NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- The Awards Committee of the Bethel College Alumni Association has selected Rodney J. Sawatsky to receive the 2005 Distinguished Achievement Award. The award will be presented posthumously. Sawatsky died Nov. 27, 2004, at age 60 from complications of a brain tumor. Sawatsky’s wife, Lorna Ewert Sawatsky, plans to attend the annual Alumni Banquet on May 21 to accept the award.
Most recently, Sawatsky was president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., which is affiliated with the Brethren in Christ. He held that role for 10 years, retiring in June 2004, at which time he and his wife, both native Canadians, moved to Waterloo, Ont., to be closer to their family. In addition to his wife, Sawatsky is survived by three daughters--Tanya, Lisa and Katherine Sawatsky--who all live in Canada.
Sawatsky was born in Manitoba, attended Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now part of Canadian Mennonite University), Winnipeg, Man., and earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Bethel College in 1965. He has a master’s degree in American history from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American religious history from Princeton University.
Sawatsky’s career reflected his key interests in religion, history and higher education. He first taught history and Bible at Bethel Bible Institute in Alberta, and then became an instructor in history at CMBC following graduate work at the University of Minnesota.
A year after completing doctoral studies, Sawatsky began his career at Conrad Grebel University College, one of four church-related constituent colleges of the University of Waterloo. He started as director of academic affairs and assistant professor of religious studies and history, progressed to academic dean and associate professor, and later served as acting president and then academic vice president. He became president of Conrad Grebel in 1989.
During the course of his academic career, Sawatsky received several fellowships, scholarships and research grants. He used two of these awards for sabbatical leaves, during which he pursued research at Berkeley, Calif., and around the world. His research focused on the contemporary church and education, Mennonite identity and new religious expressions including sects, cults and New Age spirituality.
Sawatsky served as editor of Conrad Grebel Review: A Journal of Christian Inquiry from 1987-90. In addition to his teaching, research and administrative duties, he fulfilled many requests from a variety of organizations to lecture and consult, and from churches to preach and teach.
Sawatsky became the seventh president of Messiah College in July 1994. Among the accomplishments of his tenure: creating a new mission and identity statement that stressed academic excellence and Messiah’s Christian heritage; strengthening resources for and focus of the college ministries program, including adding a full-time director of campus ministries and a college pastor; launching the Agape Center to coordinate and support all of Messiah’s student service-learning programs including various urban ministries, volunteer activities and other church and community service opportunities; and building several facilities.
These included the Jordan Science Center, Boyer Hall (the campus’ largest academic building) and the Larsen Student Union. Under Sawatsky’s leadership, Messiah College established the Boyer Center, to facilitate scholarship projects that advance noted educator Ernest L. Boyer’s ideas and contributions, and the Sider Institute, dedicated to the advancement of Wesleyan, Anabaptist and Pietist studies.
During his presidency, Sawatsky was also heavily involved with service in the greater Harrisburg, Pa., area, serving on the boards of such organizations as the Harrisburg Symphony and the Association of Pennsylvania Independent Colleges and Universities.
Sawatsky was notified of the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Bethel Alumni Association last August, and wrote to awards committee volunteer staff J. Harold Moyer: "I am deeply honored to be nominated for this most important award from Bethel. Bethel College had a significant influence on the lives of [Lorna and me], and it is a great privilege to be recognized in this way."
"Messiah College has lost a dear friend, a visionary leader and a brilliant Christian educator," said Kim S. Phipps, interim president of Messiah College at the time of Sawatsky’s death and now president. "Throughout his illness, both Rod and Lorna taught our community many lessons about grace, about faith and about living life with a profound sense of purpose."
In a statement Sawatsky sent to Messiah College students, faculty and staff in April 2004 before undergoing surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, he wrote, "The abundant life is defined by its quality and not its quantity. In that spirit, we seek to live each day as fully and as joyfully as we can in spite of the uncertainties we face. We remain deeply grateful for God’s active and continuing presence in our lives ... May we all remain people of hope rather than despair."