During a homestay in the Middle East several decades ago, visiting a friend his son had met at Eastern Mennonite University, Norm Rittenhouse heard a firsthand story that deeply troubled him: bulldozers ripping up fertile farmland, the owner jailed, and no compensation offered.
Because Norm and his wife, Alice, farmed several hundred acres in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, hearing that story created a near-visceral yearning for “justice and peace,” Norm said.
The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University, they thought, was a place that might help bring that about.
Now, in honor of Alice, who died in 2016, Norm has established the Norman and Alice Clemmer Rittenhouse Endowment for World Peace, to provide an annual scholarship award for students from the Middle East at CJP.
The Rittenhouses had thought they would include their support for CJP in their will. But after Alice died in 2016, Norm decided “Now’s the time to do it.”
“The quicker you start something, the better it is,” he said.
This fall he added an additional $20,000 to the endowment, which was a quarter of the proceeds from an auction of his household items, antiques and farm equipment.
The endowment is both characteristic of his and Alice’s life of giving, and a natural continuation of the story of their connection to the Middle East that would last long after their international visit. They weren’t just hosted by that friend at his home — they would host him, also, in their Harleysville, Pennsylvania, home, where after graduating he lived with them for seven years.
“Funding scholarships is one of the most essential ways to support the mission of CJP,” said Lindsay Martin, associate director of development for CJP. “To have Norm and Alice’s desire for peace in a particular part of the world translate into the creation of this scholarship, which will benefit Middle Eastern students for many years, is especially meaningful.”
‘We worked to give’
Seeding the endowment wasn’t the first time that the Rittenhouses have supported EMU, though neither ever studied there.
Norm only attended school for 10 grades, and Alice only eight. After they married at ages 24 and 21, respectively, they thought they still might go to college, so they took high school equivalency classes and tests, just in case. However, they never did enroll in college.
Even so — and even before they had their own children — they made financial gifts to EMU. One project they supported was the construction of the new Suter Science Center, finished in 1969.
Such generosity was integral to their life together.
Alice had thought she wouldn’t marry, and would be a missionary instead. Then she met and married Norm and “things just evolved” into furthering Norm’s previous business arrangement with his father. Early on, they made a covenant with God, Norm said, to give 25 percent of their income to charity.
“We worked to give,” he said, “as much as we could.”
It was a way to support the missions work that Alice had once foreseen for herself, and a goal they pursued with vigor: In the first year they had the farm they gave away over 30% of their income.
And their work was fruitful. At their peak, they owned 300 acres on the three farms, plus farmed an additional 200 acres, and had a market in Philadelphia.
Close to home
Just recently Norm took his first trip of any distance in the last five years — 50 miles to New Holland, Pennsylvania, to visit his brother. He’d been staying much closer to home because he was caring for Alice, who before passing away faced Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Norm calls himself “an old farmer”; his daughter Jennifer, who like her brother attended EMU, lives on one side of his farmhouse, and he lives on the other. He worked for over half a year, he said, getting ready for his recent sale, to part with farm equipment he no longer uses, antiques, and household items he doesn’t need anymore.
Just the mention of household items in a recent interview brought up another story of their characteristic generosity:
Alice worked at home and helped with the market and farm, but she was also an interior decorator at a local retirement home.
“That was her mission,” Norm said. “She never took a penny for it.”
She didn’t just not take a penny, though.
“Matter of fact,” he said, “I found stuff hanging on the walls there that were in our home at one time. She’d decorate, and if she needed something, she would take it off the walls of our house and take it down there.”