Cartoonist and writer combined humor, insight

May 13, 2015 by and

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Joel Kauffmann, whose cartoon strip Pontius’ Puddle has enlivened the pages of church periodicals for three decades and whose screenplay for the 1990 film The Radicals dramatized the birth of Anabaptism, died May 8 at South Bend (Ind.) Memorial Hospital. He was 64.

kauffmann1-001“Joel had an uncanny ability and gift to communicate simply and clearly deep theological truths and social realities,” said J Ron Byler, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., speaking at the memorial service May 11 at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., where Kauffmann was a member. “Pontius’ Puddle was only the tip of the iceberg.”

According Kauffmann’s wife, Nancy, a blood clot in a lung caused him to fall during a walk with her on May 2. He hit his head on the sidewalk, and a brain injury complicated treatment until he was no longer responsive.

At the memorial service, family and friends remembered Kauffmann’s wit, passion and the unique impact of his life’s work.

Steve Green, president of the craft supply store chain Hobby Lobby, spoke about Kauffmann’s role in the $400 million Museum of the Bible project Green and his family are funding.

Green worked with Kauffmann to write the narrative portion of the Museum of the Bible Curriculum, a Bible course for high schoolers.

“I am convinced that after we have all joined him on the other side, his influence and impact will still be felt here through the writing that he did on the curriculum and I’m sure in many other ways as well,” Green said.

The curriculum is already impacting 2,000 students using it in Israel, he said.

Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, also spoke about Kauffmann’s work with the 400,000-square-foot museum, set to open in November 2017, two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Kauffmann was the content coordinator for the museum, which will house more than 40,000 Bible-related artifacts from the Greens’ personal collection, including the oldest fragments in the world from each of the Gospels, and the only ancient Bible in Aramaic.

“When we started the Museum of the Bible . . . Joel was the first person that I thought of to help,” Summers said. “It was instant. He had to be part of it.”

Kauffmann was developing content for a device visitors will carry as they explore the museum to enhance what they see with extra text, videos and photos. He was also writing the scripts for an 8,000-square-foot recreation of Nazareth in the museum.

“He loved working on the Museum of the Bible, feeling it brought all of his life’s work, experience and passion into one major creative endeavor about the book he most valued,” Nancy Kauffmann said.

He enjoyed engaging people with a variety of faith opinions to “learn and grow while always trusting God to sort it out.”

“He believed it was better to err on the side of grace and give God space to work in and through us,” she said.

A frog named Pontius

Kauffmann announced the retirement of Pontius’ Puddle in December 2014, citing a need to focus more on the museum as one of the reasons. The cartoon ran for 31 years and appeared in more than 200 publications, including Mennonite World Review.

pontius overtimeMWR ran the strip in every weekly issue from 2000 to 2012, in every biweekly issue until 2013 and in some issues after that, for a total of more than 600 strips, repeating only a few.

“I have found that humor can be healing,” MWR quoted Kauffmann as saying in the March 16, 2000, issue. “It is one of the few approaches to serious topics that lowers the defense mechanisms, allows for new possibilities. . . .

“I’d rather be profound than funny, but ideally you can be both. Of course, when I’m not funny, my excuse is that I’m being profound.”

The cartoon’s main character is a frog named Pontius, who humorously examines a wide variety of faith questions — and who often embodies typical Christian foibles.

In one strip, Pontius is playing golf with a turtle. Holding the flagstick on the putting green, the turtle asks, “Does your congregation have difficulty dealing with the poor?”

pontius contact sportPontius, about to strike the ball, answers: “Not really. We’ve been able to keep them out of our church without too much trouble.”

Kauffmann’s sister, Mary Kauffmann-Kennel of Elkhart, Ind., said at the May 11 service that her brother’s passion for drawing cartoons started as a child growing up on a farm near Hopedale, Ill.

“He was always drawing wherever he was, including the many hours he spent in church,” she said. Their father, Ivan, was a Mennonite pastor.

‘The Radicals’

Kauffmann started writing screenplays young, too, which he would read as his five siblings silently acted them out for their parents, she said.

Kauffmann, with Darryl Wimberley, wrote the screenplay and was one of the producers of The Radicals, a feature-length film about Michael and Margaretha Sattler, two leaders of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement.

According to the website, Kauffmann took the dialogue for the courtroom scene, where Michael Sattler is sentenced to death, “pretty much verbatim” from the Martyrs Mirror.

Joel Kauffmann, left, and Jim L. Bowman of Lancaster, Pa., are dressed to be extras for a scene in the Anabaptist drama, The Radicals, shot in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France in the mid-1980s. — Jim L. Bowman

Joel Kauffmann, left, and Jim L. Bowman of Lancaster, Pa., dressed to be extras for a scene in the Anabaptist drama, The Radicals. shot in Europe in 1988. — Jim L. Bowman

Burton Buller, the former director of Third Way Media, said Kauffmann was one of the great Mennonite communicators, and his screenplays demonstrate his rare ability to combine humor with insight.

The Radicals rode the crest of Mennonite interest in making their story known both to their own people as well as the broader public,” he said. “At the time of its production, Mennonite youth were discovering not only the power of the media, they were intent on harnessing that power for the church.”

Kauffmann and his collaborators made a compelling film while telling an inspiring story still relevant today, Buller said.

In 2000, Kauffmann wrote Miracle in Lane 2, an award-winning Disney Channel movie, with Don Jost. It told the story of Justin Yoder, who has spina bifida and was the first child with a disability to compete in the All American Soap Box derby. His family attended College Mennonite Church with Kauffmann and Jost.

Kauffmann was also a developer for Israel’s Nazareth Village, a first-century farm and village in Nazareth, Galilee; and for the Anabaptist museum Menno-Hof in Shipshewana, Ind.

During the memorial service, Kauffmann’s son, Julian, described his relationship with his father growing up and into adulthood.

“Whenever I needed him, he was always there waiting,” he said.

Kauffmann was born Aug. 7, 1950, in Hopedale, Ill., and married Nancy Geiser in 1972. Nancy Kauffmann is a denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA.

He was a graduate of Hesston (Kan.) College and Goshen College.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy; two sons, Justin of New York City and Julian and his wife, Elizabeth Gaynor, of Portland, Ore.; a granddaughter, Elke; his parents, Ivan and Lola of Goshen; and five siblings, Paul Kauffmann and his wife, Patti, of Columbus, Ga., John Kauffmann of Las Vegas, Mary Kauffmann-Kennel and her husband, Jon, of Elkhart, Ruth Kauffmann and her husband, Brian Roots, of Deerfield, Ill., and Jim Kauffmann and his wife, Deb, of Oak Grove, Minn.

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