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Retiring math professor has seen changes over five decades

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Richard Rempel, Bethel College professor of mathematics, never had a class from legendary Bethel math teacher David H. “Uncle Davy” Richert.

Richert retired in 1956, after 50 years teaching at the college, and Rempel didn’t arrive as a student until 1959. Rempel does, however, have a clear memory of hearing Uncle Davy speak to the Math Club about complex numbers. “It was memorable,” Rempel says, “because he was so happy talking about the subject.”

Rempel has carried on in the Uncle Davy tradition, being himself quite happy talking about mathematics at Bethel College for most of the past 42 years. He was recruited by Richert’s successor as chair of the math department, Arnold M. Wedel, in 1965, replaced Wedel as chair in 1993, and officially retired this spring although he will teach one or two classes in the next school year to allow his successor, Lisa Thimm, to finish her Ph.D. coursework.

Rempel was finishing his master’s degree at the University of Kansas in 1965 when Wedel invited him to teach at Bethel for two years before continuing with his doctoral work. Rempel did that, and then spent 1967-72 at the University of Illinois before returning to Bethel for good.

In 40-some years at Bethel, Rempel has seen a few changes. “When I came, the department was only Arnold and me,” he says, noting that over the years he also worked with mathematics faculty Marion Deckert, David Janzen, John Matthias, Monica Meisen and Bob Neufeld, as well as current department colleague Christopher Earles plus faculty (and Rempel’s former students) in the closely related computer science department, Tim Buller and Karl Friesen.

Rempel says the role of computers within the math department as well as in general usage across the campus since the mid-’60s has been one of the most interesting changes to observe.

“We worked for years to establish a computer science program within the department, beginning with only the Introduction to Computer Science course and slowly growing within the context of the [Associated Colleges of Central Kansas] program for many years, with a lot of faculty turnover during the first years,” he says. “I taught Computer Literacy for a number of years and even taught a course in FORTRAN for a while. Now around half of our department’s graduates over the last 10 years have been in computer science or system administration.

“I still remember the old teletype machine at the other end of the hall that was connected to the PDP8, the computer at the ACCK office in McPherson. This was about 1972 or so. The next step was computer cards. To run a program, you would type holes in cards using a keypunch machine. When we got personal computers, they had 8 KB of memory. And it has just progressed from there.”

Other memories that stand out include “the well-known mathematics speakers we’ve had over the years,” many of which Rempel was instrumental in bringing to campus. These include the late Paul Cohen from Stanford, renowned for his results in logic, and Paul Erdös, “the most famous problem solver in the world, and a unique character.”

Rempel is also proud of coming across an advertisement for the Budapest semester in mathematics, in which a half-dozen Bethel students have participated, including Lisa Thimm. Margaret Penner was the most recent, in fall 2005.

His favorite memories, however, “are the achievements of students – especially when a student excels in an unexpected way. I will definitely most miss the interactions with students.” He doesn’t want to list outstanding students for fear of missing some, but notes that among his former students who had math majors are current faculty and administration members John Thiesen (director of the Mennonite Library and Archives), Allen Jantz and Lisa Janzen Scott (associate professors of education with Jantz as director of the secondary education program), Mark Jantzen (associate professor of history) and Barry Bartel (president).

In his last semester as a full-time professor at Bethel, Rempel came full circle. “I taught my first course here during my senior year in 1963, as part of my duties as what was then called a Senior Fellow,” he says. “It was Intermediate Algebra, which I taught again this past spring semester.”

And one final noteworthy piece of his Bethel years – “Herman Bubbert was a student at Bethel when I was,” Rempel says. “M.S. Harder would call his name every day in class and someone would answer ‘Present.’” Bubbert is Bethel’s perennial, never-quite-glimpsed prankster.

Rempel’s smile as he relates this memory indicates he might know more about Bubbert’s provenance than he lets on. Rempel is, in fact, in possession of some genuine Herman Bubbert artifacts.

Rempel’s wife, Erna, whom he met at Bethel College, has gone from full- to part-time in her work as a psychological technician for Prairie View Mental Health Services. So future plans, Rempel says, include “being able to travel more, not only on college breaks.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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