the mask and be myself, to be vulnerable as I expressed my pain, fear and anger.
Those conversations also communicated to me that I was valued as a person. Bob and Patty and others took time in the midst of busy schedules to sit with me and talk. I was being taken seriously as a human being even as my professional identity was being stripped away. In community, the person is valued for being, not only doing. Personhood is as important as professional pedigree.
I have come to see community as an active interchange between people. Community isn't something that just happens, like getting rained on. People must work at being community. Building community is a mutual effort.
Slowly I began to realize I had a responsibility to make community happen for me again. To do that, I had to be willing to let go of the old. But that was frightening because I was moving into the new and unknown.
As I look back, I see two opportunities that helped me rebuild a sense of community. First, the faculty took the risk of electing me faculty chair after the decision had been made to eliminate my department. That action told me the faculty valued my commitment to Bethel, my years of service and my personal skills.
During the year I was faculty chair, people would frequently compliment me on the way I handled meetings. This puzzled me. Either they were relieved that I didn't really screw up or they genuinely thought I did a good job. I wondered if it wasn't more the former. Nevertheless, the encouragement and positive feedback bolstered my spirit in a time of self-doubt.
Being offered the registrar position was the second opportunity. Erich Fromm wrote in The Sane Society that socialization is the process of
learning to like to do what we have to do. My role in the institution had to change and I had to be willing to change with it, uncomfortable as that was. I was given a chance to continue to make a meaningful contribution in the life of the community and I can honestly say the new role, identity and profession have been good for me.
I am grateful for these opportunities to reclaim community, for the small gestures of empathy, for the safety to risk vulnerability, for hope and healing, for appreciation of my gifts and tolerance of my imperfections. I can say again: This is my place and these are my people.
Teaching industrial arts and the role of registrar have both been a good fit for me. After 34 satisfying and rewarding years of teaching, administrative work and meaningful relationships with Bethel colleagues and students at Bethel, I have decided to retire. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities for personal and professional development provided by and through Bethel College. Bethel will always be
my place and my people.