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Friends, family want scholarship to inspire teaching as Kurt Harder did

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Kurt Harder may have grown up on a farm in the Buhler-Moundridge area, but his curiosity about the world blossomed early.

Harder, a teacher and farmer who died of cancer Dec. 4, 2007, at 49, never lost his inquisitive nature or his desire to inspire others to be curious. His family and his Bethel College mod-mates, in consultation with him before his death, have set up an endowed scholarship at Bethel in his memory, to help young people who also want to inspire through teaching.

Harder’s mother, Dorothy (Regier) Harder, who taught third grade in the Buhler schools for many years, used to make her three children, Kurt, David and Lynn, watch The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite to keep them out of the way while she made dinner.

Years later, Harder’s desire to keep exploring the world put him on a bus to Meridian, Miss., for a week of work camp. Harder and Dwight Peters, another Kansas farm kid but from Hillsboro, first met on that bus and, says Peters, “found that we had a lot in common, including our sense of humor.” They decided to room together at Bethel when both started as freshmen a little over a year later. Also at the work camp, Harder met Dorothy Stucky from Moundridge, who would one day become his wife.

At Bethel, Harder played trombone in the orchestra and jazz band – as his son, Benjamin, who will be a junior at Bethel, now does. He participated in forensics, going to the national competition one year. He graduated with a major in history, a minor in communication and certification in secondary education, and went on to teach history and social studies and coach basketball, at Newton High School (1982-86), Santa Fe Middle School (1986-87), Maize High School (1987-91) and Hesston High School (1991-2005). In 1991, he took over his family’s farm and began farming in addition to teaching.

“Kurt wanted to know why things were the way they were,” Peters says. “This coupled with a sense of adventure allowed him to experience and comprehend a wide variety of events.”

Peters continued, “As he matured, he began to show how much he really cared about things that were important to him. This really became apparent in his teaching methods. Since he knew he could not take all the students literally back to the events they were studying, he did it figuratively, by going into historical character. I found it to be a very profound way to teach, and I have relatives that went through it as students that found it equally inspiring.”

Among Harder’s historical characters over the years: Johann Sebastian Bach, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Christopher Columbus, the Fonz from TV’s Happy Days, Sigmund Freud, Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon Johnson, Karl Marx, pacifist A.J. Muste, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Socrates and figures from Kansas history. His mother-in-law, Milly Stucky of North Newton, made many of his costumes.

“Of all us that lived in the mods with him, he was the only one that stuck around in central Kansas, and as such was our lifeline to each other,” says Peters, who lives in Sugar Land, Texas, with other former mod-mates scattered from Lancaster, Pa., to Fargo, N.D., to Los Angeles. “I bet Dorothy saw quite a parade of old friends come through the house on a moment’s notice over the last 25 years.”

“Kurt’s friends were very supportive through [his struggle with] the cancer,” Dorothy confirms.

“I miss Kurt terribly,” Peters says, “but not just because he was a great friend. I miss him because I know he had such a positive impact on the people around him. A great teacher can set a direction for a student, and I know he cared deeply to help those students who could be helped.”

Kurt was specific in his wish that if friends and family wanted to establish a memorial, it should go to Bethel College, Dorothy says. The Kurt A. Harder Endowed Scholarship will be given to a junior or senior majoring in history education or, if no student meets that criteria, a junior or senior in history or in education.

“I am not one for establishing legacies for people,” Peters says, “but Kurt’s was a legacy that I felt could be an inspiration for years to come. My feeling was that it should focus on students, which is a place to [make] the greatest impact for a life, although we recognized that Dorothy needed to choose the best opportunity and criteria. We from [Mod 9A] all pitched in what we could to establish the endowment in his name.”

Harder’s extended family members have also contributed and, in fact, the scholarship was quickly endowed fully. Additional contributions will enable more than one scholarship to be given each year. “I hope and dream that this money will impact students in ways they never imagined,” Peters says. “Kurt was an inspiration and a true friend.”

Inquiries about donations to the Kurt A. Harder Endowed Scholarship should be made to the Bethel College Office of Development, 316-284-5250, e-mail development@bethelks.edu.

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 www.bethelks.edu.

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