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Despite bends in the road, Frey found home at Bethel

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Over his 40-some years at Bethel College, first as a student, then a faculty member and finally registrar, Rodney Frey found a calling and a home.

That wasn’t without some rough spots in the road. But as Frey, who retired June 30 after 21 years in the registrar’s office, put it in several contexts during his final weeks: “This is my place and these are my people.”

Frey grew up in a Mennonite community near Archbold, Ohio, and basically knew nothing about Bethel, even though it was a Mennonite college. He did, however, know he wanted to graduate from a church school and to major in industrial arts.

A friend from Archbold went to Bethel, which put it on Frey’s radar. Then he learned Bethel was the only Mennonite college with the desired program. After studying at Goshen (Ind.) College and Ohio State University, he transferred to Bethel in 1965.

“At that time,” he recalls, “there were four or five guys from Freeman [S.D.] Junior College who had transferred in, including [another student] who was also in industrial arts. I was thought of as a Freeman person – people to this day think I'm from Freeman.”

What probably sealed that was his first job after completing his degree at Bethel at mid-year in late 1966: finishing the school year teaching industrial arts at Freeman Junior College.

But Kansas called him back, in the person of LaDeen Goering, whom he’d met at Bethel. He taught the 1967-68 school year at Belle Plaine and they were married in May 1968, right after LaDeen graduated from Bethel. In 1969, they accepted a three-year term with the Teachers Abroad Program under the auspices of Mennonite Central Committee in Zambia. Son Mark was born there in 1970.

Rodney and LaDeen liked Zambia and TAP so well they decided to take a second term. They returned in 1973, after Rodney had completed a master’s degree in industrial education at Illinois State University, Normal. Eric was born in 1974 in Zambia and Katrina in 1979 in Newton.

In 1975, with a year to go in the second term, Rodney and LaDeen were trying discern what they might do when they returned to the United States. Rodney said his dream job would be teaching industrial arts at Bethel. But since the department was fully staffed with tenured or tenure-track faculty, he didn’t see that dream coming true.

Several weeks later, mail from Bethel arrived but Frey initially ignored it, thinking it was a fundraising letter. When he finally did read it, he discovered an invitation from the dean, Marion Deckert, to apply for an opening in the industrial arts department, with a reply deadline only days away.

In the days before cell phones or internet and without even reliable long-distance phone service where they lived, thank goodness for telegrams.

The family settled into life in North Newton and Frey immersed himself in the industrial arts. Students in the department largely fell into two categories, he says: “Farm boys who were going back to the farm and those who wanted to teach” at the high school level.

In 1979, Rodney got a three-year leave from Bethel and the Freys moved to Mesa, Ariz., for him to enter a Ph.D. program in industrial technology and secondary education at Arizona State University. They loved living in the desert Southwest, he says, and had to do much soul-searching as he came to the end of his doctoral studies.

In the end, family ties (LaDeen grew up in North Newton) but more importantly, the Bethel community drew them back, Frey says.

However, there were clouds building on his professional horizon.

Enrollment in industrial arts began a steady decline – not surprising, Frey says, as it was obvious the two populations who fed the program were dwindling as well. Fewer young people were choosing to farm and demand for high school “shop” teachers was shrinking.

The late ’80s and early ’90s were tough budget times overall. There were other Bethel programs on the chopping block. At the 1990 board meetings, the decision was announced: industrial arts and home economics would close.

Frey agreed to stay for the 1991-92 school year to finish out the major of Bethel’s last industrial arts graduate, Tom Graber – who was, by some cosmic symmetry, from Freeman, S.D. (In spring 1987, Frey had begun teaching one section of Psychological Foundations of Education for the education department. He has done that all but one semester since, including spring 2012.)

With the board decision on industrial arts final, Frey says, he decided “it was time to buy a suit.” He hadn’t bought one since his wedding – suits weren’t the Bethel faculty uniform. It symbolized “dramatic and profound changes – taking on a new professional identity,” he says.

But in the meantime, Wynn Goering, moving from registrar to the role of interim academic dean for 1991-92, asked Frey to step in as interim registrar. When Goering received a permanent appointment starting in 1992, Frey was offered the same as registrar and decided to take it.

And there he stayed. During the 2010-11 school year, the Kansas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers presented him with the Laura Cross Distinguished Service Award, KACRAO’s highest honor. Frey was the first person from a Kansas private college to receive the Cross Award.

So what has changed in 20 years? First and foremost, Frey says, is technology and decentralization. “Everything used to happen through our office – enrollment, grade entering, anything to do with student records, we processed.” Now, these things and others happen online, performed by faculty or by students themselves.

The result: “We don’t have the same sense of what’s happening in the institution or know as many students,” Frey says.

One assignment that has remained and even grown over the years, however, has been coordinating commencement ceremonies each May. “The dean’s office used to take care of the details,” Frey says. “They gradually moved to the registrar’s office.” He has detailed descriptions, including “several weather-related plans,” in a notebook for new registrar Marcia Miller.

Commencement became one of Frey’s favorite jobs, because it meant at least getting to meet the graduating seniors. He has handed a diploma to every one who has walked across the stage since spring 1992.

Other tasks that have migrated to the registrar’s office include retention, assessment and working with international students on immigration-related issues such as visas.

After roughly 45 years on the Bethel campus, Frey could say to his students in his final Foundations class this past spring: “I started here before your parents were born.” He has seen buildings go up, noted significant changes in both student and faculty numbers and demographics, and worked with seven different presidents, beginning with Harold Schultz (and was acquainted with presidents going back to E.G. Kaufman, Bethel’s fifth).

Frey’s immediate retirement plans include “saying No to all commitments and getting my 1946 Willys CJ-2A Jeep on the road and running.” The Jeep has been an ongoing project since Frey bought it in 2006. He also owns a 1948 model. It doesn’t run, either – at least, not yet.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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