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Social work professor emeritus leaves a legacy of service and stories

August 19th, 2020

Larry Friesen and friends in Mexico

Generations of Bethel social work majors are recalling their favorite “Larry stories” following the death of Larry D. Friesen on Aug. 8.

He had struggled for a decade with frontal temporal dementia (FTD).

Friesen was born and raised on a farm in the Aberdeen, Idaho, area. Both he and his older brother, Duane K. Friesen, fulfilled the dreams of their parents, Waldo and Linda (Zielke) Friesen, for education by graduating from Bethel College and completing graduate degrees.

Friesen grew up in “a family with a commitment for service,” he recalled at the time he retired in 2011. But there was no social work program at Bethel when he was a student.

He majored in English, but his service orientation led him to stay in Newton for the summer between his junior and senior years to work at Prairie View Mental Health Services.

He was also influenced by the social justice movements of the 1960s, his obituary noted. A family tragedy sparked his interest in mental health, solidifying his decision to pursue more studies in the area of social services.

Immediately after graduating from Bethel, in 1967, he went to the University of Denver for a master’s degree in social welfare, eventually earning a doctorate in social welfare from Columbia University.

While at UD, he met fellow social work student Donna June. They married in 1969 and had a daughter, Katy June-Friesen, in 1980.

Friesen began teaching in Bethel’s Department of Social Work in spring semester 1983, and completed a tenure of 28-and-a-half years in 2011.

At that time, Bethel’s Social Work Advisory Council decided to set up the Larry Friesen Social Work Scholarship to be awarded annually to a new student, either first-year or transfer, who intended to major in social work.

Said Ada Schmidt-Tieszen, whom Friesen recruited for the program and who retired from Bethel as a professor of social work in May 2020, the scholarship was meant to honor Friesen “for all the work he did in the social work program.”

“Here are a few examples. He initiated the Mexico interterm [Social Development and Social Justice class]. He conducted community research with his students every year in Research Methods and then reported back to agencies. He established the current curriculum and wrote quite a few successful self-studies. He established the strong reputation of the program over the 28-and-a-half years he was [department] chair.   

“He developed an approach in Research Methods that helped students be very successful. In the course of a semester, students did a project from start to finish – gathered data, analyzed it, did a literature review and presented the results to the agency. Being involved in something ‘real’ helped students become much more interested in research.

“Larry was always good at organizing a fun activity for Service Day. We painted a house for the domestic violence shelter in Wichita and did yard work at the shelter in Newton. We cleaned out a toy and donation storage area for the Wichita Children’s Home – this was a riot because Larry tried out the tricycles.

“Larry was seen by a lot of people as a social work mentor, a consultant, a listening ear. He worked with Youthville [in Newton] for one sabbatical, which established him as someone staff could, and wanted to, talk to.”

Sara Friesen Guhr, Newton, is a 1992 Bethel social work graduate, a member of the Social Work Advisory Council, a school social worker at Sunset Elementary School in Newton, and one of Friesen’s two nieces.

“I had the privilege of having Larry as a professor and mentor,” she said. “Larry offered a passion for the field of social work, a commitment to disenfranchised groups and individuals, a focus on strengths and the whole person and their autonomy in their lives, and a wonderful sense of humor.”

The first Larry Friesen Scholarship in social work was awarded at the start of the 2019-20 school year to Viviana Rodriguez, San Antonio, Texas.

“As a professor of social work at Bethel College,” Friesen’s obituary said, “his greatest satisfaction was helping prepare students for the challenges they would face in life and work, and expand their knowledge of diverse people and cultures.

“He brought his experiences of the 1960s to the classroom, teaching students to advocate for those in need and to always (constructively) question authority. Larry’s legacy will live on in the many students he mentored over the years. Each has her or his favorite ‘Larry story.’

“In the more than 40 years he lived in Harvey County, he supported numerous community organizations, by serving on boards, involving his students in research, or just sharing his wisdom.

“He served for eight years on the [Newton] USD 373 School Board (1992-2000), where he advocated for students and families, particularly those with challenges, as well as all educators. He was also instrumental in expanding the hiring of school social workers.

“Alongside his professional life, Larry was always fixing or building something. He built furniture, turned bowls on his lathe and drilled wells with a home-built rig in the back yards of friends and family. He still planted potatoes every spring.”

In October 2019, the family celebrated Larry and Donna’s 50th anniversary, Larry’s 75th birthday, and Katy’s marriage to Christian Samaniego, which gained Larry and Donna a grandson, Matias Samaniego.

Due to COVID-19, a celebration of life will take place sometime in 2021, with former students encouraged to attend and share their memories and “Larry stories.”

Memorials are the Bethel College Department of Social Work (online or contact the Bethel College development office), Good Shepherd Hospice and Mennonite Central Committee.

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu Melanie Zuercher

About Bethel

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.