Book review: ‘Simple Life Fretz’

Apr 24, 2017 by

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During the early 1980s, while a senior at Bethel College, I participated in a monthlong interterm travel course to Washington, D.C., focused on peace issues and Mennonite social justice engagement. Faculty leaders for the trip were former Bethel sociology professor J. Winfield Fretz and his wife, Marguerite.

"Simple Life Fretz"

“Simple Life Fretz”

Though of retirement age, the Fretzes energetically guided our group of 25 students through a mix of nonprofit, faith-based and governmental offices, in collaboration with Marian Franz of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund and Delton Franz of Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office.

Of all my college classes, this was easily one of the most memorable for its urban intensity and exposure to peace activism and policymaking. The Fretzes were a convivial pair. We students adored them for their grandparent-like qualities.

Only later did I come to understand Winfield Fretz’s academic legacy as a sociologist engaged in Mennonite/Anabaptist projects throughout North and South America, as well as his 16 years at Conrad Grebel College (affiliated with the University of Waterloo), including a decade as Conrad Grebel’s first president.

The Bethel interterm trip provided me with a valuable introduction to him and prompted fond memories through the decades. The Fretzes retired in North Newton, Kan., and in 2002 Marguerite died. Three years later, Winfield died at the age of 94.

Simple Life Fretz: A Kitchen Table Memoir is thus a welcome addition to my bookshelf. Authored by one of the couple’s four children, Sara Fretz-Goering, as her own retirement project, this is a family memoir. In the acknowledgments, Fretz-Goering writes of friends’ nudging over the years: “I would be interested in reading your dad’s story.”

To construct her narrative, she drew on family members’ recollections about her father’s life, from a farming childhood in Bucks County, Pa., through academic sojourns at Bluffton College in Ohio, Chicago Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago for a doctorate in sociology as well as a career devoted to two Mennonite liberal arts colleges.

Key sets of historical sources — 300 letters exchanged between Winfield Fretz and his older brother John, and taped interviews conducted by Fretz’s colleagues John Rempel and Leland Harder in the 1980s and ’90s — provided further documentary material.

The book ably portrays Fretz’s commitments to sociological inquiry and to engaging directly in Mennonite group dynamics. A “buoyant, optimistic, entrepreneurial spirit,” as his close friend Robert S. Kreider described it, permeated Fretz’s campus life and his forays into rural Mennonite communities to analyze social and economic conditions. These personality traits also marked Fretz’s co-ownership of a Newton restaurant, The Guest House, during the Jim Crow-era 1950s and ’60s, employing local residents and serving diners across racial lines.

This book is also noteworthy for its experimentation with genre. Sara Fretz-Goering constructs nearly all of the narrative not in the third person but the first, as if her father were telling his own story across the family’s kitchen table. The turn-of-phrase by a narrator as conversant in Pennsylvania Dutch as in English, the delight in a childhood as one of 11 children in a scrappy, supportive family, and the folksy humor that persisted throughout Fretz’s long life all contribute to pleasurable reading.

As a college professor, Fretz pursued scholarly interests that centered on Mennonite mutual aid. In midcentury he espoused farming cooperatives and fair-labor practices (and wrote columns for MWR). He published studies about rural Mennonite and Anabaptist sociology in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Para­guay, often through partnerships with MCC, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and government-sponsored programs.

This book only hints at appraisals of Fretz’s scholarship, his influence on Mennonite studies and his early administrative leadership at the urban Conrad Grebel campus. Instead, Simple Life Fretz provides poignant accounts of the ups and downs of family life, as well as the particulars of Christian faith as embraced by a progressive 20th-century Mennonite leader.

Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

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