A. Wayne Wiens, Bethel College professor emeritus of biology, died unexpectedly Feb. 6 from complications of a fall suffered in December. He was 77.
He was born Oct. 31, 1936, grew up on a farm near Hillsboro and graduated from Hillsboro High School. He completed a natural science major at Bethel in 1958, followed by a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Kansas.
In 1960, Bethel recruited Wiens for a two-year appointment to teach biology, just days before he would have committed to a term of service in agriculture in Bolivia. Wiens’ first experience with teaching was as a graduate assistant at KU but those two years at Bethel settled his career choice.
Wiens continued to teach at Bethel for most of the next 50 years.
He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and cell biology at Northwestern University, Chicago, including a year of research at the University of Bern, all funded by a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship; did two years of post-doctoral work; and spent three years as chair of the biology department at Kalamazoo (Mich.) College.
Generations of Bethel students loved and respected Wiens as a teacher. Bethel alumnus Seiichi Matsuda, who recently became dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at Rice University, Houston, spoke on behalf of Wiens’ many students at a Feb. 16 memorial service.
“I want to express our deep gratitude for the way Wayne mentored, guided and taught us, making us curious people, loving us, pointing us in the direction of productive lives,” Matsuda said.
During intervals away from teaching, Wiens did research at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
His research varied from genetic control of developmental processes to hormonal regulation of gene activity, from gene activation in leukemia cells to neurobiology of smooth muscle control.
His research with collaborators has appeared in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.), Developmental Biology and other journals.
He often wrote for general audiences and gave public talks on evolution and religion, genetics and homosexuality, and biology of peacemaking and reconciliation.
At the final convocation of the school year in May 2009, Vice President for Academic Affairs Brad Born recognized Wiens’ years of service to Bethel
“As a teacher and scholar, Wayne … modeled how to remain current with ever-changing developments in biology,” Born said, “while integrating that specialized knowledge into broader reflections on mind, culture and religion, as was evident in [a] recent faculty seminar titled ‘Is peacemaking in our genes and our evolution?’”
Although Wiens’ duties as a Bethel professor ended in 2010, his friend Mel Goering, Santa Fe, N.M., noted at the memorial service: “Wayne retired from teaching but his mind never retired.”
According to his family, some of Wiens’ favorite pastimes were baking, gardening (he had extensive plots of native plants around his home) and “making the best of the Kansas wind” by sailing a catamaran or a windsurfer, often on Marion Lake.
He enjoyed cutting hedgewood for the stove with his good friend, Charles Graber, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, traveling with his wife, Gail, and working on the Mennonite Central Committee meat canner with his friend and science faculty colleague (at Hesston College), Hugo Boschmann.
Wiens’ well-known laugh was that of “a man with a boundless joy for living a life of wonder, a life full of reverence for nature, friends and all that is good in the universe,” said his friend and faculty colleague John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel professor of communication arts, at the memorial service.
Wiens is survived by his wife, Gail Lutsch, Bethel professor emeritus of art, Newton; two children, Amy Wiens, Columbus, Ohio, and Eric Wiens (Susan Neufeld), El Cerrito, Calif.; two brothers, Paul Wiens (Dolores), St. George, Utah, and Wendell Wiens, Newton; many nieces and nephews; and scores of grateful students.
Memorial gifts may be made to the A. Wayne Wiens Biology Scholarship Endowment Fund at Bethel College, Habitat for Humanity, or the MCC Meat-Canning Project, c/o Bethel College Mennonite Church.