Schrag led MWR’s unity-building ministry

Jan 27, 2016 by and

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NEWTON, Kan. — Robert M. Schrag, editor of Mennonite Weekly Review for 27 years during a half-century career with the newspaper, died Jan. 26 at his home. He was 81.

Schrag

Schrag

From 1960 to 2011, Schrag helped to shape MWR’s identity as an independent, news-driven journal promoting Mennonite unity, affirming Anabaptist beliefs and observing world events through the lens of Christian faith.

Schrag brought a love of history, the Bible, journalism and the printer’s craft to managing a nonprofit company and editing a weekly newspaper.

When the time came to end MWR’s nine-decade run of weekly editions, Schrag thought of the biweekly paper’s new name: Mennonite World Review.

Beginning with his 1969 appointment as editor, Schrag held MWR leadership roles for more than four decades. In 1974 he became the manager of Herald Publishing Co., whose printing, publishing and book-selling ventures extended beyond MWR.

In 1996 he resigned as editor but continued to lead the company, renamed MWR Inc., until his retirement as publisher in 2011.

The editorial staff in 1995, the 75th anniversary year of Herald Publishing Co., now MWR Inc., in the company’s print shop, which closed in 2000. From left: Rich Preheim, Paul Schrag, Robert M. Schrag. — MWR files

The editorial staff in 1995, the 75th anniversary year of Herald Publishing Co., now MWR Inc., in the company’s print shop, which closed in 2000. From left: Rich Preheim, Paul Schrag, Robert M. Schrag. — MWR files

Schrag considered MWR a community-building ministry with a mission to tell the stories of life beyond the institutional church.

Believing an appreciation for church history built a foundation for faith, Schrag often wrote on historical themes and published the work of historians. His photos of Anabaptist and Mennonite historic sites in Europe and North America illustrated numerous front pages, as well as the annual MWR calendars given as subscription bonuses to readers until the mid-1990s.

True to MWR’s slogan, “Putting the Mennonite world together,” which he introduced in 1982, Schrag promoted inter-Mennonite cooperation. He supported the movement that grew in the 1980s and early ’90s toward merging the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church.

“The world clearly needs all the constructive putting together it can get,” he wrote in an editorial for the June 29, 1995, edition, which marked the 75th anniversary of Herald Publishing Co.

“I have always regarded my long career with MWR as a calling to serve the church,” he said in the March 11, 2011, edition, shortly before his retirement. “God’s providence has always been evident to me.”

An early start

Robert Menno Schrag was born April 12, 1934, in Newton, to Menno and Gertrude Schrag. He grew up in a family intimately involved with the paper that would become his life’s work. Menno Schrag was assistant editor of MWR and in 1935 would become editor when the founder, H.P. Krehbiel, retired.

When Schrag was 14, his father gave him his first MWR assignment: distributing copies of the paper on the steps of Memorial Hall at Bethel College during the 1948 Mennonite World Conference assembly.

Soon an inter-Mennonite perspective would grow. In an unusual choice for a General Conference Mennonite family, Menno and Gertrude Schrag sent their three children to Hesston Academy, a Mennonite Church high school. Robert was the first to follow this boundary-crossing educational path.

As a teenager, Schrag learned to feel at home in a print shop by operating an Intertype at Herald Book and Printing, an enterprise that had split off from the nonprofit Herald Publishing Co. He enjoyed the challenge of setting type in hot metal on a clattering machine with a 90-character keyboard.

Graduating from Hesston Academy in 1952, Schrag enrolled at Bethel College. At a chapel service he met Frances Schmidt, seated nearby according to the freshman section’s alphabetical order. He worked on the student newspaper and played varsity baseball.

After his sophomore year came another inter-Mennonite experience: two years of work in West Germany with Pax, Mennonite Central Committee’s alternative service program for conscientious objectors. He helped build homes and edited Euro Pax News.

Returning to Bethel, he graduated in 1958, along with Frances, who had taken her own two-year break from college to work as a schoolteacher. Four days after graduation, they were married, on May 30, 1958, at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church of Goessel.

Writer and printer

With an eye on working for MWR, Schrag spent a year at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and another at Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. In 1960 he was ready to join the MWR staff as assistant editor, working with editor Menno Schrag and associate editor Richard Blosser.

The editorial staff in 1960, Robert M. Schrag’s first year. From left: Richard Blosser, Menno Schrag, Robert M. Schrag. — MWR files

The editorial staff in 1960, Robert M. Schrag’s first year. From left: Richard Blosser, Menno Schrag, Robert M. Schrag. — MWR files

His duties included the tasks of a printer. On Wednesdays he worked in the back shop, helping to assemble metal type into forms for the next morning’s press run.

Years later he said, “In the second half of the 20th century I saw printing technology change more in 50 years than in the previous 500.”

Schrag’s writing assignments included some of the editorials. In the Dec. 26, 1963, edition, he wrote: “Had it not been for the assassination of the president, the struggle for civil rights would have been the year’s top news story. The vaguely defined ‘race problem’ became a nationwide revolution. Citizens of the North and West, who thought of civil rights as something to do with school desegregation in the South, began to realize . . . [that] it is also concerned about jobs, housing and where a dark-skinned person can get a haircut or go to church.”

Schrag in 1969, newly appointed MWR editor.

Schrag in 1969, newly appointed MWR editor.

When Menno Schrag retired as editor in 1969, the Herald Publishing Co. board of directors appointed Robert Schrag to succeed him. Menno continued for five more years as company manager, retiring in 1974. For the next 22 years, Robert would be both MWR editor and Herald Publishing Co. manager.

History, unity

The early 1970s brought an additional assignment: editing Mennonite Life, a quarterly magazine of history and culture, which Bethel College had published previously and which Bethel resumed in 1975 after Schrag’s three-year tenure.

Mennonite Life’s historical emphasis suited Schrag’s interests, as did two mid-1970s anniversaries: the 1974 centennial of the Russian Mennonite immigration to the Great Plains, and, a year later, the 450th anniversary of Anabaptism’s birth in Switzerland.

The June 20, 1974, edition, featured a father-son byline as Robert and Menno co-wrote a front-page article that began: “Swish, swish, swish went the tall grass as trains with horse- and ox-drawn wagons, laden with immigrants and their household supplies, plodded across the open prairie.”

The world beyond the church was ripe for comment. Schrag’s editorial in the Aug. 22, 1974, edition addressed the era’s social and political turmoil: “We see an element of judgment, for the whole nation, in the Watergate upheaval. America’s role in the arrogant warmaking and callous slaughter in Southeast Asia has undermined the capacity for moral decision-making by both leaders and people.”

The 450th anniversary of Anabaptism prompted a June 19, 1975, editorial comparing 17th-century Dutch Mennonites and contemporary North Americans: “After their Golden Age, the Dutch Mennonites experienced a catastrophic loss of membership. Today in free and wealthy North America, we are just holding our own numerically and stand in danger of compromise and conformity.”

Schrag covered three MWC assemblies: 1972 in Curitiba, Brazil; 1978 in Wichita, Kan.; and 1984 in Strasbourg, France. He delighted in seeing Anabaptists from around the world converge in south central Kansas for the Wichita assembly. He wrote of a “mountaintop experience” where the testimonies of Anabaptists from around the world “make us pause to consider whether we are using our freedom and resources wisely.”

An advocate for Mennonite unity, Schrag hailed the 1983 joint meeting of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church in Bethlehem, Pa., as a historic milestone. In the Aug. 25, 1983, edition, he wrote of the “exhilarating sense of wider kinship in the Mennonite family within the great household of Christ.”

Three generations

In the early 1990s, a transition of editorial duties evolved. Paul Schrag, Robert’s son, who had joined MWR in 1988, became managing editor. When Robert resigned as editor in 1996, the board of directors appointed Paul to succeed him.

The editorial staff in 2011, the year Robert M. Schrag retired. From left: Paul Schrag, Dana Neff, Robert M. Schrag, Sheldon C. Good, Tim Huber. — Vada Snider for MWR

The editorial staff in 2011, the year Robert M. Schrag retired. From left: Paul Schrag, Dana Neff, Robert M. Schrag, Sheldon C. Good, Tim Huber. — Vada Snider for MWR

Robert Schrag felt blessed to work alongside his father for 14 years and his son for 23. In addition, Frances, his wife, worked 21 years for MWR as a typesetter, office assistant and proofreader.

As publisher, Schrag led the establishment of MWR’s endowment fund, a long-term financial resource.

Among involvements beyond MWR, Schrag served on the Bethel College board of directors from 1971 to 1981. Bethel presented him with its Distinguished Service Award in 1990.

He was a member of First Mennonite Church of Newton, serving on the board of deacons and the historical committee.

He enjoyed reading, especially history; current events, especially politics; classical music; coin collecting; and baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals.

Prostate cancer caused his health to decline in recent years.

He is survived by his wife, Frances; three children, Paul and his wife, Wendy Funk Schrag, of Newton; Janet Botkin and her husband, Rick, of Lawrence; David and his wife, Tina Huang, of Champaign, Ill.; five grandchildren; a sister, Betty Pauls and her husband, Dewayne, of Newton; and a brother, James and his wife, Judy, of Newton.

The memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 30 at First Mennonite Church of Newton.

Memorial gifts are suggested for the MWR Inc. endowment fund and may be sent to Mennonite World Review, P.O. Box 568, Newton, KS 67114.


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