Centenarian Connections Rachel Weaver Kreider’s Life

This article appeared in The Mennonite, May 2013, 12-15; appears here with permission. A photo of Rachel filled the journal’s cover as she prepared to ride in a helicopter.

How people connect matters. With whom we bond varies during diverse decades of life. When and where we network affects outlook, circumstance, and generations to come. For Rachel Weaver Kreider, direct friendship and extended ancestry offer links and provide purpose. Family accounts bring together her and his “lines,” anecdotes, and place. “Widow Barbara” Yoder, whose husband was lost at sea when immigrating to America in 1742, intrigues genealogists. Constant Wisdom oversees.

As a child seated near her grandmother Weaver, longtime household member, Rachel discovered her grandmother’s grandmother and her astute, great Uncle Rueben. They all ate cereal, knew God, and left stories. Fascinated by facts, Rachel was known to call out, “Don’t say anything until I return” when asked to complete a task for her mother (Laura Johns Weaver). Hearing Uncle John’s (Weaver) questions about cousin connections through marriage or observing grandma page through the Hostetler book of 1912 for facts, Rachel felt secure among her people. She loved the lore.

With her father (Samuel E. Weaver) engaged as Shipshewana (Indiana) school superintendent and minister at Forks Mennonite church, Rachel often found him reading The Christian Century writers. She listened with him to Sunday afternoon broadcasts that featured Harry Emerson Fosdick’s insight. Perhaps conservative in appearance, the family exposed her to liberal and ordinary ideas. Ever free to read books, her mother, orphaned at 11 and with an eighth grade education, with hesitation asked Sam to order the Ladies Home Journal. She read the same cover-to-cover during the next twenty-five years.

Born May 28, 1909, the focus of this article describes herself as “ordinary.” She represents thousands of women who had siblings—for her, a brother six years older, sister ten years younger, and another brother four years after Eunice. While distinct, she also depicts women who daily contribute to others, who were long-limited or not expected to be valued more than others. She might have pursued higher degrees had funds been available for more than essentials during depression years. Never obliged to “put her husband through school,” she internally knew that Leonard Kreider, Goshen College classmate of 1931, would value strength in women. His PhD in chemistry followed by years as a researcher and Rachel’s intrigue with Latin and philosophy beyond kith and kin influenced their three children to follow academic pursuits. Emil (married to Louise), Anna (James Juhnke), and Sara (Gregory Hartzler) earned PhD degrees before teaching at Beloit University (WI), Bethel College (Newton, KS), and Goshen College (IN) respectively. Interests of eight grandchildren and seven great grands enrich Rachel’s recent decades.

Now at 103, Rachel Weaver Kreider might review her past fifteen-year listing of book titles that she has read to recall themes or characters or mentally support grandson Karl’s computer yen as world champion of Arimaa chess before turning to proofread the latest issue of the Yoder Newsleter (YNL) published for thirty years. But those details rush the story.

Alongside relatives Aunt Verona (Salzman) or Uncle John, Rachel Weaver nurtured ties through Mennonite roots. Those religious links both helped and hurt. When her mother could not receive communion emblems because she refused “proper” strings for her bonnet, Rachel noticed. When her father resigned as a minister, outwardly due to health issues but also because educated beyond the expected for “men of the bench,” Rachel wondered within. In 1920 the family moved into Goshen, Indiana, from their farm. Memories surfaced at odd times: that she spontaneously came to dance a step while bringing cows into the barn, steps that earlier stymied her for a grade school program. But new connections emerged. Friends had church loyalties beyond Mennonite; one fellow proved “not for her.” Adjustments took time, a pattern that became part of self-understanding.

Rachel quite enjoyed Goshen High School years, spurred by a fine Latin teacher who described her as “a bud opening.” Creative in writing, a memory transferred onto paper; twenty snowbound travelers housed in their home overnight became content for an amusing speech. A cousin’s week-long visit from Chicago prompted her writing a novel about a boy resistant to admit the strengths of rural life. On receiving the “best all-around senior girl award” in 1927, her parents avoided praise. To be humble, not proud of ‘your own,’ reflected virtue. A repeated observation of her mother’s lingered: “For how smart you are, I never cease to be surprised by how dumb you can be in other things.” Some who presume to know Rachel today might doubt her ‘ordinary’ struggle with self-confidence.

Church life also affected self-image. Baptized at College Mennonite Church (then meeting on the Goshen College campus) Rachel with her family and a dozen others shifted without valid “letters” to “that other” (General Conference Mennonite) church on 8th Street in 1922. A year later nearly one hundred people made a similar exodus due to turmoil that closed Goshen College for a year (1923-24). As Rachel’s later writing reports on this surge of activity in a 480-page “The History of the Eighth St. Mennonite Church (1913-1987),” so Susan Fisher Miller’s Culture for Service resource about the College’s hundred years prior to 1994 discloses one person’s reference to being “disfellowshipped.” ‘Ordinary’ Rachel knew the poignant, long-lasting, emotional power of that closing, from both congregation and student perspectives.

Reserve marked Rachel’s Goshen College years. She describes Old Mennonite (The Mennonites) students “after the closing” as needing to be straight-laced or super good. General Conference Mennonites were often judged not “good enough” for leadership as with the religious “Y.” One of two hundred students, she liked Verna Graber Smith’s teaching about Roman life, Edward M. Yoder’s Latin teaching, and Gustav Enns’ German class. What lingers about the latter was his strong horror of “modernism.” Being a day student, but involved also with literary society, Record staff, and student government, Rachel Weaver attended fewer evening events. One of two from her class of 31 to find a job directly after being graduated, she taught English and Latin at Roann about fifty miles away for two years prior to marriage. While connecting with more fundamentalist folk and Church of the Brethren families there, Mennonite ties became clearer for her.

“Willing to be as poor as he,” Rachel married Leonard (son of Wadsworth, Ohio banker Lloyd and Adelia (Stover) at her home on June 20, 1933. Without needing to be definitive in views, they remained open to new perspectives. Living in an attic while students at Ohio State University (in Columbus, she for an MA in Philosophy and he for a chemistry PhD), they knew economic restraints. Together they lived on 65 cents per day for food. Together with several couples they started a peace project later used as a model by American Friends Service Committee. Connections broadened—with Jews, atheists, and secular professors.

Rachel’s seven-page letter (9-28-35) to former Goshen College professor Guy F. Hershberger details her involvement on campus with students protesting the rule that, except for physical reasons, fellows were required to take ROTC or be expelled. Of 25 Mennonites on campus and among a “United Front” cluster of campus organizations, she spoke directly to the University President: “If our boys are true to their four hundred year history to not bear arms, being so barred from a state institution is unjust discrimination against law-abiding, tax-paying people like Ohio Mennonites.” OSU’s being a land-grant university makes distinction for conscience sake impossible, President Rightmire responded. Rachel met varied viewpoints about conscience from her three philosophy professors too. And she directly faced energetic communist students well prepared to oppose a CO posture. Rachel took time to write letters to Mennonite pastors of Ohio requesting their attention to state legislative action regarding required military training in state supported universities. Through such public action on behalf of Mennonite principles, she was hardly “ordinary.” [See J. Juhnke, Mennonite Life, Dec. 2002]

With Leonard’s PhD completed, they spent 1937 in New York City with Leonard at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Rachel learned to “keep house” (an apartment) along with writing: “I just had to write something.” Her attempt with fiction—writing a serialized story about her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother— never materialized. But a box of Yoder genealogy materials left with Rachel by Uncle John before he died never left her mind. Leonard’s agreement to a two-year teaching assignment at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas, evolved into twelve years.

Newton proved to be a good town in which to raise children born in 1938, 1940, and 1943. Daughter Anna, from age twelve on documented much of her life experience. From Speaking for Herself The Autobiographical Writings of Anna K. Juhnke, come details of Rachel’s experience as Mother: “21 songs that Mom used to sing to us . . . Mom let us play in the mud . . . Mom was great when entertaining us with toys, a “dress up” box, play tents. . . Mom told us stories while she did the ironing—such as from I-II Kings. . . We made valentines and May baskets together. . . Mom’s referee whistle brought us home—five blows for Emil, three for Anna, and one for Sara. . . Mom began to untangle Amish Yoders . . . pies were Mom’s specialty. . . Mom hated to sew though she made some items like drapes. . . Mom and I had a good relationship, intimate conversation. . . Mom taught me organizing skills, how to lead meetings, utilize lists, keep records. . . (noted in 1999) Mom was my first model and mentor for women in church leadership. She was pastoring every Sunday—greeting people, thinking of ways they could be integrated into action, inquiring into griefs or joys, encouraging people of all ages.”

Newton organizations attracted ‘ordinary’ Rachel. She joined (at one time served as President) Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. WILPF was founded by Jane Addams, social activist among Chicago immigrants. Alert to Mennonite experience with immigration in 1874 and 1920, Newton women wrote letters to encourage Japanese Americans to migrate from California to Kansas. State officials interfered. Aware of suspicion during war time, the group still mounted a poster on the Post Office lawn about a Kellogg Peace Pact. Rachel also nurtured speech-making skills, through a Reading club. Her first public speech titled “Key in Your Hand” encouraged young women to be peace advocates alongside young men engaged in alternate service during WWII.

From Kansas the Kreider family moved to Wadsworth, Ohio for Leonard’s research employment at B. F. Goodrich in Akron. Rachel felt some reservation about that move, being “less domestic”—dishes, dusting, and diapers—than Leonard’s hometown family women. With family her first priority, she nevertheless pursued other efforts like starting Church Women United, in part to connect with women of diverse local denominations. Surprised to find Wadsworth General Conference folk unaware of peace and nonresistance, she engaged related tasks while secretary with the Mission Committee for nine years. Work with the Central District Conference Historical Committee resulted in congregations keeping records and her organizing conference materials sent to the Bluffton College Library archives.

Rachel’s broadening connections emerged through writing—articles in the Wadsworth newspaper, a history of the local Red Cross. Asked to write the 100-year history of First Mennonite Church of Wadsworth, she discovered how few people knew that story. Through interviews Rachel learned about the town and why people came there. She studied the Old Mennonite story in order to write the General Conference one. Through conversation duets she imagined incidents, described the preacher’s “bench,” and recreated scenes of people “going west.” “Learning all the time” enabled her to write about relatives of Leonard’s parents, for example, Aunt Myrta Stover who as a pioneer missionary to Korea taught physical education at the Ewa Methodist School for Women. Another significant project emerged with Ford Coolman who shared interest in genealogy. He had gathered information but due to crippled hands needed a writer. Rachel wrote The Mennonite Cemeteries (3) of Medina County with a Brief Historical Sketch of the Churches (1952). After searching through peace plays, she wrote “Overcoming Evil” (1957), a play about the Hochstetler massacre by Indians in 1757; her play lives on at reunions.

Rachel W. Kreider’s Yoder genealogy hobby, or addiction, had become public by the 1970s. In 1968 Dr. Hugh F. Gingerich, a defense worker in Washington D. C., visited Rachel in Wadsworth to explore their common Yoder genealogy interests. Learning that she had collected and indexed needed, tedious information—from obituaries, census, cemetery and marriage records, along with county historical biographies—he invited her to become co-author for what became the classic Amish and Amish Mennonite Genealogies (1986, 848 pages). In the Preface Gingerich credits Rachel with “having worked up preliminary studies of many of the families, kept up with the plethora of newly published books and booklets on Amish genealogy, and carried on practically all of the extensive correspondence required in the compilation of a volume of genealogies such as this one.” In turn, “Hugh Gingerich knows more about the genealogy of those first Amish families in America than anyone else I know.” Aware of his photographic mind Rachel would “never dispute his word,” as regarding two John Yoders born about 1732 who each married an Anna.

Amish first established a church in America in Berks County, PA in 1737. Discovering connections among Amish Yoders, co-authors paid attention to different practices (like baptism or dress mode), oral tradition, schisms, patterns of migration, and variant spellings. Regarding the latter the standardized Elizabeth may refer to women named Eliza, Lizzie, Betsey, Bessie, Betty, or Beth and the surname Yoder includes variants Joder, Jotter, Yotter, Yothers, and Ioder. In general each couple shown as “head of family” appears in three census references. Readers depend on a number scheme to distinguish the thousands of people named; they are to note question marks that indicate inadequate information. Energy for and commitment to such knowledge alongside tedium reflects the gift of ‘ordinary’ Rachel Weaver Kreider to families and the profession.

Significant for Yoders was action taken by Rachel when researcher Chris Yoder from Michigan asked if she knew of his great-grandfather Reuben Yoder (1831-1912). That Rueben proved to be none other than her own Grandma Weaver’s Uncle Rueben, brother of her father! Recently, Chris took nine boxes of Rachel’s Yoder materials to his home. While she graciously nudges him to pursue the Yoder puzzles that have haunted her for decades, she admits a measure of grief adjusting to the fact that she can no longer go to her files to add a newly-discovered “tidbit.” Rachel looks forward soon to proofread the book that Chris is writing about descendants of their mutual kin from Rueben.

Not long after they first connected, Rachel invited Chris Yoder to her kitchen table along with Ben Yoder (Reformed by denomination, former Goshen public teacher and principal). Ben and Chris founded the Yoder Newsletter in 1983, now having published for thirty years, two issues per year. While Ben contributed human interest items until his death in 1992, Chris gathers facts and figures out family mysteries, and Rachel remains Senior Contributing Editor. The YNL informs six hundred subscribers of up-coming reunions, activities held on St. Yoder Day—August 16, Yoder deaths, Yoder DNA testing results, events held at “House of Yoder” at Penn Alps in Pennsylvania, and much more. An internet Home page was begun in 1997; the website is:

Feature articles appear in each 8-page YNL. Over the decades Rachel W. Kreider has authored a variety of these. One examined “Revelations from Barbara Shirk’s Will.” Another told tales that have emerged around “Strong” Jacob Yoder who arrived in America in September 1742. Two accounts appear in successive issues (1986 and 1988), one about the “St. Joder Chapel” found by Edith Joder in 1966 in Switzerland, and one detailing “Speculations on Earliest Ties to European Joders.” From Rachel’s two visits to Joderheubel (the hill with the chapel) readers learn details of a panel of nine small paintings from the 1620s that depict life and legends of St. Joder. Articles about ties with European Joders include phrases like: “not definite, seem to have come, and researchers need to be cautious and keep open to competing theories.” Writing about the castle-tower in Thun, a city near Steffisburg from where many Yoders hail, Kreider notes that at least one Joder was imprisoned there during Anabaptist persecution. She wrote of a problem that has dogged her, or with which she has “played,” for five decades—an Amish Christian Yoder with fifteen children, some born in the 1750s. Another mystery, “a garbled mystery of two lines” surrounds a Barbara Yoder whose husband died at sea. A Will dated 1772 of her son “Hamburg Christian” details to the Cow, Wheat, and Eggs laid by the Hens to be left his “dear wife.”

So also have life and death engaged Rachel. Her life made rich by family stories and connections has known poignant yet sacred loss. As her grandmother Weaver explained to grandchild Rachel that her Yoder grandparents and uncle Rueben from before no longer live, so great-grandma Rachel ponders and holds in her heart memories of those who have followed her. During the fall of 1982 both accomplished daughters were diagnosed with cancer. Sara’s aggressive type offered several months, until October, before death. Leonard and Rachel were grateful to have moved to Goshen to help care for three children. Unable to attend her sister’s memorial due to recent surgery, Anna lived twenty-three more years. Her amazing recital of one-third of her life, a journey of active involvement in her own treatment as a kidney cancer survivor, inspires a reader (Noted above). For, faith marks generations. Doing no less, Rachel’s insight grew in profound ways—into her mother’s coping as an orphan, her parent’s trials with church flaws, her grandmother’s Wisdom.

For ‘ordinary’ Rachel Weaver Kreider, family (known on charts and in personal hugs), friends (who visit, write letters, call, connect through YNL), books (per year) and travel (to 65 countries) enrich cheerful living. This centenarian ever-instills insight: “No Future without knowledge of the Past.”