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Wedel was a champion of students, ‘the face of mathematics’ at Bethel

Arnold M. Wedel as a young man

The memorial service for Arnold M. Wedel, Ph.D., Bethel College professor emeritus of mathematics, who died June 30 at age 90, will be Aug. 18 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.

Wedel devoted his life to a vision of Bethel as a first-rate liberal arts institution on a par with the best in the country. Besides his family and mathematics, he was passionate about Mennonite values and genealogy, peace research, following the stock market, and the Boston Red Sox.

Bringing the spirit of an iconoclast to nearly everything he did, Wedel pushed past barriers to achieve what might have seemed impossible.

With scant resources, he built a nationally recognized mathematics program; developed a cooperative math program with four area colleges (Bethel along with Tabor, McPherson and Hesston Colleges, with the Bethel-Tabor math co-op still in existence); and brought to Bethel both world-renowned mathematicians and peace activists such as folksinger Pete Seeger, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan, and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.

Wedel was born in Lawrence, when his father, Edward B. Wedel, was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Kansas. During the Depression, the elder Wedel secured a job as a math teacher and moved the family to Holdenville, Oklahoma, where Wedel spent his elementary school years playing saxophone and violin and grading his father’s students’ exams.

When the family returned to Kansas and settled in North Newton, Wedel took up sports writing at Newton High School. He skipped a year in both high school and college, graduating from Bethel College in 1947. He earned a master’s degree from  KU in 1948 and a Ph.D. from Iowa State College (now University) in 1951, specializing in statistics.

A few months later, he joined the Bethel faculty, only to be drafted in 1953. He served two years in 1-W service as a hospital admitting clerk in Denver, where he met his future wife, Dolores Lehman.

Returning to Bethel, Wedel resumed his teaching career and recruited faculty in math and other fields. Within a decade, he had attracted a stable powerhouse of young math scholars to the college.

One of his faculty recruits was his former student Richard Rempel, professor emeritus of mathematics. The first time was after Rempel had completed his master’s degree and the second time at the conclusion of his Ph.D. studies. In both cases, Rempel said Wedel persisted against academic deans who wanted other candidates.

Rempel called Wedel “the face of mathematics” at Bethel. For a century, from 1906-2006, there were only three chairs of the department: David “Uncle Davy” Richert, his student Wedel, and Wedel’s student Rempel.

Under Wedel’s leadership, the mathematics program grew and thrived. He introduced, and then coached students in taking, the annual premier national undergraduate math contest, the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, or “the Putnam.” Several generations of students remember the early Saturday morning Putnam practices, to which Wedel would bring donuts as “inspiration.”

The successes of Bethel students in the Putnam regularly vastly exceeded those of students in comparable colleges. Five of Wedel’s students placed in the top 100 in the nation (one, Jon McCammond, did it twice). The legendary 1964 team ranked 14th in the nation – an astonishing achievement for a tiny school competing against the largest and most prestigious universities with unlimited resources and supposedly top-flight talent.

“He was a mentor and dear friend ever since I met him in 1964,” said former student Gary Lyndaker, a Putnam competitor. “He gave his all to Bethel, mathematics, and his students for decades.”

This was not always in the area of mathematics. Gerald Gerbrandt, a former president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, studied one year at Bethel.

Although Gerbrandt took no math courses during that year and isn’t even sure he ever met Wedel, he “knew him by reputation.”

“Two things impressed me,” Gerbrandt said. “One was his reputation as a professor, in terms of his special skill in communicating math and in his commitment to work with and mentor students.

“There was another side of his reputation I came to respect, based on my own understanding of leadership that has developed over the years. My sense is that every institution needs someone like [Arnold Wedel] to raise the uncomfortable questions, or stand up for students against policies and so on that may even make sense in the abstract, but are not really right for the students themselves.”

Wedel wrote The Joy of Mathematics: The Mathematical Adventures of Herman Bubbert (a fictitious character renowned in the Bethel community and beyond). He used this text to introduce non-math majors to the wide range of mathematical thought, history and theory.

He served the Kansas section of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) as chairman as well as governor, and was granted its Meritorious Service Award. A room at the MAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named for him.

Citing statistics showing the United States falling behind in math competency, Wedel led an effort to put a mathematician on a U.S. postage stamp. Math concepts should be introduced along with crayons in preschool, he believed, and he campaigned relentlessly to bolster elementary and secondary education.

In addition to his mathematics-related endeavors, Wedel was a genealogy aficionado known for his expertise in the history both of his own Swiss/Schweitzer Mennonites and that of Dolores’s family’s Amish roots. He served as president and vice president of the Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association.

His curiosity and skills also prompted an interest in business and finance and he was recruited to serve on the boards of several local corporations.

Wedel was a long-suffering Boston Red Sox fan. His love of Ted Williams, the outstanding Red Sox rookie in 1939, likely sparked the enthusiasm of a boy growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma that persisted throughout his life.

In 2003, in honor of his 75th birthday, Wedel got to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Only a year later, the Sox curse was broken as the team finally won the World Series.

Throughout his life, Wedel sought opportunities for integrating ideas from the larger world into Bethel’s curriculum, from big, marquee institutions as well as from small colleges.

He took sabbaticals at Cornell University on a National Science Foundation faculty fellowship and at Rice University in Houston, where he studied informatics.

During other sabbaticals, he taught at Ottawa (Kansas) University and Goshen (Indiana) College. After participating in a  history of math course at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Wedel led an effort to get math at Bethel integrated into “its proper division, humanities.”

Wedel spent summers traveling to recruit students and teaching at other institutions, among them KU, Emporia State University, Mankato (Minnesota) State College, Lehigh University (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) and Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois).

In later years, Arnold and Dolores enjoyed summers in her childhood community in northern New York. They also took pleasure in their avid pursuit of square and round dancing in Kansas and New York.

The Wedels raised three children in a house on the southwest corner of 24th Street and College Avenue in North Newton, which they later donated to Bethel and which is now the Wedel Campus Guesthouse. Those children also graduated from Bethel – Dr. Suzanne Wedel (who died in 2016 after a three-year fight with ovarian cancer), Janine Wedel, Washington, D.C., and Edward (Ted) Wedel, Jefferson City, Missouri.

Wedel is survived by his wife of 63 years, two children, a son-in-law and daughter-in-law, five grandchildren, a community of former students spread across the country and the world and, of course, the legendary Herman Bubbert.

A memorial service will be Aug. 18, 10:30 a.m., at Bethel College Mennonite Church. Memorials are the Arnold M. Wedel Scholarship Fund at Bethel or the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) at Bethel College.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

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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.