Albert Keim: Cross-Cultural Visionary

July 13th, 2012

The world is a laboratory for study. It provides alternatives, new possibilities and challenges…it is learning for life. –Al Keim

EMU’s cross-cultural program may never have come to be, had it not been for the efforts of Albert Keim ’63, dean of students from 1977 to 1984. Keim had a passion for education, service and travel, which he lived out for 35 years at this university.

Al Keim

Al Keim in 1997, three years before his retirement from EMU. Photograph by Howard Zehr.

Keim felt all EMU students should be immersed in a culture different from their own before graduation, yielding life-changing experiences.

We are conceiving of the college as… a place – a village – during this four-year phase of the life of our students,” wrote Keim in a 1982 memo advocating for the program.

The rich tapestry of human villages – humans always live in groups – becomes a means to heighten awareness, enrich the learning experience and prepare students for a service which transcends the village and the nation.

…We are reaching for a vision of the world as a sister-brotherhood under the tutelage and guidance of God the Father.

Keim was raised in an Amish community in rural Ohio. “In that tightly knit community I was a child surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts and many degrees of cousins,” he wrote in his autobiographical chapter in Making Sense of the Journey: The Geography of Our Faith (2007). “One cannot grow up in an Amish community such as mine without forever being impressed by the benefit of communal mutuality…. Quite frankly I cannot imagine a more desirable environment in which to spend a childhood.”

But he added, “The Amish community is not as good an environment for intellectually ambitious adults.”

At age 20 (1955) Keim was drafted. A conscientious objector, Keim was able to satisfy the draft board by doing two years of service as a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee, helping refugees in war-devastated Europe. This period overseas, which included a month on a kibbutz in Israel, changed his life path.

“I went to Europe Amish, but by the time I returned, it was clear to me that I could not be an Amishman. I had discovered the world was simply too rich and complex to be narrowed down to the relative simplicity of an Amish life.”

After returning to the United States, Keim earned a degree in history from EMU in 1963. He immediately continued his education through a master’s degree in medieval history from the University of Virginia and a PhD in history from Ohio State University

Ann Hershberger ’76, a nursing professor who served with Keim on the task force that launched EMU’s cross-cultural program, says she always admired the way he honored his insular, communal past while embracing a broader, more global vision of the world. “He valued his roots and never disrespected them and that was an important lesson for me. He didn’t choose to live in that community but he never lost contact.”

During a “winter term” in 1972-73 Keim and his wife, Leanna Yoder Keim ’68, led the first EMU-sponsored cross-cultural trip to Switzerland and Germany, with time in Rome, Paris, London and Amsterdam. (They took along their child, Melody ’83, then age 11.) This optional trip focused on history, Keim’s field of expertise, but the group also took in music, art and literature. At times Keim rented cars and let the students drive and explore on their own.

“He was really a trusting man and he gave us the freedom to experience new things and to see the world,” says Karen Moshier-Shenk ’73, one of Keim’s students on that first trip.

Recalls sociology professor Vernon Jantzi ’64, one of Keim’s contemporaries: “He was so good at dealing with various opinions and issues that arose and always had a way to find a compromise. He was truly an amazing man.”

Keim’s first wife, Leanna, died in 1998. Keim retired two years later and married educator Kathy Fisher ’73. They spent 2000-2001, the first year of their marriage, in Saudi Arabia, where she had worked as a teacher for 20 years. After they returned permanently to the United States, he became a founding board member of the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center in Harrisonburg and otherwise led an active life, until his health deteriorated. He died on June 27, 2008, of complications following a liver transplant.

—Rachael Keshishian

Learn more about the four task force members who served with Albert Keim in the following articles: