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John E. Zehr, 11th president of Bethel College, dies in Illinois

April 16th, 2018

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – John E. Zehr, president of Bethel College from 1991-95, died Feb. 5 at home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 88.

Zehr was born near Foosland, Illinois. He married Betty L. Birky in 1951 and they were the parents of four children: Terry, Randy, Brent and Rhonda.

Zehr was a longtime professor and head of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Illinois. He also served in a number of leadership roles with the Illinois Heart Association.

Zehr’s undergraduate degree was from Eureka (Illinois) College and his graduate degrees, including the Ph.D., from Indiana University Medical Center. He did post-doctoral work at the Mayo Clinic and in Seattle before starting his career at the University of Illinois.

According to Zehr’s daughter, Rhonda Gibson, Zehr was involved in some of the ground-breaking work on angiotensin, a hormone that causes a rise in blood pressure and is a target for many blood-pressure medications.

Zehr retired from Illinois in 1991 and he and Betty moved to North Newton, where he assumed the presidency of Bethel College. These were rewarding years for the Zehrs, involving traveling and entertaining on behalf of the college, and building many friendships across the country.

Keith Sprunger wrote of Zehr in Bethel College of Kansas 1887-2012: “Active in Illinois Mennonite Conference [of the Mennonite Church] activities, and son of a Mennonite pastor [Rev. Harold Zehr], he brought to Bethel his ‘lifelong history of dedication to the Christian faith from the Anabaptist perspective.’ Accepting the Bethel presidency meant taking a huge financial hit, but he saw it as a worthwhile service to the church.”

Sprunger went on to note that Zehr had to rebuild the administrative staff, with several positions falling vacant at the time of or soon after Harold Schultz’s resignation in 1991 after six terms (20 years) as president.

Zehr hired Wynn Goering as academic dean and George Rogers as dean of students, first as interim, then as permanent, appointments.

Zehr was the first president to make Bethel a non-smoking campus, and he established the Mexico internship program in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Although the latter did not continue, Bethel groups continue to go to Cuernavaca for short-term cross-cultural experiences.

“Zehr’s move to Bethel came late in his career, in his 60s,” Sprunger wrote. “In light of his age, he ‘always considered [himself] a “transitional” president.’ Ever the ‘incorrigible optimist,’ even in difficult times, he could always see opportunities.”

Rhonda Gibson noted that in addition to his family and education, her father’s great loves included the Mennonite church and music.

Zehr served the local and larger Mennonite Church in many ways, particularly when it came to music. As someone gifted with a voice for singing, he was a regular song leader for the churches he attended, most recently First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, where he was a member at the time of his death.

John and Betty Zehr sang in many duets and quartets in their younger years and were often heard singing around the house as their children grew up.

One of the memorials, to First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, will go to help fund purchase of the new Mennonite Church USA hymnals, scheduled to be published in 2020.

Zehr is survived by Terry (Cheryl) Zehr of Elkhart, Indiana, Randy (Cathy) Zehr of Columbus, Indiana, Usha Barwale Zehr of Dawalwadi, India, Rhonda (Charles) Gibson of Champaign, Illinois, and six grandchildren.

Brent Zehr died in 2007 of an extremely rare and aggressive type of soft-tissue cancer, adult rhabdomyosarcoma. Betty Zehr died in 2012.

Following John Zehr’s wish for cremation, there will be a service of celebration and singing at First Mennonite Church in Urbana at a later date.

Memorials are the Student Scholarship Fund at Bethel College and the American Heart Association, in addition to First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana.

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. 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.