NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s eighth president, Orville L. Voth, Hesston, died Sept. 22 at St. Francis’ Harry Hynes Memorial Hospice in Wichita following a stroke. He was 84.
Voth was born Jan. 4, 1924, in Rosthern, Saskatchewan. The son of John J. and Mariecha Voth, Orville grew up as a Bethel College “campus kid.” John Voth was on the Bethel faculty, teaching Bible and industrial arts, from 1925-46 and also served as superintendent of buildings and grounds from 1936-48.
Orville graduated from Newton High School but his studies at Bethel College were interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted into Civilian Public Service. He served in Fort Collins, Colo., and Kalamazoo, Mich.
In 1945, Voth married Helen M. Voran, Belmont. He graduated from Bethel in 1948 and continued his education at Oklahoma State University, where he received an M.S. in chemistry with a minor in physiology. He went on to Pennsylvania State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry with minors in bacteriology and organic chemistry.
Voth began his teaching career at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina. He served as interim academic dean at Bethel College and then as president from 1967-71 before returning to Kansas Wesleyan as vice president of academic affairs. He ended his career as director of independent study at the University of Kansas.
Voth was a member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, where he served on various committees and boards and where a celebration of his life will be held Sept. 26. He was active in the Kansas Silver-Haired Legislature, senior centers and civic organizations and he enjoyed participating in community theater and musical groups. Other interests included fishing, painting, ham radio, writing, photography and woodworking.
James Juhnke, professor of history during Voth’s tenure at Bethel, recalls that on Nov. 11, 1966, when Voth was academic dean, he joined the “Repentance Walk” from the campus to the North Newton post office, an early protest against the Vietnam War organized by the college Peace Club.
“That event divided the campus,” Juhnke says. “It was especially dramatic for a top administrator to participate because President Vernon Neufeld had been critical of the plans for the Repentance Walk. I took it as an expression of Orville’s commitment to the Mennonite peace witness.”
Juhnke continued, “Two of [Orville’s] objectives as Bethel president that he made significant progress on were one, improvement of relations with the city of Newton, and two, an improved football team for Bethel.” Bethel’s famed football coach Otto Unruh returned to the college during the Voth administration.
John Sheriff, who has served as Bethel’s academic dean and as interim president and is currently executive vice president for institutional development, began his teaching career in English after Voth hired him at Bethel. “I owe Orville a debt of gratitude in that he helped me secure a fellowship that made it possible for me to complete my graduate education,” Sheriff says. “Orville loved the college and supported it in every way he could, including financially. Truly from his childhood to his death, Bethel was important in his life.”
In addition to his wife, Helen, Voth is survived by four daughters – Judy Fisk, Salina, Marian Robinson, Newton, Kathryn McChesney Voth, Hesston, and Peggy Voth, Lawrence – six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
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 only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.