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Herman at 50: Bethel’s elusive Bubbert still makes his influence felt

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Fifty years ago, Bethel College had just inaugurated its seventh president (Vernon Neufeld), students, faculty and staff were trying to decide between Nixon and Kennedy for president of the country, and Herman Bubbert first appeared on campus.

Herman Bubbert is a fictitious perennial Bethel student, now known primarily for the campus pranks attributed to him and for giving his name to the college’s annual student film festival, the “Bubbert Awards.”

Herman’s first documented appearance on the Bethel campus seems to have been sometime in 1960. It was part of the “pooka phenomenon,” according to the Diggers Oral History Group, a 1970s Bethel student organization. The pooka phenomenon originated in old Celtic mythology and involves a fictitious character that – according to a paper the Diggers wrote in 1975 – is a “wise but mischievous creature” that “appears here and there, now and then.”

“Herman Bubbert” derived from a Herman Goering who lived in Moundridge. At that time, because so many families in Moundridge shared last names, many were given distinguishing nicknames. This particular Goering family’s was “Bubber,” which somehow became “Bubbert.” However, few Bethel students knew who Goering was or made the connection between the two.

Though the specifics of Herman Bubbert’s emergence are unclear, Monte Zerger, a 1966 Bethel graduate and mathematics major, is thought to have had a major hand in Herman’s creation.

“Monte was responsible for everything,” says Arnold Wedel, professor emeritus of mathematics. “Monte, in the early ’60s, started talking about Herman Bubbert – it might have even been going on before I knew about it.”

Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Richard Rempel recalls that Herman began to be known the year Rempel came to Bethel as a student.

“I remember starting to hear about Herman Bubbert my freshman year, [so it] would have been around ’59 or ’60,” Rempel says. “I remember standing outside the dining hall and hearing the name. It became more common my sophomore year.

“In one class I took, [Herman’s] name was on the roster,” Rempel adds. “When the professor would call his name, someone would always say ‘Here.’ I don’t know if the professor ever figured out that there wasn’t actually a Herman Bubbert in the class.”

Both Wedel and Rempel say that Herman was also known to attend several area churches.

“He appeared in church – people would sign his name on the pad,” Wedel says.

“That happened at a lot of churches – I might have even written it down once or twice,” Rempel admits.

Because of his roots in the mathematics department, Herman was considered to be a mathematician by occupation. In fact, many of the things he did had a mathematical connection. For example, he is reported to have donated $13.19 to the math department for their 1973 symposium – reflecting his mathematical inclinations, since 13 and 19 are prime numbers.

Herman is also reported to have gotten married in 1961 to Wilcia Knutz.

“There were announcements in The Newton Kansan and the Hutchinson News that he was engaged,” Rempel says. “When the newspapers found out [the announcements] were fictitious, they sent reporters to the campus. A few people said that they [were the ones who] had done it, but I knew they hadn’t.”

Herman is said to have died in 1970 and been buried on campus, the grave marked with a headstone on the south side of the path between Haury Hall and Warkentin Court. However, his later reappearances proved either he had never died or that he was “resurrected.”

In 1972, two years after his supposed death, Herman gave a recital in the Administration Building chapel.

“I got a fancy invitation saying to come to the northwest door of the Ad Building,” Rempel says. “I was ushered upstairs to the [chapel] balcony. All the windows were open. There was a different set of chimes next door back then, and the concert consisted of loud rock music – until the police showed up and somehow got it to stop.”

Rempel also recalls having tea and crumpets following the recital.

By 1978, Herman had gained enough attention that when Schulz Student Center was built, the college decided to name the snack bar “Bubbert’s” after him.

A signed and stamped certificate of Herman’s 1957 graduation from Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), Elkhart, Ind., was recently sent to Bethel, and Dale Schrag, director of church relations and campus pastor, continues to get e-mail messages from Herman.

“I’m honored that Herman communicates with me on occasion,” Schrag said. “I’m the only one I know of that still gets regular communication from [him]. It is nice to hear from Herman on occasion.”

Schrag received several e-mails in January 2007 after Herman’s prank – called “Mount Menno Simons” in his e-mail – in which the Administration Building steps were so packed with snow that one could only slide down. In his e-mail, Herman assured Schrag that he had contacted Maintenance about clean-up and he was confident Bethel students and faculty would help – which they gladly did.

“It was really the perfect prank – other than the fact that there was some risk of personal injury,” Schrag said.

Schrag also received an e-mail in September 2007 from Herman’s wife Wilcia, claiming she deserved credit for most of Herman’s pranks. “I am usually the brains behind Herman’s operations,” she wrote.

Today, Herman is the primary scapegoat for any prank played on campus. The most recent pranks attributed to him are balloons falling from the ceiling at last year’s opening convocation and a car parked inside the Fine Arts Center on Grandparents Day in April (the car was removed before most people were able to see it).

“We kind of felt that that was insulting to Herman a little bit,” says Andrew Voth, junior from Topeka.

Voth and his mod-mate Graham Unruh, senior from Newton, claim to have communication with Herman.

“He comes to us for ideas and feedback,” Unruh says. “He usually sends us e-mail.”

“It’s always nice to get a handwritten letter once in a while,” Voth adds.

Though no pranks in Herman’s name have transpired during the academic year thus far, Voth and Unruh are confident there will be some sooner or later.

“I feel that the year is still young – there’s still plenty of time for pranks to happen,” Unruh says.

“I heard Herman was on vacation in French Polynesia,” Voth says. “But he should be back around November or so.”

While there might not be as much evidence of Herman Bubbert’s presence on the Bethel campus and in the surrounding community as 50 years ago, Voth and Unruh are confident he will not be forgotten any time soon.

“I think he’s pretty ensconced in the Bethel lore,” Voth says. “He’s found a place where he’s appreciated and, dare I say, needed.”

“I think Herman would also like to tell the Bethel community to keep in the spirit of pranking – don’t be destructive, but be creative and make it your own,” Unruh says.

“He also wants to say that [Vice President for Student Life] Chad Childs still owes him five bucks,” Voth adds.

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