NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s seventh president, Vernon H. Neufeld, died July 18 in Bakersfield, Calif., after a brief illness.
He was born April 11, 1920, in Shafter, Calif., one of six children of Nicolai and Justina Neufeld, and raised on the Neufeld family farm west of Shafter. He graduated from Wasco Union High Schools in 1939 and married Ruth I. Neumann Nov. 17, 1940.
After working the farm for a few years, Neufeld decided to pursue a college education. He and his family moved to North Newton in 1946, where Neufeld studied at Bethel College, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts in music. They returned to the Shafter farm for a year before moving to Chicago in 1950, where Neufeld attended Mennonite Biblical Seminary, earning a divinity degree in 1954.
Before he completed his divinity degree, Neufeld moved the family to Donnellson, Iowa, where he served as pastor of Zion Mennonite Church, commuting to his seminary classes in Chicago. In 1955, the family moved to New Jersey, where Neufeld earned masters and doctoral degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1957 and 1960, respectively.
In 1959, Neufeld was hired as faculty in the Bethel College Department of Bible and Religion and the family moved back to North Newton. After one year of teaching, Neufeld accepted the position of president of Bethel College, serving from 1960-67.
“He was president when I came to Bethel to teach in 1963,” says Keith Sprunger, professor emeritus of history. “I appreciated his leadership very much. He presided over Bethel in a dignified and thorough way. He represented Bethel College in the community very well.”
Walter Jost and J. Harold Moyer were Bethel classmates of Neufeld’s, music majors as well who went on to become music faculty members at the college. Moyer remembers that Neufeld sang in the choir and gave a senior voice recital. He was also president of the class of 1949.
“The Fine Arts Center was planned and constructed during his presidency,” Moyer says. “I remember one meeting where the architect had brought several different drawings, and there were questions about how the auditorium would be set up. He was a key person in [deciding] that.” The FAC, with Krehbiel Auditorium, was completed in 1966.
Albert J. Meyer, now of Goshen, Ind., served as academic dean under Neufeld. “Vernon was a person of integrity, a person of his word,” Meyer said. “Under the pressures of the presidency, he did not cut corners. I well recall a meeting of Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference presidents and deans with an educational expert from Chicago [where] Vernon was clearly the leader among the presidents.”
Neufeld and Meyer worked to develop cooperative programs with the presidents and deans at sister institutions Hesston College and Tabor College in Hillsboro. In 1966, they visited with the other “Highway 81 presidents” (including McPherson College and Bethany College in Lindsborg, among others) to initiate the Associated Colleges of Central Kansas (ACCK).
“Vernon was a dean’s president,” Meyer said. “He understood that an excellent college was based on an outstanding faculty, and he supported work for faculty excellence.”
Following his tenure as Bethel president, Neufeld and his wife moved to Fresno, Calif., where he became executive director for Mennonite Mental Health Services, serving until 1982.
Neufeld retired in 1982 and spent his time with family, research on Mennonite and Neufeld family history, music and woodworking. Vernon and Ruth Neufeld moved to Bakersfield in 1984.
Survivors include Ruth I. Neufeld, his wife of 67 years; son Ramon Neufeld, M.D., and wife Karen of Bakersfield; son Howard Neufeld and wife Carolyn of Portland, Ore.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A “Memorial Celebration of Life” service for Vernon Neufeld will be held Saturday, Aug. 9, at First Congregational Church in Bakersfield.
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.