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Crowd gathers to honor retirement of long-time museum director

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In the first half of her life so far, Rachel Pannabecker seldom settled in one place for long. But since then, she has become rooted in and identified with one place – Kauffman Museum at Bethel College.

Jan. 11, scores of admirers overflowed the museum’s auditorium to pay tribute to Pannabecker, who retired in December after 30 years at the museum, the last 18 of them as director.

Pannabecker grew up in a family with a pastor father, that tended to move every five or six years, she recalled. She did undergraduate work at Bethel and graduated from Bluffton (Ohio) College as well as earning a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

In their first 11 years of marriage, she and her husband, John Pannabecker, “had 13 mailing addresses in three states and one foreign country.”

In 1979, Rachel Pannabecker, as a student reporter for The Bethel Collegian, was first introduced to Kauffman Museum when she interviewed then-director Ozzie Goering.

At that point, the museum was based on the Bethel College Museum, started in 1896; the large personal collection of Charles J. Kauffman, Marion, South Dakota, who had moved it to the college in 1940; and 35 more years of contributions from the surrounding community. It had all been in storage for two years while fundraising was underway for a new building.

By 1983, John Janzen was Kauffman Museum director. “We were moving from bricks and mortar to programming,” he said at the farewell celebration for Pannabecker. “The [new] building was up and we were celebrating. We had a very small exhibit, mostly boxes. We had no offices, hardly any staff.”

The meat of Janzen’s work was finding money for all those things – permanent exhibit, offices, staff. He put together a team that remains largely intact to this day, including Pannabecker, finishing up her Ph.D., who came on as the museum’s first collections manager.

“Rachel was an expert who was also a flexible generalist,” Janzen said. “The whole team was that – people with a common goal, bringing their expertise together to create something new.”

Pannabecker had two “trial runs” at being director in those first years, Janzen said, serving as interim director while Janzen was on a six-month sabbatical in Europe in 1989 and again when Janzen stepped down permanently.

Pannabecker became museum director in 1996.

At the Jan. 11 event, several others spoke from the different positions in which they had most experience with Pannabecker at Kauffman Museum.

Ilene Schmidt, representing volunteer docents, said that when she polled a number of them, several adjectives rose to the top: knowledgeable, friendly, communicative, articulate, marvelous.

“She had an attitude of gratitude toward volunteers,” Schmidt said. “She always said thank you, and often noted a particular strength a volunteer brought to a special task.”

Michael Unruh, a 2009 Bethel graduate, spoke on behalf of the many student workers and interns who worked with Pannabecker over the years.

While Unruh spent most of his time outdoors in the prairie restoration area, he said, on hot summer days, Pannabecker would sometimes “take pity on me and take me down into the depths of primary storage to work. I would often get distracted by all the cool stuff there.”

Brad Born, Bethel vice president for academic affairs, pointed out that the audience “might not know that throughout her tenure at Kauffman Museum, Rachel also provided instruction across the social sciences.”

Over the years, “she had 533 students in nine different courses, ranging from textiles, back when there were home economics and human ecology programs, to cultural anthropology and social and cultural geography. I’m delighted to announce that she will be teaching [the latter] for a sixth time this spring.”

Bob Regier, Bethel professor emeritus of art, was part of the first exhibit team, working with Pannabecker to create and construct the museum’s permanent exhibit, “Of Land and People.”

Among several notable characteristics he listed were “versatility – whether in overalls, hard hat or a Sunday dress, Rachel would comfortably slip into whatever role the moment called for,” and “performance in the public square – whether it be a presentation or an introduction, we knew that the museum would be well represented.”

Museum board chair Richard Walker commented, “We thought about making Rachel part of the permanent exhibit, but we hadn’t gotten around to the question of preservation yet.”

At the end of the formal program, board vice chair Rosalind Andreas announced to the crowd that a fundraising campaign in honor of Pannabecker’s retirement had raised more than $26,000 since mid-December.

In Pannabecker’s own remarks, she recalled that long-ago interview with Ozzie Goering and how she had used his quote to headline the article: “We’re going to be proud.”

“Thirty-five years later,” she said, “we’re very proud of Kauffman Museum. But we’re not done.”

For 30 years, she said, “I’ve had the privilege of working with people who are smart, creative, hardworking and committed. Now we have a new director [Annette LeZotte] who is smart, creative, hardworking, committed … you get the picture.

“There are many new pages ahead, fresh and lovely. We are confident that we are going to be proud.”

Although Pannabecker has ended her formal relationship with Kauffman Museum, she will continue as a volunteer, working on organizing the museum’s still-vast artifacts collection.

And though she had insisted on “no gift except a fundraising campaign for the museum endowment,” her colleagues presented her with her own clearly labeled collections cart.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.