This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Rachel Weaver Kreider: Connected centenarian

Rachel feeds son Emil in their North Newton, Kan., home. Photo provided

A profile of Rachel Weaver Kreider

Connections affect outlook. How people network varies during life’s decades. For Rachel Weaver Kreider, both ancestry and current experience prompt stories to retell.

As a child, Rachel heard her Grandma Weaver talk of her Yoder grandmothers, who in turn knew more grandmas. Stunned, Rachel pondered those grandmas.

Rachel’s connections grew. Her grandma talked intensely of her astute Uncle Reuben Yoder, who no longer lived. Young Rachel watched her grandma page through the big Hochstetler book of 1912 for links, read letters from Aunt Vinora’s early 1920s work with Mennonite Central Committee in Constantinople among Russian immigrants, and pondered Uncle John’s questions about cousin marriage.

Rachel loved the family lore. When called for an errand by her mother (Laura Johns Weaver), Rachel told her grandma, “Don’t say anything until I return.”

Perhaps conservative in appearance, Rachel’s family exposed her to ordinary and liberal ideas. For some years her father, Samuel E. Weaver, combined farming with duties as Shipshewana, Ind., school superintendent and Forks Mennonite Church ministry. He read Christian Century writers; she listened with him to Sunday afternoon broadcasts by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Her mother, orphaned at 11 and with an eighth-grade education, read magazines; she absorbed Ladies Home Journal content cover-to-cover for 25 years.

Rachel feeds son Emil in their North Newton, Kan., home. Photo provided
Rachel feeds son Emil in their North Newton, Kan., home. Photo provided

Born May 28, 1909, Rachel describes herself as ordinary. She represents many women with tasks to do, hobbies and siblings—for her, two brothers and a sister. While distinct from women, she echoes their being socialized to be undervalued. “We let others lead” she says.

Now nearing 104, Rachel Weaver Kreider might ponder a grandson’s computer yen or review a listing of book titles she recently read before turning to proofread a recent issue of the Yoder Newsletter (YNL). But those details rush the story.

Alongside relatives, Rachel inwardly nurtured and questioned Mennonite roots. Her maturing religious links knew conviction and pain. She noticed when her mother could not receive Communion emblems because she had refused “proper” strings for her bonnet. She doubted when her father resigned, outwardly due to health but also because he was educated beyond that expected for “men of the (minister’s) bench.” In 1920, the family moved from Sam’s well-managed farm to near Goshen, Ind. New connections followed, with friends whose church loyalties were broader than Mennonite.

That adjustments took time reflects self-understanding. Regarding church life, Rachel was baptized at College Mennonite Church (meeting on the Goshen College campus). Then in 1922, her family and a dozen others shifted without valid letters to “that other” (General Conference Mennonite) church on Eighth Street. A year later, nearly 100 people changed membership due to turmoil that closed Goshen College for a year (1923-24). Rachel later wrote about that surge of activity in a 480-page book, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church (1913-1987). “Ordinary” Rachel knew the poignant, emotional power of transition. Honored oldest member, she now celebrates Eighth Street’s centennial year.

Rachel enjoyed Goshen High School years, spurred by a woman Latin teacher who described her as “a bud opening.” Rachel excelled in writing via memories: 20 snowbound travelers housed in the Weaver home overnight became a story. A cousin’s week-long visit from Chicago had prompted Rachel’s writing a novel about a boy resistant to admitting the strengths of rural life.

On receiving the “best all-around senior girl award” (1927), she felt her parents’ lack of praise. To them, being humble and ordinary mattered. A repeated observation of her mother’s lingers: “For how smart you are, I never cease to be surprised by how dumb you can be at times.”

Reserve marked Rachel’s Goshen College years. She describes Old Mennonite students (the Mennonites) as straight-laced or super good. General Conference Mennonites were judged “not good enough” for leadership with the religious “Y.” A day student, Rachel liked Verna Graber Smith’s teaching about Roman life, Edward M. Yoder’s Latin teaching and Gustav Enns’ German class. But Enns’ horror of “modernism” provoked her. One of two from her class of 31 to find a job directly after being graduated, she broadened connections while teaching English and Latin at Roann, about 50 miles away, for two years prior to marriage.

Leonard Kreider, a Goshen College classmate of 1931, asked if she was “willing to be as poor as he.” When he also proposed that they “go for further education together,” she felt relief from the typical burden of putting husband through school. “I trusted my fulfillment to emerge.” Rachel married Leonard, son of Lloyd and Adelia (Stover) of Wadsworth, Ohio, at her home on June 20, 1933.

“Ordinary” Rachel’s Mennonite convictions also surfaced. Her seven-page letter of Sept. 28, 1935, to former Goshen College professor Guy F. Hershberger details her involvement on the OSU campus with students protesting the rule that, except for physical reasons, fellows were required to take Reserve Officers Training Corp or be expelled. (See James Juhnke, Mennonite Life, December 2002.)

One of 25 Mennonites and part of a “United Front” cluster of campus organizations, she spoke directly to OSU President Rightmire: “If our boys are true to their 400-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.” Rachel also expressed conscience with philosophy professors and through letters asked Ohio Mennonite pastors to support the fellows facing ROTC.

The Kreiders also broadened insights while in New York City during 1937. Leonard published seven research articles at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and Rachel pursued housekeeping with self-awareness. “I just had to write something.” Her attempt with fiction—a serialized story about her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother—never materialized. But Uncle John’s box of Yoder genealogy materials, left with Rachel before he died, rarely lay dormant.

Leonard agreed to teach chemistry several years at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., that evolved into 12. North Newton proved to be a good town in which to raise Kreider children born in 1938, 1940 and 1943. Daughter Anna, from age 12 on, documented her life. Speaking for Herself: The Autobiographical Writings of Anna K. Juhnke describes Rachel’s mothering experience: “… 21 songs that Mom used to sing to us. … Mom told us stories—as from 1-2 Kings—while she ironed. … Mom began to untangle Amish Yoders. … pies were Mom’s specialty. … Mom and I had a good relationship, intimate conversation. … Mom taught me organizing skills—how to lead meetings, keep records. … Mom was my first model for women in church leadership.

She ‘pastored’ every Sunday—greeting people, integrating them into action, inquiring into their grief or joys.”

“Ordinary” Rachel soaked up opportunities while in North Newton; writing continued. Her printed booklet “Key in Your Hand” nudged young women to be peace advocates alongside young men engaged in alternate service during World War II. She joined Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded by Jane Addams, a social activist among Chicago immigrants. Mennonite WILPF women, alert to denominational experience as immigrants in 1874 and 1920, wrote letters opposing war.

From Kansas, the Kreider family moved to Wadsworth, Ohio, for Leonard’s employment as researcher with natural rubber at B. F. Goodrich in Akron. With family her first priority, Rachel nevertheless broadened connections. She started a local branch of Church Women United, in part to meet women of diverse denominations. She served as secretary with her church’s mission committee for nine years and prodded congregations to keep records for the Central District Conference historical committee.

Asked to write the 100-year history of First Mennonite Church of Wadsworth, she studied the Old Mennonite story in order to write the General Conference one. Together with several couples, the Kreiders started a peace project later used as a model by American Friends Service Committee.

“I was learning all the time,” ordinary Rachel says. She researched and wrote a genealogy of Leonard’s parents. With genealogist Ford Coolman she 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 Hochstetler reunions.

Leonard’s professional experience and Rachel’s yen for history influenced their children’s academic pursuits. Emil (married to Louise Pankratz), Anna (to James Juhnke) and Sara (to Gregory Hartzler) earned doctoral degrees before teaching, respectively, at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Bethel College and Goshen College. Growth and interests of eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren inspire Rachel.

Rachel’s life, made rich through anecdotes and connections, also knew poignant, sacred loss. During the fall of 1982, both adult daughters were diagnosed with cancer. Sara’s aggressive type allowed only several months before her death. Leonard and Rachel were grateful to have moved to Goshen, where they helped care for three grandchildren. Anna lived 23 more years. Her recital of a journey of active involvement with treatment of kidney cancer exudes faith—faith that marks generations. Leonard died in 2001. Profound insight accompanied Rachel’s grief—into her mother’s coping as an orphan, her parent’s economic and church trials, and her deepened claim of “The Anabaptist Vision.” “I could do no less” she says.

Rachel W. Kreider’s Yoder genealogy hobby became public by 1970. Connecting her Christian Yoder “lines” spurred careful attention to detail. Hugh F. Gingerich of Washington, D.C., visited Rachel in Wadsworth. 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 of the eventual classic Amish and Amish Mennonite Genealogies (1986).

In the book’s preface, Gingerich credits Rachel’s genealogical strengths: “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 the extensive correspondence required in the compilation of a volume of genealogies such as this one.”

Discovering connections among Amish Yoders, the co-authors paid attention to practices (such as baptism or dress mode), oral tradition, schisms, patterns of migration, and variant spellings. Surname Yoder variants include Joder, Jotter, Yotter, Yothers and Ioder. Another Yoder researcher, Chris Yoder from Michigan, soon asked if Rachel knew of his great-grandfather Reuben Yoder (1831-1912). That Reuben proved to be none other than her own Grandma Weaver’s Uncle Rueben. Rachel then invited Chris Yoder to her kitchen table along with Ben Yoder. Together they founded the Yoder Newsletter in 1983; Rachel remains senior contributing editor. Published for 30 years, two issues per year, the YNL informs hundreds of subscribers of upcoming reunions, St. Joder Day—Aug. 16—activities, Yoder DNA testing results and more. A home page was begun in 1997:

Feature articles appear in each eight-page YNL. Over the decades, Rachel has authored varied titles, such as: “Revelations from Barbara Shirk’s Will,” “ ‘Strong Jacob’ Yoder Stories,” “The St. Joder Chapel” (in Switzerland) and “Speculations on Earliest Ties to European Joders.” Reflecting historian concerns, another article reports a problem that has dogged Rachel for five decades; another warns of “a garbled mystery of two lines.”

Recently, Chris Yoder took nine boxes of Rachel’s Yoder materials to his home. While she graciously expects him to pursue the puzzles that have haunted her, she admits a measure of grief, realizing that she can no longer add a newly discovered “tidbit” to her files. Rachel may also inform friends of her other extensive writing or travels (to 65 countries) not mentioned here.

This ordinary, connected centenarian might better be described “extraordinaire” as she instills this truth: “No Future without knowledge of the Past.”

Dorothy Yoder Nyce, Goshen, Ind., is author of Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges (2010) and compiler of her mother’s ‘Talks’ that Teach from Bessie King Yoder 1906-2008 (2012).

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