Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2008

Herman Bontrager: A Bridge From the Amish World

Herman Bontrager Latest honor

Distinguished Service Award, 2008 EMU, Alumni Association

Current position

President/CEO, Goodville Mutual Casualty Company

Long-standing other work

Recently in the news media as


B.A., sociology and Bible, EMU, 1972 Certificate in Spanish, Spanish Language Institute, Costa Rica, 1973 M.A., sociology and Latin American Studies, University of Florida, 1976

Immediate family

Wife Jeanette Noll ’73; daughter Elizabeth; son Nathan ’07

Memorable quotes

As a 62-year-old who has been called to top leadership positions of major national and international organizations for decades, Herman Bontrager ’72 would be accustomed to – one might think – handling almost any situation requiring a calm, experienced hand at the helm.

But the Nickel Mines shooting of ten Amish schoolgirls in October, 2006, was a new test for this former Amish man. Bontrager gave over 300 interviews to the media in the weeks after the shooting, often from an improvised media studio set up in his president’s office at Goodville Mutual Casualty Company in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

As the designated spokesperson for the bereaved families via their Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, Bontrager has served as a bridge between the Amish, who typically shun publicity, and the information-hungry news media and the public they feed.

Bontrager’s credentials were simply this: he himself grew up Beachy Amish, becoming the only one of five children in his family to graduate from college. From the 1970s until today, he has collaborated with Amish leaders in various roles he has held with Mennonite Central Committee, Goodville Mutual Casualty Company, where he has been president for 18 years, and as secretary-treasurer with the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom. In this last role, he helps the Amish community when their faith-based way of life comes in conflict with the laws of the land.

In short, Amish in the Lancaster area knew Bontrager well and had every reason to trust him. When contributions, eventually totaling over $4 million, were made to the Nickel Mines School Victims Fund, somebody needed to thank the donors. Somebody needed to explain how the money would be used – not just for the victims and their families, but also to support the suffering family of the shooter.

Upon request, Bontrager penned a series of press releases, each slightly edited and approved by the people for whom they spoke. The gentle and gracious words in the releases were reprinted around the world. The first one read, in part: “We, the people of the Nickel Mines community, are humbled and deeply thankful for this outpouring of love. Each act of kindness, the prayers and every gift, small or large, comfort us and assure us that our spirits will heal even though the painful loss will always be with us. Thank you for your generous kindness and for walking with us in this valley of death.” (This first statement can be read at www.charity.com/nickelminesfund.shtml. An update can be read at www.mcc.org/news; search under September, 2007, for the “Nickel Mines Tragedy Update.”)

When Bontrager was age 20, the Vietnam war-era draft pulled him out of his insular Amish community around Middlebury, Indiana, where he had been working on the family farm, doing construction for the family-owned business and teaching in a small parochial school. As a conscientious objector, Bontrager was permitted to do alternative service. He found himself in rural El Salvador, one of several Beachy Amish volunteers sent to work on agricultural development.

The experience was an eye-opener, to say the least – one that changed the trajectory of his life. With the support of Mennonite mentors Dot ’62 and Vernon Jantzi ’64, who were doing voluntary service in Costa Rica, Bontrager came to appreciate the language, hospitable culture, family-centeredness, and other ways of expressing Christianity (notably Roman Catholic) that he found in Central America. “I came to find cross-cultural matters very fascinating,” he says. “I knew I wanted to go to college and study sociology.”

He also became concerned about social justice issues. “Most of the people of my area were hungry despite being very hard workers, and there was an issue of land ownership. Fourteen families controlled most of the land in the country, and they were backed by the U.S. government. I worked on a project to open up access to land.” He helped establish small businesses, such as carpentry shops and bakeries, drawing on his Amish practical, can-do background.

When Bontrager came to EMU in 1970, following his alternative service, he was searching. The theology with which he had been raised – which was highly prescriptive in terms of emphasis on dress and lifestyle – needed a broader context in order to work for him. “ EMC gave me a theological framework that preserved my faith,” he says.

“I learned to study the Bible in historical context, to understand its meaning in community, and then to apply that meaning to today,” he adds. “ EMC helped me make sense of myself and what I believe. It did not replace, but rather built on, the Anabaptist-faith that I appropriated growing up in an Amish community”

Bontrager did non-profit work with Mennonite agencies for a total of about 20 years, five of these in Central American countries and 14 with the Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pennsylvania. At MCC he served as director for Programs in Latin America and the International Peace Office. As an Eastern Mennonite Missions worker, Bontrager helped the Honduras Mennonite Church establish a joint Vocational School and Bible Institute and was its first director. Being part of the leadership transition from North American missionaries to Hondurans in the Honduran Mennonite Church provided Bontrager with a “rich education in relating to sisters and brothers from all cultures.” For the past eight years Bontrager has served as a consultant to Mennonite World Conference in planning for the future. ”The relationships with our global community of faith,” he says, “are among the most gratifying of my involvements.”

Bontrager faced a major challenge when Hurricane Fifi devastated the north coast of Honduras in 1974, leaving 10,000 dead and countless homes destroyed. Bontrager organized a disaster and reconstruction program, learning “something about managing contingencies and organization.”

Since 1990, Bontrager has led Goodville Mutual, a for-profit property and casualty insurance company where the profits benefit the policyholders, who are the owners. During these years Bontrager has remained active in various church boards.

Today Bontrager is uniquely well-positioned to reflect on the similarities and differences of non-profit and for-profit endeavors and to suggest what each could learn from the other.

“One’s calling is equally valid and high in either endeavor,” he says. “If you live your Christian vocation, you are involved in God’s work to redeem the world whether you draw a salary from the revenue generated by a for-profit business or from contributed dollars paid through a church agency.”

Bontrager would like to see non-profits work harder at achieving efficiency and producing clear results, especially expecting improved performance by personnel. And he would like to see more for-profit businesses conduct themselves as his employer does, taking their social responsibilities seriously.

“Operating by biblical principles is essential no matter what your enterprise,” he says.

One of those principles is “doing”: “I have been steeped in a tradition where deeds are more powerful than words in sharing one’s faith. People notice your faith witness if it is lived.”

This summer Bontrager was selected chairman of Mennonite Central Committee’s bi-national board, putting him in a leadership role for this inter-Mennonite and Brethren-in-Christ agency of the church.

Bontrager – likely accompanied by wife Jeanette, a ‘73 graduate of EMU’s nursing program, daughter Elizabeth and son Nathan ’07 – will receive EMU’s Distinguished Service Award at Homecoming 2008, Oct. 10-12.

For information on appearances by Herman Bontrager at this year’s Homecoming, click here: www.emu.edu/homecoming.

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