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John D. Unruh Archive: Robert Kreider essay

This guide gives an overview of the John D. Unruh Jr. archive, one of several manuscript collections held by Bluffton University.

Reflections on the life of John D. Unruh, Jr., 1937-1976

- Robert Kreider

It is implausible thinking of John as a seventy year old, were he living today. John was ever vibrantly youthful and energetic. My earliest memory of John dates back to 1949 when I first met him as a twelve year old, he with his parents in Amsterdam. His father, John D. Unruh, Sr., was director of the Mennonite Central Committee program in the Netherlands. World War II ending four years before, MCC was engaged in the Netherlands in reconstruction, refugee assistance, youth programming, liaison with the churches. I remember bright young John hovering on the edges of adult circles, his eyes and ears alert to conversation on the big issues. I also remember his passion for the Red Sox and his storehouse of baseball data and lore.

Ten years later he appeared on my radar screen. In 1959 John had just graduated with highest distinction from Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, having earlier attended and graduated from Freeman Junior College, Freeman, South Dakota. In Akron, Pennsylvania, this talented young man reappeared, now serving on a voluntary service assignment with the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee--his work in Akron and Washington focused on conscription and peace issues. His mentor was Elmer Neufeld, who years later would be his academic dean and then president at Bluffton College.

At that time, in the early sixties, I was academic dean at Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio. As a college dean with an acquisitive eye for academic talent and in need of staff for a growing institution, I was alerted to young John Unruh as a teacher of promise. William Snyder, member of the Board of Trustees of Bluffton College, was one who particularly urged me and more than once: "Keep an eye on John Unruh." After John's term of service with the MCC he entered graduate study in history at the University of Kansas. I corresponded with him about our faculty needs at Bluffton. Many qualities of this young man intrigued me. He wrote well. He was alert and curious. He had a reputation of being a diligently productive worker. He appeared solidly based in his faith community. He radiated a friendly spirit. I recall arranging to have dinner with John at the Kansas City airport to cultivate his interest in Bluffton. I was delighted with his receptivity. It was not a hard sell.

John's teaching met and exceeded expectations. He was a faculty member we needed to keep as a core member of the faculty. We sensed risk in losing John when he returned to the University of Kansas to complete his doctoral study. We heard, but not from John, of his election to Phi Beta Kappa. Again, I remember a meeting with John at Kansas City to confirm the solidity of his intention to return to Bluffton after the completion of his doctoral course work. After moving from the deanship to the presidency of Bluffton I was more removed from observing John's role in classroom, office and campus community. He was clearly one of the blue ribbon members of the faculty: thorough, inspiring, amiable, modest. However, we anguished over the lengthening time he was taking to research and write his dissertation--a work which we knew would be inescapably a classic. In his quiet modesty he had a gift of operating below the radar--as, for example, his romance with Elda (Ellie) Waltner of his home community, she magically appearing in 1967 as John's young, attractive bride. A particularly fond memory I have of John came in 1971 when I announced my intention to retire as President and return to the classroom. He came to me and expressed so graciously how he welcomed me as his colleague in the history department. Years later, after leaving Bluffton, I recall vividly my delight in reading John's absorbing, long awaited history, The Plains Across. On my bookshelf is this well-marked volume with its dedicatory inscription: "For Ellie and for my Mother and Father." Welling up in me came a pride that I knew this gifted scholar.

In 1973 and 1974 when I served as a consultant for the Department of Higher Education of the General Conference Mennonite Church I had opportunity to become well acquainted with his parents, John D. and Amalia Unruh, then residing at Freeman. In the course of many visits to Freeman Junior College, several times I was a guest in their home. John's father had resigned in 1966 as professor of history at Southern State College, Springfield, South Dakota. As a volunteer he committed his services to establishing a Mennonite library and archives on the Freeman campus. I found in John Sr. a delightful conversationalist on a wide range of subjects.

In the Freeman community and the Unruh home I gained a deeper appreciation of the richness of young John's historical legacy. The town of Freeman in southeastern South Dakota in John Jr.'s youth had a population of 1,000. The first Mennonite settlers in the area arrived in 1873-74. Five General Conference Mennonite churches (now Mennonite Church USA) are in the vicinity of Freeman. Also among the 2,000 Mennonites in the area are several Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Evangelical Brethren churches. A central institution of the community has been Freeman Junior College and Academy, where John D. Unruh Sr. was president during the years, 1930-1948.

John Jr.'s great, great grandfather Daniel Unruh, one of the founding patriarchs of the community, settled along Turkey Creek in the spring of 1874. The Unruhs were of Anabaptist-Mennonite background, the family's origins in 16th century Netherlands, ancestors migrating in the 17th century to the Vistula Delta of Poland, thence in the early 19th century to the Molotshna region along the Dnieper River in the Ukraine, and in 1874 to South Dakota territory. John Jr.¹s mother, Amalia Tieszen, was of similar Dutch-Ukraine lineage. John Jr.¹s maternal grandmother, Regina Gering, was of an Anabaptist-Mennonite family strain that dated back to 16th century Switzerland. In the late 17th century they became followers of Jacob Amman (Amish) and a century later moved from the Montbeliard region of France to Volhynia, a province of western Russia. In the 1870s, during a period of Russification by the Czarist government, they, too, joined the migration to South Dakota. Adding Anabaptist diversity to the Freeman community are Hutterian colonies to the west. Wife Ellie's family name Waltner suggests that she shared in this Hutterian lineage.

John, living in the home of an historian, was keenly aware of the wealth of frontier history that surrounded him. In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had trekked through the area on their exploration into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Thirty miles to the south of Freeman was Yankton, established in 1858 as a fur-trading post on the Missouri River and in 1861 designated as the territorial capital for South Dakota. Both of John's parents were graduates of Yankton College, established by the Congregationalists in 1881 when South Dakota was still a territory. The boy John Jr. was enveloped by an awareness of the Great Plains--a world of prairie and space described by Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth.

John grew up in a home rich in stimulation. His father had been a high school teacher, principal and coach, partner in a wood products industry, mayor of the town, president of district church conference, member of a church board of the denomination, president of Freeman Junior College, holder of a doctorate in history from the University of Texas. His dissertation, A Century of Mennonites in Dakota, was followed by a number of articles and books on Mennonite, family and regional historical topics. Widely acclaimed was his history of the Mennonite Central Committee, 1920-1951: In the Name of Christ. John Jr., who had shared in the family's MCC service experience in the Netherlands, observed close at hand, his father's writing of the MCC history. John Sr., born on December 27, 1903, lived to an alert and venerable age of 102, died November 11, 2006.

John's mother, Amalia Tieszen Unruh, enjoyed a long life, 92, born February 13, 1904, and died Sept. 6, 1996. She was the youngest of ten children in the family of a Mennonite pastor, Derk P. Tieszen. She was a talented student: valedictorian of her Freeman Academy graduating class in 1924 and receiving her B.A. from Yankton College in 1929, graduating Summa Cum Laude. She taught many years in public schools and engaged in a wide range of community and church activities. The Unruhs were members of the Salem Mennonite Church of rural Freeman, in which John D. Jr. grew up and was baptized. John's mother was an expert gardener and an avid reader and, as wife of the president, a genial hostess to a flow of guests in the home. One can envision son John listening, perhaps sometimes asking questions, in many stimulating adult conversations in the Unruh home. With his boyhood in the years of the Great Depression and World War II, John Jr. grew up in a family that was frugal, hard working and yet generous. One can scarcely grasp the depth of that lingering sorrow of parents in the loss of their only child.

In savoring the memory of the gifted, gracious teacher and scholar, John D. Unruh Jr. one needs to see him in the context of his heritage, his times, his family, his community, his faith. A great and good man who was not allotted his "three score and ten."

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Carrie Phillips
Musselman Library