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Centuries of experience: Nurses celebrate 50th class reunion

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Fall Festival at Bethel College is class reunion time, and this year there was a special one.

For one thing, there was a celebration on the Fall Festival program for the Bethel nursing department’s 25th anniversary. Well before that was planned, however, the nursing class of 1957 had decided to organize a 50th reunion during Fall Festival. The 22 women in the class graduated from the Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing in Newton, the forerunner of the Bethel College program.

Eighteen members of the class of 1957 got together in Newton and on the Bethel campus over the weekend of Oct. 5-6 (three members are deceased and one is not able to travel). On Friday, they visited sites that had been important in their lives as student nurses: the “sisters’ home” on SE 2nd Street in Newton (now the offices for Central Homecare and Harry Hynes Memorial Hospice) and the Warkentin House on First Street, where the deaconesses lived in those days. “We used to go to the deaconesses’ home for junior-senior banquets,” remembered Sara Regier of North Newton, one of the class members. “We would be dressed in our formals, but there were no men present.”

The “convent” in which the student nurses themselves lived is now an apartment building in the 200 block of Muse Street in Newton.

The class also got a tour of Newton Medical Center, which is what the Bethel Deaconess Hospital (along with Axtell Hospital) has now evolved into. “They treated us royally at Newton Medical Center,” said Regier. “We were given lunch in the board room and each received a complimentary copy of [the history of the Axtell Hospital and deaconess nursing program].”

To end their own reunion, the class of 1957 joined in the reception and special exhibits for the college nursing program, held Friday afternoon at Kauffman Museum on the Bethel campus.

Ellie (Bohn) Unruh, Lawrence, who introduced the class at the reception, noted that the group represented 725 combined years of nursing. Three served as mission workers. Most are now retired but four are still working – one as a college teacher, two as hospital nurses and one as a clinic nurse.

One member of the class, Letha (Epp) Hamm, Beatrice, Neb., has a distinction no other Bethel nursing graduate can claim: all three of her children graduated from Bethel’s nursing program. Brenda Wiebe lives in Goshen, Ind., her twin sister Glenda Melgren in Olathe, and Kevin Hamm – who got a biology degree first and then came back for nursing – in Newton.

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 was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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