She Never Bought Anti-Business Rhetoric
"Women didn't major in business back in the '70s."
-Grace Styer '79, pictured at her family's Dutch Village Inn
Like many of her fellow students in the late 1960s and 1970s, Grace Witmer ’79 questioned many aspects of the status quo in the Mennonite community.
Grace was drawn to praise music backed by drums and electric guitars, not just hymns sung a cappella. She thought women ought to have the same career opportunities as men and not be limited to teaching, health and social work, and missionary activities.
But one thing she did not question was the value of business and the virtues of many business people. “I got up and left chapel one time - I was so offended,” Grace told Crossroads. “The speaker had said something about how greedy business people are. And I thought, he does not know my father.
“I used to tell people at college, ‘You don’t know a lot of business people. They are the ones supporting this college and what you’re doing here. They’re very generous. They take a lot of risks and work very hard. You should appreciate that.’”
In her own family, “Dad and Mom did such a good job of being good givers.” There were nine children raised on the proceeds of Ralph Witmer’s farm equipment business, and all of them went to what was then Eastern Mennonite College.
“Dad paid for all of us to go, and now he is helping his 26 grandchildren to go,” said Grace.
Grace is the fourth child. Her siblings are, oldest to youngest: Ellen Witmer Bowman ’74, Irene Witmer Rhodes ’75, Miriam Witmer Reesor ’77, Sharon Witmer ’81, Rachel Witmer Martin ’82, Nelson Witmer ’87, Wayne Witmer ’88, and Becky Witmer O’Connor ’90.
“It [a college education] was a wonderful gift to all of us. Dad did not get to go to college. He grew up in a conservative Mennonite family and was the first one in his family to finish high school.”
Grace’s father and mother also generously support Midway Mennonite Church in Columbiana, Ohio.
Grace majored in dietetics because “women didn’t major in business back in the 1970s.” In her senior year, she explored the idea of running a bed and breakfast as part of a class project for her food-management class. She worked in a hospital just long enough to realize that she definitely didn’t want to be a dietician the rest of her life.
Fresh out of college in 1979, she played a supporting role to the man she married, Alan, a guitarist who toured with “Daybreak.” For a year she accompanied him and his group on national tours, as he helped pioneer (sometimes in the face of criticism) Christian music played in a contemporary way. When they settled in Grace’s home area of Greenford, Ohio, they started attending a Baptist church where Alan’s musical talents were welcomed. Alan now serves as an elder and is involved in the music ministry of Old North Church.
Grace Styer enjoys being in a business that can give, both in hospitality and financially.
The Styers kept their three children connected to their Mennonite heritage by sending them to Mennonite summer camps and youth conventions and eventually to EMU. (Today, both Matt ’05 and Jon ’07 Styer are designers and photographers in EMU’s Marketing and Communications Department, with Matt being responsible for the look of this magazine. Sister Amanda plans to attend EMU in the fall.)
With no dependents at home these days, Grace is shouldering additional responsibilities as chief financial officer for the Witmer family’s roster of enterprises in Columbiana, Ohio. These include Witmer’s Inc., a farm-equipment and construction business, with brother Nelson as company president and father Ralph as the chief executive officer; the Dutch Village Inn, a 52-room inn and banquet center, with adjacent shops; and the Dutch Cupboard, a bulk food store. The Witmer family is also a partner in Das Dutch Haus Restaurant.
Grace does the payroll for about 115 of the Witmer business’s 300 employees. She also does the books for her husband’s heirloom-quality woodworking business, K. Alan Styer Cabinetmaker. And she manages the Dutch Village Inn.
Grace’s son Matt had no idea that his family was a major supporter of EMU, beyond contributing large numbers of relatives to its classrooms, until… “I was walking along the track when a plaque with my grandparents’ names caught my eye.” The plaque, mounted on a wall inside the southeast corner of the track in the University Commons, read: “Indoor track gifted by Ralph and Doris Witmer.” Knowing his grandfather’s love of running marathons - he was almost age 80 before he stopped entering them - Matt was not terribly surprised at the nature of the gift.
“Actually, Ralph and Doris have given much more than the indoor track,” says Kirk Shisler, vice president for advancement. “But they do their giving quietly, year after year, both to big capital projects and to the University Fund for scholarship assistance.”
Grace says she learned from her parents that work should be viewed as a ministry, no matter what that work may be. “A major enjoyment for me is being in a business that can give, both in hospitality and financially,” she says. “I realize the importance of each employee’s job, to them and their families, and that we can pay them a decent wage. It is important that all our business practices are honest, fair and wise.
“It is an honor and huge responsibility to carry on a family business - especially one that for 71 years has been known for these qualities. I had such a good example in my parents.”