The remarkable life of Tabor College professor J.G. Ewert was highlighted a century after his death April 23 during the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies’ annual dinner.
Tabor English professor Christopher Dick shared about his translation research into Ewert, an “(in)active activist” who immigrated from what is now Poland to Kansas and attended Bethel College before health issues restricted him at age 24 to a physically immobile life in Hillsboro, Kan.
Ewert was a Tabor faculty member from 1914 to 1920 and writer and editor for the German-language newspaper Vorwärts. He was an active worker for South Russia relief until he died in 1923. He was also recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not! as the “Most Amazing Invalid in All History,” as he taught and worked despite being confined to his bed for more than 20 years.
“I hesitate to say this, but in some ways his physical condition seems to have unlocked something powerful in Ewert,” Dick said. “Who knows what Ewert’s life would have entailed had he not gotten sick?”
Physical limitations drove him to read extensively, study and write. He connected across vast distance by letters and newspaper articles.
Ewert taught languages at Tabor. Following the Russian Revolution and severe famine, he used his knowledge of Russian to facilitate relief inroads with government officials so Mennonite Central Committee aid could be shipped.
“People sent money to Ewert with instructions on the recipients of the funds, and Ewert navigated the bureaucratic paperwork to make it happen,” Dick said of Ewert’s household’s effort to funnel more than $1.4 million in today’s money.
“J.G. Ewert did not let his disability of ‘creeping paralysis’ define him,” said Peggy Goertzen, CMBS director. “He was known for his deep compassion for suffering mankind.”
His charitable interests were driven by his belief that faith cannot be detached from political and social issues. Ewert studied military regulations to assist conscientious objectors and advocated strongly in support of Hutterite COs imprisoned for refusing to wear a military uniform.
He warned of the threats posed by capitalism, militarism and alcoholism.
“Ewert’s support of socialism and critique of capitalism is probably what created, and still creates, the most buzz,” Dick said, citing frequent philosophical run-ins with rival Mennonite editor H.P. Krehbiel of Der Herold on socialism. “. . . It is the destructive power of capitalism that concerns Ewert. [He believed] it destroys everything [and] results in all-consuming greed for those who have money and oppression and hardship for those who don’t.”
Ewert’s food assistance work ended on March 15, 1923. It is reported that he said, “I have written the last food draft application. My work is done.”
“That evening he became sick with influenza, and the following day — March 16 — he died,” Dick said. “Thus concluded the remarkable life of J.G. Ewert.”