Kreider a uniter who made history

Postwar relief, college presidency just a few chapters from a life of ideas, action

Dec 29, 2015 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Robert S. Kreider, an educator and historian who championed causes of peace, service and cooperation through Anabaptist engagement with the world, died Dec. 27. He was 96.

Kreider directed Mennonite Central Committee's relief program in Germany after World War II. Here he visits a school in Hesse, Germany, in 1946, site of a child-feeding program, on behalf of the Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany. — Kreider family

Kreider directed Mennonite Central Committee’s relief program in Germany after World War II. Here he visits a school in Hesse, Germany, in 1946, site of a child-feeding program, on behalf of the Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany.

Driven by limitless curiosity and optimism, Kreider’s life spanned Civilian Public Service leadership as a conscientious objector during World War II, postwar relief leadership for Mennonite Central Committee in Europe, the presidency of Bluffton (Ohio) College and diverse historical interests that included a successful inter-Mennonite effort to acquire 300-year-old Martyrs Mirror printing plates.

“One of the things that’s very remarkable about Robert is the breadth of his contacts in the Mennonite orbit,” said MCC executive secretary emeritus John A. Lapp. “I don’t think there’s anyone who has as rich of relationships as he had on the conservative end of the spectrum, all the way to the liberal end of the spectrum. And he maintained a wholesome relation, a respectful relation, with the span of it.”

Lapp, who got to know Kreider first in the late 1960s at MCC, cited Kreider’s service on the executive committee of Mennonite World Conference as an example of his appreciation for Anabaptist diversity.

“He did not buy into the exclusive characteristics of either the Swiss or the Dutch — the two roots in the 16th century — but he saw both complementing each other,” he said. “Long before we talked in terms of reconciliation, he had a reconciling personality and outlook. He was able to connect widely and for so long, he became just a kind of a visible ‘Mr. Mennonite.’ ”

Kreider was born Jan. 2, 1919, in Sterling, Ill., where his father, Amos, was co-pastor of Science Ridge Mennonite Church.

The family moved in 1921 to Goshen, Ind., and in 1926 to Bluffton, Ohio — where Robert was baptized at First Mennonite Church — and in 1935 to Newton, Kan., where he graduated from Bethel College in 1939.
Kreider earned a master’s degree in social ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1941 before being drafted into Civilian Public Service as a conscientious objector. His role as assistant director at the Colorado Springs camp marked the beginning of his impact on the broader Mennonite world. He was appointed secretary of education for MCC CPS camps. While still a CPS worker, he became director of MCC’s mental hospital program, developing the new field of compassionate mental health care.

“It might be possible to underestimate the way he was actually the father of the Mennonite mental health movement,” said retired Bethel history professor James C. Juhnke, who praised Kreider’s ability to envision such a program, though virtually no Mennonites were practicing in psychiatric fields at the time.
“He had the gift of overlooking the impossibilities of his ideas and to just think about things in positive terms and brainstorm the positive possibilities.”

On Dec. 30, 1945, Kreider married Lois Sommer at Bethel Mennonite Church in Pekin, Ill. Six weeks later, he left to direct MCC’s relief program in Germany. He was the first MCC worker admitted into postwar Germany. With much of the continent ravaged by war, Kreider worked to develop refugee resettlement efforts to send Mennonites to Para­guay.

A year later, Lois joined him as a relief worker. As a representative to the Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany, Kreider helped orchestrate the distribution of relief supplies. In 1949 he became director of MCC’s relief work in Europe. Returning to the U.S. later that year, Kreider began a doctoral program at the University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in European history.

A role played with gusto

In 1952 he returned to Bluff­ton, first as a history professor and soon as dean at what was then Bluffton College. He oversaw growth in the student body and academic offerings before serving as president from 1965 to 1972. He took a leave in 1961-62 to establish MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program in Africa and Latin America.

As president at Bluffton, Kreider was particularly interested in innovative programs and in the development of a campus plan that included tree planting and building growth. History professor Perry Bush wrote in Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education 1899-1999 that Kreider pre­sided “over a college in heady expansionist times, and he played his role with gusto.”

After his presidency, Kreider returned to MCC to direct a self-study program while also being secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Department of Higher Education.

In addition to many years as an MCC board and executive committee member, he provided consultation and conducted studies on many occasions over a relationship spanning seven decades.

His inter-Mennonite leadership also included serving on the MWC executive committee from 1978 to 1984.

In 1975 Kreider returned to Bethel to direct the Mennonite Library and Archives and teach peace studies. By the mid-1980s his administrative skills were again tapped when he became interim academic dean, then administrative vice president and director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

An artistic treasure

Kreider played a key role in the 1989 acquisition of 23 copper-plate etchings made by Dutch artist Jan Luyken for the 1685 Martyrs Mirror. — Kreider family

Kreider played a key role in the 1989 acquisition of 23 copper-plate etchings made by Dutch artist Jan Luyken for the 1685 Martyrs Mirror.

Kreider played a leading role in acquiring a historic and artistic treasure. Collaborating with Old Order Mennonite historian Amos Hoover, he learned that 23 printing plates — copper etchings made by artist Jan Luyken for the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror — were up for sale. Seeing potential yet again for cooperation among Anabaptists, he established and co-directed the Martyrs Mirror Trust in 1989. The plates were purchased, and Kreider curated the Kauffman Museum exhibit “The Mirror of the Martyrs” in 1990.

He chaired the editorial committee for the Mennonite Experience in America book series, a role that began in 1975 and continued through 1998. He co-edited and edited Mennonite Life magazine from 1975 to 1984.

Together with his brother Gerald, Kreider established the Mar­peck Fund to foster creative collaboration among Mennonite institutions of higher learning in North America.

He served on the board of directors of what was then Mennonite Weekly Review from 1984 to 1996. He wrote widely for Mennonite and other periodicals, especially on topics of history and peacemaking. Bethel published a collection of his articles, Looking Back into the Future, in 1998. His books include the 1988 MCC history Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger, coauthored with Rachel Waltner Goossen.

“He always believed from the time he was young that the truth was enveloped in stories,” Juhnke said. “So the stories of the Bible, the stories of the church, were what inspired him and what he used to inspire other people.”

Juhnke said Kreider combined a winsome personality with a brilliant intellect. “That creative, inquiring mind was a gift to all of us,” he said.

Robert and Lois Kreider celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary Nov. 28. In addition to Lois, survivors include five children, Esther Kreider Eash and her husband, William, of Newton, Joan of St. Paul, Minn., Karen Kreider Yoder and her husband, Stephen, of San Francisco, David and his wife, Heidi, of North Newton, and Ruth of Munich, Germany; 13 grandchildren and two great-grandsons. He was preceded in death by a brother and an infant daughter.

The memorial service is being held at 11 a.m. Jan. 2 at Faith Mennonite Church in Newton.

Memorial gifts may be designated to MCC or the Marpeck Fund in care of Faith Mennonite Church, 2100 N. Anderson Ave., Newton, KS 67114.

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