October 2003 Tributes

Harry Loewen: A Tribute

Paul Tiessen

When I arrived as an undergraduate at the Mennonite Brethren College of Arts in Winnipeg in 1964-65, only a year or two after Rudy Wiebe had been delicately shown the road out of town, I did have a vague inkling that ?the sixties? had begun, but I had little language to give shape to my hunches. It was immediately apparent to me that ?the sixties? (whatever they might turn out to be) had not much made their way into the faculty ranks at the college. However, there was much whispering among some of my fellow undergrads about one Harry Loewen’a faculty member in his mid-30s who taught one course part-time, and that one course only once a week, and then only in the evening’who was beginning to lift the lid on things at least a crack, to let light fall where it might. The following year this Harry Loewen was given a full-time position at the Mennonite Brethren college, and the strategic and warm support that he increasingly gave to undergrad students at the college during that time of great cultural transition became increasingly well known. He somehow found a means to give enthusiastic counsel and confidence to the very generation that was finding a way of shaping ?the sixties.? To be sure, after two or three years of teaching at the college, and with little resistance from the administration, he was himself trying to find a way out of town!

All the while working on his M.A. and Ph.D. studies at the Universities of Manitoba and Waterloo, respectively, Harry had become eminently ready for a job offer that came from Wilfrid Laurier University (then called Waterloo Lutheran University) in Waterloo, Ontario. He taught at Wilfrid Laurier in the German Department for ten years, from 1968 to 1978, serving also as the department’s chair. I joined the Wilfrid Laurier University faculty in 1974 and recall our colleagues? enthusiastic response to Professor Loewen’s expanding publishing record, that by then included his first two books, Goethe’s Response to Protestantism (1972) and Luther and the Radicals (1974).

The opportunity that drew Harry into the center of Mennonite literary studies came in 1978, when he was invited to occupy the first Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg’in the very town he had left a decade before. He threw his energy and talent into setting up the Mennonite Studies program at the University of Winnipeg and, by 1983, establishing and editing the Journal of Mennonite Studies, a very successful scholarly forum. In this academic context Harry created and offered the first Mennonite literature courses at a Canadian university. Harry’s interest in the literature of the Mennonites found expression, also, in three key editing projects that ran alongside his early work as editor of the journal: Mennonite Images: Historical, Cultural and Literary Essays Dealing with Mennonite Issues (1980), Visions and Realities: Essays, Poems and Fiction Dealing with Mennonite Issues (with Al Reimer, 1985), and Why I am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity (1988). Each of these include important essays foundational to the further study of Mennonite literature in Canada. Harry Loewen, still youthful and dashing today, turned 65 back in 1995 and retired that year from the Chair in Mennonite Studies, having occupied that position with great distinction for seventeen years.

Retirement gave Harry opportunity to leave Winnipeg yet again’though this time reluctantly’to settle in the Okanagan Valley area of British Columbia. And it gave him opportunity to carry on with an ambitious series of books focused especially on his passionate and life-long desire to take Mennonite history’s cultural and spiritual stories beyond academe to the everyday life of church people and others who might be interested: No Permanent City (published in 1993 while he still held the Chair) was followed by Road to Freedom (2000) and an edited book on twenty-four Mennonite intellectual and cultural leaders that will appear in 2003. Its mischievously grinning title is Shepherds, Servants, and False Prophets. After that will come an autobiography, which will take readers back to Harry’s roots in Russia, the execution there of his father and grandfather, his flight to Poland and Germany in 1943, his emigration to Canada in 1948, his marriage to Gertrude Penner in 1953, the birth of their three sons, his studies at Mennonite schools and at universities in Canada, his teaching position at the Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg that preceded his moving over to the Mennonite Brethren College of Arts.

It is a great honor to survey Dr. Harry Loewen’s life as an influential academic who continues to have a palpable impact on the development of Mennonite literary studies in Canada and beyond, and to say thank you for having kept on extending ?the sixties,? and all the ideals and possibilities they represented, to the rest of us.

Yorifumi Yaguchi: A Tribute

Wilbur Birky

Yorifumi Yaguchi has been writing poetry for over 55 years. We honor him for bringing a distinctly Japanese voice to Mennonite poetry’a deep voice, an honest voice, a ?Jeremiah? voice. For most of us here, he represents a crucial poetic witness to a world at war’but from the ?other side.? While I was a boy growing up in Oregon during World War II and vaguely aware of blackouts to protect U.S. soil from potential Japanese bombing raids, Yaguchi-san was dodging U.S. bombs by hiding in coal mines and diving into rice paddies, then awakening one day to the news of a horrific blast in Hiroshima and listening to the crackling radio voice of his emperor in national defeat. Far from destroying his poetic gifts, this basic experience had given sharp focus and a prophetic quality to his voice. The writing of poetry became an essential part of even his studies at Goshen Biblical Seminary from 1962-65, when he was already publishing poetry in English, not only in Goshen’s Foolscap but also in national magazines. His work is often a poetry of nature and of surprise, as we heard in the reading of words in all their mystery this evening. But also, as he himself has said of his poetry, ?It’s like an arrow. An arrow coated with poison and medicine.?

Yorifumi Yaguchi

This poetic arrow delights the spirit but is often directed at militarism and nationalism in both Japan and the West, an arrow of healing with sources in both Zen meditation and Christian pacifism. Many may know his work primarily through the thirty poems in Three Mennonite Poets. But we honor him for a large and expanding canon of influence published throughout the world. He is author of not only five books of poetry in English but of eight in Japanese and one translated into Chinese. He has also published three books of essays in Japanese and has translated two books of poems into Japanese: one by R. S. Thomas and one by Anne Sexton. His poetry has been published on five continents. He has had extensive association with an international community of poets, most of whom share a vision for the power of the poetic word to point the way of peace in a violent world: William Stafford, R. S. Thomas, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly and others. Seven of his poems, including ?Silence? and ?Many Winds,? have been set to music by Canadian composer Jacques Desjardins’five as the ?Cycle Yaguchi.?

Yaguchi has also been a constant prophetic voice in Japan’through thirty years as poetry editor for Poetry Nippon, a national and international journal of poetry, through also serving as a peace activist and pastor to the Mennonite and other Protestant churches in Japan.

We offer tribute to an humble friend in whose presence it is not possible to escape the delight of poetry. Our family has personally experienced the communal writing of haiku on a Sunday afternoon mountain hike and an on-the-spot ritual of each writing an original poem with brush and ink onto rice paper on the floor of our temporary Sapporo home. Yaguchi-san, for these personal gifts and for your global poetic witness of peace, we honor you as international poet, teacher, pastor, prophet and editor whose poetic arrows continue to surprise, to delight, to wound and to heal’from Sapporo and Tokyo to Buffalo, Montreal, London, Sidney, Dalian, Haifa and Goshen.

Barbara Claassen Smucker (1915-2003): A Tribute

Elaine Sommers Rich

Barbara Claassen Smucker, born in 1915 in Newton, Kansas, descends from remarkable forebears. One of her grandmothers marched and carried a hatchet, along with Carry Nation and other women temperance leaders, into the bars of frontier Wichita, Kansas to fight ?demon rum.? Her Claassen grandparents were part of the great emigration of Dutch/Prussian/Russian Mennonites to the western prairies of the United States and Canada in the 1870s. Is it any wonder, then, that her books for children are saturated with a sense of justice and a deep empathy for oppressed persons?

Best known among Mennonite readers are her Henry’s Red Sea and Days of Terror. Many of us have heard Barbara relate how she began to write historical fiction for children. While she and her husband Donovan were at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago, they once invited Peter and Elfrieda Dyck to their home for a meal. The three Smucker children, usually eager to escape adult conversation, stayed at the table, listening spellbound to the Dycks’ stories of Mennonites escaping persecution following the Russian revolution. Barbara realized that those stories should reach a wider audience. Henry’s Red Sea, published by Herald Press in 1955, was the first of her twelve books.

Elaine Sommers Rich honoring Barbara Claassen Smucker (in absentia)

Best known among non-Mennonite, especially Canadian, readers is her Underground to Canada, published in the United States as Runaway to Freedom. In the turbulent 1960s, while Donovan was president of a black college in Mississippi, Barbara taught at a nearby all-black high school. A decade later, after much research, she pioneered in bringing to life for children the too-little-known story of the underground railroad. Her three major characters’runaway slaves Julily, Liza and Lester’follow the Drinking Gourd, i.e. the Big Dipper, to Canada and freedom. In 1978 this book was named one of the fifty best books of all time in Canada by the Children’s Book Center. In 1980 it received the Brotherhood Award of the National Council of Christians and Jews. The All-Japan Library Committee and the Catholic Teachers Association of then West Germany also honored this book, which has been translated into seven languages.

Through her character Susan Bearskin, Barbara has also written about the difficulties that Native Americans experience when they move from reservations to jobs in the city. She has written a book about the Amish neighbors she learned to know in Ontario. Her last two books, done in cooperation with illustrator Janet Wilson, were published after her eightieth birthday.

Barbara holds honorary doctorates from the University of Waterloo and Bluffton College. Still tall, gracious and gentle, she now lives in the Alzheimers unit of Mennonite Memorial Home in Bluffton, Ohio, surrounded by the books she has written and by photographs of Donovan, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

What a great gift she has given to young readers’and to all of us here. Thank you, Barbara Claassen Smucker!

Rudy Wiebe: A Tribute

Hildi Froese Tiessen

In 1962, Rudy Wiebe’lean, energetic, 28 years old’was a youth sponsor in a Winnipeg Mennonite Brethren church that I, a young teenager, sometimes attended. I was too young and much too flippant then to have read Peace Shall Destroy Many, which came out that fall. But I was aware that this rather self-possessed sponsor of ours was something of a cause clbre.

Forty years later, it is a very special pleasure, Rudy, for me to pay tribute to you, as writer and friend.

I don’t need to tell this audience that Rudy Wiebe is a highly respected Canadian writer. His influence as a major player in working to ensure the well-being of our national literary culture is widely acknowledged. No one would question, Rudy, that you have been a formidable force in shaping Canadians? perceptions of the prairie, the north and the indigenous peoples who occupied our land long before the Europeans arrived. Well into the 1970s our national myths held that vast regions of the Canadian landscape were empty before the white man came, and you’giving expression to your own experience and helping to articulate our newly recognized postcolonial condition as Canadians’demonstrated that Canada had for centuries been full of people, stories, voices. And you brought those voices to life. The voices of Big Bear and others.

Big Bear was already there, of course, in 1962 in the pages of Peace Shall Destroy Many, a novel in which the natives and Mennonites lived side by side. But it is the Mennonites who interest us here. At the conference on Mennonite/s Writing in Canada, held in Waterloo in 1990, Canadian literary critic Clara Thomas declared that, while she admired the work of Rudy Wiebe, his characters would never be able to reveal her to herself as Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley had done. I remember thinking, ?Oh yes, Professor Thomas. I am sure that is so. Go ahead and lay claim to Margaret Laurence and all the other Anglo-Presbyterians in Canada. Rudy Wiebe is ours!?

Rudy Wiebe and Yorifumi Yaguchi

So Rudy, tonight we are celebrating your forty years of prodigious literary achievement since Peace Shall Destroy Many. And tonight at least you are ours’the writer who (to a greater or lesser degree) speaks our language, and to us. May yours remain the voice of peace. May the world long take pleasure from, and learn by listening to, the stories we’yes, you and the rest of us here, the Mennonites’share.

I need to add, though, that although we claim you’at least this one time in forty years’many others join us in wishing you well. Literary colleagues and friends from across North America and beyond, fellow writers, scholars, translators, mentors, students’from Tom Wharton to Joachim Utz, Michael Dibdin to Katherine Govier, Al Reimer to Apollonia Steele, Peter Bargen to Robert Kroetsch, Stephen Scobie to Joy Kogawa, Konrad Gross to Jack Dueck, Zhao Fa to Margaret Atwood. All these wish you well, along with many of your friends gathered here at this conference. All have expressed their congratulations in a new volume that says thank you for all of your wonderful words over these forty years!

[At this point, Hildi Froese Tiessen presented Wiebe with the volume Rudy Wiebe: a tribute (Waterloo, ON and Goshen, IN: Sand Hills Books and Pinchpenny Press, 2002] which she had assembled and edited. The volume includes fourteen photographs of Wiebe and personal tributes, in the form of reminiscences and letters, poems and cartoons, from forty-eight of Rudy Wiebe’s many friends, colleagues, students and literary peers, including those mentioned above. Wiebe, taken by surprise, browsed through the book over the course of the next ten minutes or so, remarking with pleasure on the entries therein.]

Rudy Wiebe

The Mennonite Quarterly Review