September 28th, 2021
Joel Gaeddert, the 2021 Young Alumnus Award recipient, will present a convocation Monday, Oct. 4, at 11 a.m. in Memorial Hall.
Gaeddert’s life since college has centered on turning challenges into opportunities, which has yielded a successful business in a niche market.
Young Alumnus Award recognizes character and citizenship, achievement or service rendered, and honors and recognition received. The recipient must be 39 years of age or younger.
Gaeddert, North Newton, came to Bethel after having grown up in Lenexa, Kan., in the Kansas City metro area, though familiar with both the college and North Newton from visiting grandparents there.
He graduated in 2006 with majors in natural sciences and mathematics – but he already knew that neither medicine nor medical research was for him.
Gaeddert met his wife, Crystal (Enz), at Bethel and they got married right after he graduated. Crystal was clear she wanted to live and raise a family in the Newton area.
After growing up in a large urban/suburban area and rejecting the career path he had once figured on, Gaeddert’s challenge now, he said, was “how to make an interesting living in Newton, Kansas.”
When Chuck Regier, curator of exhibits at Kauffman Museum and someone with whom Gaeddert had worked as a student employee of the museum, offered him a job there, Gaeddert took it. He helped Regier complete the museum’s most recent permanent exhibit, “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture.”
After two years at Kauffman Museum, Gaeddert combined what he had learned in design with his longstanding fascination with computers and the technical skills in coding he had gained while still in college and started Flint Hills Design (FHD) in February 2008.
Initially, the business was custom-built websites. Interest was immediate and the business grew quickly. Gaeddert hired one Bethel modmate, Abe Regier, and then a second, Joel Krehbiel.
Within a year, Gaeddert was offered the opportunity to build a museum exhibit. That invitation came by way of Chuck Regier, and it began an exhibit-building collaboration between FHD and Kauffman Museum that went on for the next several years.
That first exhibit was “The Bison: American Icon,” which was also the start of a relationship with Mid-America Arts Alliance that continues to this day.
To date, FHD has designed and fabricated more than 30 permanent and traveling exhibits, on subjects from Willa Cather to climate change, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb road race to American Indian boarding schools, John Brown to Johnny Carson, Frida Kahlo to Kansas folk artist M.T. Liggett.
In 2015, Gaeddert launched Upland Exhibit Systems, building off-the-shelf exhibit furniture. As of the end of 2020, Gaeddert could say that between FHD and Upland, his business has reached more than half the states in the country.
The latest component is Overland Traveling Exhibits. Four FHD exhibits – with plans to expand that number – are available to museums to rent for a price that includes transportation, installation and tear-down.
While Krehbiel and Abe Regier no longer work for Gaeddert, he currently has several Bethel alumni employees, including his brother David Gaeddert, principal and lead developer, who has spun off a business, Dropseed.io, from a product originally designed to manage an internal process at FHD.
The third brother, Aaron Gaeddert, has also worked with the company and still does occasionally, but spends most of his time managing Prairy Market, a natural foods grocery in Newton.
Gaeddert’s interests and involvement reflect his care for the community and region. He is on the board of trustees for the Central Kansas Community Foundation (he completed a two-year term as chair in 2020) and the board of directors of the Harvey County Economic Development Council.
Flint Hills Design quickly outgrew two different home office locations, so Gaeddert bought the former Mennonite Central Committee Central States warehouse in North Newton, and then the adjoining office building after the financial planners who were there moved out. And a recent business milestone has been purchase of land for further expansion.
“The pandemic hit us hard,” he said, “but as with lots of other companies, it accelerated change that needed to happen anyway. So we fast-forwarded through those changes and are coming out on the other side leaner and stronger than ever.”
Joel and Crystal Gaeddert live in North Newton with their two sons.
Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #15 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges” and #31 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest, both for 2021-22. Bethel was the only Kansas college or university selected for the American Association of College & Universities’ 2021 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu