Leah Kennel Magal’s spirit was evident for her entire impactful life – and will live on in an endowed scholarship at Eastern Mennonite University that bears her name and that of her beloved husband.
The Dr. Ivan V. Magal and Leah Kennel Magal Endowed Scholarship, which will benefit international undergraduate students, was formalized during EMU’s 100th Commencement weekend by their grandchild Celestyna “Cela” Hoefle ‘19 on behalf of the family.
The scholarship, Hoefle’s sister Dominika “Nika” ‘16 wrote, is evidence of their grandmother Leah’s “strong belief in EMU’s ability to transform an international student’s life, and therefore create positive, crucial change that our society and world needs.”
That is, after all, a story that was true in her own life.
The Magals’ daughter Emily remembers a particular moment that “perfectly encapsulates” who her mother was:
At age 85, Leah traveled to Thailand with Emily and her husband, who were helping design and build a dental clinic and missionary residence. One afternoon, the couple returned to their car where Leah had been waiting – this was in the middle of a field, with lots of cobras and monkeys around, Emily said – to find she was not there.
Emily started to panic, but a local man held out his hands as if on motorcycle handlebars and made the sound of an engine revving.
“I said, ‘What?’ and he started laughing,” Emily said. “One of the village elders had noticed this woman sitting there and had somehow convinced her to get on the back of his motorcycle and go with him to his village.”
She and her husband got in their car and followed the man to where her mother “was sitting under a tree, surrounded by people, drinking tea.”
More than 60 years earlier, when she turned 21, Leah had stepped out on her own, too – away from her Old Order Mennonite roots in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Though her parents had discouraged it, she had an “incredible yearning” for education, and she headed to Harrisonburg where, she had heard, “EMC helped young people in her circumstances.”
It did, she found out, and after she took some prerequisite high school courses, she studied chemistry.
In 1947, Leah met a pre-med student named Ivan Magal, an Eastern European who was among the first international students to enroll at EMU.
As Nika recounted in her senior history thesis “Ivan Magal: A Voice of a Friend to a Broken Community” published in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage Quarterly and now available online courtesy of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Ivan was born in the Carpathian mountain village of Verecky Nizni, which suffered a series of brutal occupations. Twice his family moved to Belgium, where his mother died and his father struggled before returning to Verecky Nizni.
Ivan studied at Baptist Theological Seminary in Budapest, and became a Hungarian Army chaplain. That association made him a later target of Soviet Union officials in Carpathia who searched for him by name, Emily said, prompting his father to urge him to leave in what Emily said was a “torturous flight hiding in fields and clinging to trains.”
Back in Belgium, Ivan met a Mennonite Central Committee worker named Paul Peachey ‘45. If he could get to the U.S., Peachy told him, MCC would help him attend Eastern Mennonite School.
Ivan did not speak English when he arrived in Harrisonburg in 1946, but the C.K. Lehman family took him in “as a son,” Emily said; she and her siblings called them Grandpa and Grandma.
Ivan graduated in 1948, he and Leah married in 1949, and in the following year, Ivan taught organic chemistry at the college (Leah was one of his students). Then the couple moved to Richmond for Ivan to attend medical school.
Around this time deep U.S. suspicion of Eastern Europeans in part resulted in the threat of Ivan’s deportation, but Ivan knew that his return to his Soviet-controlled homeland would mean certain imprisonment or death, Emily said. He was allowed to stay, though, thanks to another Mennonite friend who had connections to a member of Congress who added Ivan’s name to a list of people being granted legal status in a provision added to a sure-to-pass bill.
Ivan was passionate about both evangelism and medicine, and in the summer of 1951, the couple traveled across the U.S. and Canada, and learned of the struggles Slavic refugees were facing in new surroundings. Ivan decided he could help, and in 1952, he combined his medical and theological training to begin producing a newsletter, Novij Putj (“The New Way”). As its circulation grew, Ivan turned to an EMU friend from Canada, Gordon Shantz ‘49, who had honored him in college by starting to learn Russian and would later name his son Ivan.
Later, in 1960, eager to expand the newsletter’s impact, Ivan – with the help of Shantz and others – began producing the Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc. program Golos Drooga (“Voice of a Friend”). It, too, featured medical and spiritual content, to evangelize behind the Iron Curtain. Ivan eventually left the role of principal broadcast host to his younger brother Vasil, who was based in Brussels, in order to meet the demands of his growing medical practices — first in Stuart, Virginia, and later in Washington D.C.
Through all of their married life, Leah was “the stabilizing influence, the behind-the-scenes person,” Emily said, helping with their first medical practice or supporting the entire family’s travels “every weekend” for Ivan’s preaching engagements, their four children in tow.
Leah had finished college just three credits shy of a degree. Though she was later encouraged to return to take the remaining class, it was the learning she’d experienced at EMU that mattered to her, rather than a degree.
And she continued to love learning, especially about nature, in extensive travel. She volunteered for more than 20 years at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Center.
“My grandmother was my role model and continues to be source of inspiration,” Nika said. “She was an influential woman in her own right.”
Ivan died suddenly in 1984, and in the early 2000s Leah decided to will part of her estate to the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and EMU.
“EMC was a pivotal influence on both of my parents, not only for the education and the opportunities,” Emily said, “but also for the fact that so many of the people they met at EMC remained important parts of their lives.”
Now, with the advent of the Dr. Ivan V. Magal and Leah Kennel Magal Endowed Scholarship, the family is leaving a legacy – one that will help future international students, too, grow their own EMU roots.
Read more about the Magals’ grandchildren at EMU: