Eastern Mennonite High School Moved Toward Independence, 1964-1982

In 1952, Samuel O. Weaver’s high school English teacher insisted that he learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam saw no need to learn how to diagram a sentence, and he told A. Grace Wenger, his EMS teacher, that he intended to return to Newport News and milk cows for his brother. She replied to Sam that he didn’t know where the Lord would call him and that he should learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam graduated from high school, college, and earned a Master’s Degree, though sixty-seven years later, in a 2019 interview, Sam laughed and admitted that he still does not know how to diagram a sentence!

In spite of not being able to diagram a sentence, God used Sam in a mighty way during his twelve years as principal of EMHS, 1969-1981. A. Grace Wenger was right—Sam didn’t know where God would lead him or in what capacity he would serve the church. It was in the late 1960s that Sam was called to lead Eastern Mennonite High School as it sought to become independent from Eastern Mennonite College.

Dr. Myron Augsburger, President of EMC, needed a high school principal with financial and marketing skills. So he hired Sam Weaver to head the high school in 1969. To lead the high school, Sam needed training in education, and he enrolled in a Master’s program at James Madison University. In the meantime, Weaver relied on dependable teachers already working at EMHS, like James Rush, David Mumaw, Lois Janzen, Harvey Yoder, Marvin Miller, Ron Koppenhaver, Gloria Lehman, Esther Augsburger, Sam Strong, and Vivian Beachy. In 1977, Sam hired Ernest Martin to develop the academic program at the school. Knowing little about academics, Sam acknowledges that “Ernie saved my hide,” by establishing increased trust and reputation in the community for curriculum at the high school.

Sam Weaver and Dorothy Shank 2019 EMHS (Andrea Wenger photo)

In the fifteen-year process of creating an independent high school, Dorothy Shank ably chaired the EMHS Board, 1974-1981. In an era when few women served as leaders in the Mennonite church, Dorothy prayed about the decision, and then said she would help the school as the first woman chair of the Board. It was Dorothy, in an interview, who stated that we all stand on someone else’s shoulders and that it is important to recognize God’s faithfulness in launching a strong and independent EMHS in the 1970s.

Eastern Mennonite School began as a high school in 1917, but it soon added junior college classes. When the junior college grew into a four-year program and earned accreditation in 1947, it created an identity problem for the high school. By the early 1960s, with enrollment growth in the college, visionaries in Virginia Mennonite Conference got busy and built a separate building for the high school in Park View, first used in 1964. Over Christmas break in 1963-1964, students and teachers picked up books from the college library and moved them to the new high school campus nearby on Parkwood Drive.

A few years after the high school moved into its new building, the EMC Board wanted the high school division to support itself, and according to the college’s business office, EMHS was operating at a deficit. In 1967, according to EMC accounting methods, the high school deficit was over $69,000. The Executive Committee of the EMC Trustees, which presided over the high school, asked the high school to balance its budget within five years. With Sam Weaver at the helm of the high school, the school reached a balanced budget by 1973. While Sam was the Principal, he gives credit to people like Daniel Bender, Dwight Wyse, Shirley J. Yoder, and Glendon Blosser for helping to set the financial ship of the school in good standing.

The years of Sam Weaver’s leadership at EMHS, 1969-1981, were tumultuous years in the United States, with the Vietnam War, an era of rebellion and protest for youth, and rising inflation driven by rising oil prices. Still, students kept coming to EMHS, from as far away as Pigeon, Michigan, Sarasota, Florida, the Tidewater region of Virginia, and northeast Ohio. By 1977 the high school had 277 students, with a waiting list. Sam’s Christian education philosophy relies on ownership of a student’s education from the home, the church, and the Christian school. Students tested Sam’s leadership, to be sure, but the school grew in many ways and earned its charter in 1982.

Dorothy Shank remembers that during her tenure as Board Chair in the late 1970s she worried when good teachers left EMHS for other positions. She prayed God would send the school good replacement teachers. She especially worried when Marvin Miller, an outstanding music teacher, 1966-1981, left EMHS. “But,” Dorothy rejoiced in the interview, “God brought in Jay Hartzler,” another exceptional music teacher.

In a 2019 interview with Sam Weaver and Dorothy Shank, they noted the excellent support for the high school from Virginia Mennonite Conference churches in the 1970s. Sam visited Districts and churches and encouraged support. Consequently, churches in Virginia Conference stepped up and supported their high school, through a Congregational Aid Plan formulated by Glendon Blosser. Sam notes the way Conference Districts sent delegates to the Board meetings, like Robert Mast from Chesapeake, Va., and Ike Oberholtzer from Newport News. In return, the EMHS Touring Choir began a spring circuit of singing in many of the supporting churches, leading them in worship and song.

Programs and buildings seemed to spring up in the 1970s, attracting many students to attend. The school built a new fine arts addition in 1972, and while Dorothy Shank served as Board Chair, the school added a gymnasium, finished in 1976. In Park School, a former public school located next door to the high school that EMHS used as early as the 1960s, the high school set up an Industrial Arts program and Art program. The college set aside rooms for high school students in Maplewood dorm, and to the present has not charged for the use of Lehman Auditorium for the annual high school graduation.

Dorothy Shank remembers that the tone of moving toward separation was tense at times, but by 1982 the two schools went different directions on amicable terms. And Sam Weaver, the balding principal who established the financial and church-based foundations for the school, decided it was time for him to move on. In 2019, an EMHS faculty member publicly recognized Sam at the annual National Honor Society Induction, when his granddaughter, Julie Weaver, joined the society. As Principal during the 1970s, Sam had signed all of the Honor Society documents.

It is not by our power, as Dorothy asserted, but by God’s grace and faithfulness, that EMHS moved toward independence from the college in the 1970s. There had been those at the college who entertained ideas on what to do with the building should the program be discontinued. With good leadership, EMHS became a viable church school, a process that began in the 1960s and culminated with a charter in 1982.

Staying with the denomination

What does a letter buried in an Indiana archive have to do with questions about staying in Mennonite Church USA today? Quite a bit, I’d argue. The letter, which I found in our denominational archives eight years ago, reveals that some of the earliest Virginia Mennonite leaders believed in the value of a church-wide association of congregations. Upon finding the letter, I had a little party of one by the copying machine in the lobby. Since then, I’ve discovered more stories confirming that in each era, Virginia leaders have spoken for, written about, and defended the value of staying with the denomination. Please consider these brief vignettes that I think provide significant direction for today.

1853: That thin and yellowed letter in the Indiana archive came from the pen of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Martin Burkholder. Thirty-six, he wrote a letter to a Pennsylvania Bishop friend, and asked that he and other ministers in Lancaster Conference consider helping him create a general conference of Mennonites. Burkholder and Bishop Samuel Shank Sr. made several circuit trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada, asking for a general conference to be formed, but to no avail. After Bishop Martin Burkholder passed away a few months before the Civil War began, it would be decades until his vision for a Mennonite association of area conferences came into being. The great irony of my search in libraries and archives along the east coast, and then finding the letter in Indiana, 157 years after it was written in the Shenandoah Valley, is that having a national archive is one outstanding rationale for staying with a denomination long term.

1897: A year before the Mennonite Church got organized in 1898, Virginia Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole traveled to Elida, Ohio, for preliminary meetings. He and other ministers like Christian Good and Samuel M. Burkholder went to see what was happening, and to report back to leaders in Virginia. L. J. Heatwole faithfully traveled to the early meetings of the Mennonite Church, and kept Virginia Conference informed about wider church developments. With L. J. Heatwole’s clear leadership toward participating, Virginia Conference joined the Mennonite General Conference in 1911.

1919: When Virginia Mennonite Conference met a year after World War I ended, it adopted eighteen fundamentals of faith. Conservative in nature, the articles were adopted, almost word for word, two years later by the Mennonite Church. Virginia Conference’s action, adopted at my home congregation in Broadway, Virginia, October 18, 1919, held significant influence and sway on the Mennonite Church for nearly two generations.

1942: When critical ministers urged Virginia Conference to leave the Mennonite Church during WWII, Bishop John L. Stauffer reacted strongly. Though some thought the broader church had become too liberal, Stauffer stated that Virginia needed to stay and not leave. Bishop Stauffer, then President of Eastern Mennonite College, had significant church wide experience, and he urged the Conference to stay in the denomination. Stauffer’s voice, along with others, won the day.

1981: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus waited patiently to speak at the Mennonite Church Convention in Bowling Green, Ohio. The hot topic was whether women could be involved in ministry. Her speech at an open microphone stirred many, and helped to create action in the direction of accepting women in leadership. Virginia Bishop Glendon Blosser ably and gladly served as Moderator at the 1981 Bowling Green Conference, the seventh of eleven Virginia Mennonite leaders to serve as moderator of the denomination.

1997: My wife and I took our family to Orlando, Florida, for the Mennonite Church General Assembly in the summer of 1997. While our three young children enjoyed the fun times for kids and we soaked up the Florida warmth, I served as a delegate from Virginia Conference. We took our kids to Disneyland after the Mennonite Church made proactive plans to integrate with the General Conference. Owen Burkholder, from Harrisonburg, served in 1997 as both denominational moderator and as Virginia Conference minister, the lead executive staff position.

2019: Today’s issues are different than in the past, but in other ways quite similar. I teach history and Bible to descendants of Bishop Martin Burkholder, whose letter I found in Indiana. I try to help them understand the high value their ancestor held in organizing a general conference. Further, I will take a bit of Bishop Burkholder’s spirited vision with me when I serve as a delegate at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. My reading of Virginia Mennonite Conference history is that at each turn in the road of divisive issues, key leaders in Virginia Conference have spoken in favor of participation in the wider denomination. Such is the direction I would urge today.

Silver Lake Mill

The historian got to turn an interior iron crank that released water at Silver Lake, Dayton, Virginia, which turned the early 20th century red wheel. The water flowed towards Cooks Creek, which drained towards the North River and eventually the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, which reached the Potomac River and finally the Chesapeake Bay. This mill was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War and rebuilt after the war. As with the water which bubbles forth from the Silver Lake springs and ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, so our lives are interconnected and flow into the future in sometimes unknown and winding directions.

Silver Lake Mill, Dayton, Virginia, Rockingham County, Virginia July, 2016

Information Superhighway

The Information Superhighway has changed schools.  In the 1970s high schools had books, magazines, and traditional libraries.  Today students can access a world of resources on computers in their classrooms.  The Kennel Charles Church History desk (right), with Martyrs Mirror on the top shelf, hosts a state-of-the-art computer that brings information to the student in the history teacher’s classroom at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

March 2014 EMHS

New bridge over Linville Creek replaces 1898 wrought iron truss bridge that many Broadway, Virginia, residents, including Mennonites, used in early 20th century

Mennonites in the Northern District of Virginia Mennonite Conference often used this old iron bridge to head west towards mission stations in the West Virginia highlands. Today a modern bridge over the steady Linville Creek reduces the 1898 bridge to a foot and bike path. The old bridge in Broadway, Virginia, is on the National Register of Historic Places in Virginia.

Massanutten Mountain from Greenmount and Sky Road intersection, Rockingham County, Virginia

On a trip from Singers Glen, Virginia, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, the historian spotted this grand view of the Massanutten Mountain. On his trips to Harrisonburg, musician Joseph Funk probably paused to relish in the ancient beauty of the distant mountain peak. Perhaps it was inspiration for his printing and musical work in the valley.

Burkholder-Myers house, CrossRoads Heritage Center, December 7, 2013

Christmas on a cold December evening at the historic 1854 Burkholder-Myers house in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with twenty-first century lights and a football field in the distance. Martin and Rebecca Burkholder would find it a challenge to recognize their own house.