John Horst poses in 2016 next to the historical panels he helped create in the gym foyer at Eastern Mennonite University. He also created panels that are displayed in three other locations. Horst taught physics, mathematics and interdisciplinary studies at EMU for 37 years. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

In celebration of Professor Emeritus John Horst Jr., a ‘man for all seasons’ and beloved of EMU

John L. Horst Jr. ’60, emeritus professor of physics and a passionate and much-beloved supporter of Eastern Mennonite University, died Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 at the University of Virginia Medical Center. He was 82.

Over a 44-year career at Eastern Mennonite College and then Eastern Mennonite University, Horst gained a reputation as a “dedicated and valued colleague in the Science Center” with an excellent knowledge of his field, said Professor Emeritus Joseph Mast ’64.

Equally known for his deft expertise in wider subjects, Horst was a “Rennaissance man,” Mast said. 

“As a faculty member able to teach courses across a wide range of disciplines, John was an invaluable asset to EMU,” said Professor Emeritus Millard Showalter ’62. “Without a doubt, John L. Horst will be remembered as a ‘Man for all Seasons.’”  

John L. Horst Jr. was active in the Astral Society and directed the planetarium.

Horst’s wide-ranging intellectual interests — from physics and mathematics to music and history — challenged, amazed and entertained in many venues, from classrooms to faculty lounges and in later years, at Sabbath evening Bible studies and other events at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. 

In later years, he shared his love of music as the host of WEMC’s “Mostly Mennonite, Mostly A Capella” and in compiling and writing liner notes for nine CDs from the “Mennonite Hour” music archives.

Horst also contributed to the conceptualization of pictorial histories in prominent locations that have served to educate campus visitors, and regular denizens, too. (An athlete throughout his life, Horst appears in one photo, wearing No. 77 on the Smith Literary Society basketball team.) Take a tour with John in this article.

“I am forever grateful for his initiative and leadership in the creation of the athletic history display on the first floor of the Commons, which would not have happened if he had not brought the idea and did most of the research,” said Director of Athletics Dave King ’76, who also has vivid memories of sitting in an interdisciplinary studies course (better known as IDS) as an undergraduate and watching Horst’s visible delight as he taught about baroque music. 

In retirement, Horst and his wife, Joan Graybill ’66, lived adjacent to EMU. He was an almost daily presence on campus, where he’d power walk and do wall push-ups in the University Commons (at certain times of the morning, one knew to take a wide turn around the corners), then stop by the Athletic Department (and other places, too) for a visit. King says he’ll miss those chats, as will many of us.

(EMU Archives)

Park View Mennonite Church will host a live-streamed memorial service Saturday, Sept. 26, at 2  p.m. Visit for the link. His family will be present but the service will not be open to the public.

Horst is survived by his wife, Joan; his son, Michael Horst and wife, Stephanie, of Dover, Pa.; daughter Grete Horst Johnson and husband, Christopher, of Newport News; five grandchildren, Caleb, Luke and Daniel Horst, Emily and Sarah Johnson; and by a sister, Rachel Witmer and husband, James, of Alliance, Ohio.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Valley Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center, PO Box 1653, Harrisonburg, VA 22803 or to WEMC FM radio station, 1200 Park Road, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.

Memories and condolences shared below in the comments will appear publicly. They will also be shared with the family. 


Born in Connellsville, Pa., to the late John L. Sr. and Emma Zimmerman Horst, John Horst Jr. grew up in Scottdale. His lifelong love of music began early: at Scottdale High School, he sang in a male quartet that reached state-level competition. Horst’s reputation as a vocalist preceded him: Wilmer Lehman ’57, who is four years older than John, remembers attending Music Week at Laurelville and hearing J. Mark Stauffer ’38, who led EMC’s choirs, “rave” about the teenager’s wonderful deep bass voice. The two would meet again at EMC in 1956, when Lehman was a senior and Horst a freshman — and then become colleagues. Lehman, professor emeritus of mathematics, retired in 2000.

At EMC, Horst earned a degree in mathematics and music. He then completed graduate work in physics education at the University of Virginia, as well as additional graduate work in music. He taught at Eastern Mennonite High School for three years and then moved to the college, where he spent 37 years as an associate professor of physics and mathematics. Among other responsibilities, he was the planetarium’s director. [Read more about the Astral Society and the planetarium.]

Professors Wilmer Lehman, Del Snyder, Millard Showalter, Joe Mast, and John Horst with a computer drawing of Menno Simons, 1981.

He was passionate about teaching. EMU records capture a few examples of his professional development activities. In 1969, he was selected to participate in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded six-week summer institute for professors teaching nuclear physics at Vanderbilt University. The next summer, he represented EMC among 19 colleges and universities at a selective summer institute focused on making physics courses meaningful to non-physics majors. Three weekend conferences were also part of the commitment; in return, Horst secured a $1,000 NSF grant for laboratory equipment.

Showalter remembers that Horst developed and often taught a special course for biology and business majors who needed to take physics but were lacking in “the knowledge of the essential concepts of differential and integral calculus, concepts which are very helpful in the study of physics,” Showalter said. “His class, titled ‘Elements of Calculus,’ aimed to “dispel the phobia of calculus as an ‘impossible’ course.” 

John Horst is the smiling mathematician at right.  Emeritus Professor Joe Mast thinks the person to the left is a student, “possibly in an upper level physics class.” At our request, Mast also scrutinized the work on the board: “The equations could be related to relativistic physics, the effects of time dilation when the velocity reaches speeds approaching the speed of light.” In the spirit of our scientist John Horst, we welcome any more hypotheses. Note 9/15/21: Richard Bowman identifies this as the derivation of one of Maxwell’s equations in a course on electricity and magnetism.” Bowman and classmate Claire Bange were the first two physics major grads in 1970. (EMU Archives)

Roman J. Miller’s first memory of Horst is one of gracious hospitality. The new faculty member arrived to teach at EMC in the summer of 1985 with plans to stay in an inexpensive hotel room as he located a more permanent residence. Horst offered him use of his family’s summer cabin out in the county.

“In our trans-departmental discussions and debates in the faculty lounge over the years, I was often stimulated by John Horst’s broad interests in life far beyond physics and math, which he very capably taught,” said Miller, who after retiring in 2016 as emeritus professor of biology, often saw Horst at VMRC events. “His love of music and reflections on a wide range of historic and religious happenings enlarged my world.  I appreciated so much his warm friendship and his openness to conversation about the state of the world.”

Horst’s love of learning, teaching and science was present in the classroom even after retirement.  “A few times, John was a substitute teacher in my physics classes and I keenly remember that he was fond of examples over lectures,” said Braydon Hoover ‘11, director of development and annual giving. “No matter how often he conducted a physics experiment, his face would light up like he was an undergrad experiencing it for the first time, himself.”

Hoover also remembers singing next to Horst and his clear joy in sharing music together at the doctoral defense of Ben Bergey ‘11 (now a music professor at EMU).  

Throughout his life, Horst was a vocal performer and composer. He also composed works for piano, synthesizer and carillon. At Park View Mennnonite Church, where he was a member for nearly 55 years, Horst sang in the choir. He also sang in the Mennonite Hour Men’s Quartet for seven years; in the Men’s Chorus and Mixed Chorus in the 50’s and 60’s; and with several community choirs, most recently the Valley Collegium Musicum. 

Around EMU’s Centennial year, Horst worked on a compilation  CD of EMC/EMU’s greatest choral and orchestral hits. Members of EMU’s marketing and communication department fondly remember his visits to the Anderson House office during those months, when he would work his way around to each and every desk, greeting everyone, sharing ideas for articles about campus history, handing over type-written or hand-written remembrances or attending to various to-do items related to the CD. 

With thanks to Wilmer Lehman, Joe Mast, Roman Miller and Millard Showalter for sharing memories and stories. You are most welcome to do the same in the comment box below. We’ll make sure they are passed along to his family.

Discussion on “In celebration of Professor Emeritus John Horst Jr., a ‘man for all seasons’ and beloved of EMU

  1. It is with such deep sadness that I hear of John Horst’s passing. He was a most remarkable man and one of the most forward-thinking persons I knew of, musically, and in so many other ways. He was so far ahead of many of the rest of us. I can hardly fathom all the ways he influenced me — first as my 8th grade math teacher at EMHS (he generously passed me, somehow!), as a friend in the community when we’d listen to and talk about music, as a faculty colleague at EMC, as my teacher of electronic music (while I taught at EMC), and as a friend, colleague, and supporter in the larger world of Mennonite music making and new music. His regard for and ability to create innovative music has always amazed me, especially since his roots could hardly have prepared him for all the twists and turns of new music within his lifetime. He encouraged me to keep stretching my own musical boundaries by suggesting I should end some of my songs with more of a question mark — things like that which meant he really was listening and thinking! Most recently I have appreciated his support so very much, as expressed by his coming to the Sound in the Land festival/conferences which I organized here at University of Waterloo/Conrad Grebel University College, Ontario, by supporting several of my CDs — Paraguay Primeval and Songs for My Mother, and for playing my music on WEMC. I consider him one of the most important persons in my life. He was there, musically, long before anyone else I knew in my own community, and he has always stayed on that exciting, narrow path of search and discovery, so very vital for the continuation of our human species and for our living in harmony with the wider world around us, both human and other!
    Carol Ann Weaver, composer, pianist
    Former EMU Music Prof.
    Professor Emerita Conrad Grebel University College University of Waterloo
    Chair, Association of Canadian Women Composers (ACWC)
    Secretary, Canadian Association for Sound Ecology (CASE)
    Artistic Director and Coordinator, Sound in the Land

  2. Ah, so sorry to hear John has left this mortal coil. First, I believe the unnamed student in the photo is Merle Mast, whose tenure at EMC was in the late 1980s (graduated 1989?).

    Learning that I played Bridge, he took me, a lowly student, to the local Bridge club on a number of occasions. I also took Physics of Music with John. As a budding scientist and musician, this was a fascinating study into the foundations of sound and its generation.

    RIP, John! I’ll think of you singing with the choirs of angels!!

  3. We never had John for a single class but we remember him well. As one of the many renters of he and Joan’s basement apartment next to EMU, we were blessed with knowing them. From sharing space in their garden to listening (through the ceiling) to John play piano in the evenings we have many fond memories of our time with them.

    John was always a gentle and kind man. We want to say thank you to he and Joan for blessing us with such a place to start our married life and continue our education.

  4. I need to kid my physics profs about not getting the subject matter correct for the photo of John Horst in front of a blackboard full of equations and talking to a student. John had just derived one of Maxwell’s equations in a course on electricity and magnetism. I have attached a screenshot of how I put it into Word, but with the strange characters, I was not sure it would always come through OK. Hence the screen capture available at my website as shown. I was trying to remember who taught me E & M as we typically call it in physics discussions, but it probably was John. I was just hunting up some info about John’s death and this page came up in my search. Since Elsie and I now loive at VMRC, it woould have been nice to have more time to talk with him. I should have done that.

    BTW, Clair Bang and I were the first physics graduates form EMC (in 1970). (I was a double major in physics and math.) Ten years later the physics major was dropped. I have not seen Clair in any of the succeeding years. But I think this photo may have been from the late ’60’s, and the student might have been Clair. –Richard

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