Omar Elias Eby, a professor emeritus of English at Eastern Mennonite University who taught for nearly 30 years, died Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, after a six-year struggle with vascular dementia in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He was 85.
Eby was a beloved mentor to hundreds of students, shaping lives and careers and making lifelong friendships with many who passed through his office and his classroom from 1964-66 and from 1972-99. His devotion to the art and collaborative process of writing is remembered annually through the Omar Eby Writing Award, presented to a senior majoring or minoring in writing studies who demonstrates excellence in the craft of creative writing and who provides insightful critique and support for other writers in creative workshops.
In a tribute shared during the 2013 Mennonite/s Writing Conference, friend and colleague Carroll Yoder, a fellow professor emeritus, wrote admiringly of Eby’s “disciplined versatility” as an author. All of his colleagues would employ the phrase willingly to describe the diversity of his talents and interests.
Professor Emeritus James R. Bomberger calls his friend Eby “one of a kind,” an artist and master novelist, a scholar and a teacher.
In her foreword to Eby’s Markings My Own: Musings on the Gospel of Mark (Cascadia, 2003), fellow English professor and former dean Lee Snyder lists Eby’s many personae: author, Anabaptist, colleague, descendant, friend, horticulturist, grandparent, gourmand, teacher, mentor, missionary, music lover, parent, pilgrim, poet, seeker, sinner and spouse.
His published works range from novels to short stories, essays and poetry, the aforementioned volume of meditations on the Gospel of Mark, a memoir of his volunteer service in Somalia, and a history of Mennonite missions in Somalia.
On the anniversary of EMC’s 60th year, Eby was tapped to contribute a 10-year history (titled “The Restless Decade: 1967-77” and published in The Bulletin), that took up the institutional story where Professor Hubert Pellman’s 50-year history left off.
The foreword to this article captures something else Eby was known for: his honesty. “Not everybody will be happy with the article,” he wrote, anticipating criticism about whose views were omitted, the tone he used or a perception of limited sharing of “institutional woes.”
Some of that independence, that “disciplined versatility” also appears in Eby’s assessment of the article, which he says makes “no attempt to match tone or depth” of Pellman’s chronicle. (Pellman was an influential mentor and friend, according to the family.) The work is pure Eby, he seems to suggest: “It is more impressionistic, anecdotal, celebrative, interpretative – and occasionally confessional.”
The memorial service
The news of Eby’s passing has inspired many former students to share reflections on his impact. Before we hear from them, here is information about how to participate in his memorial service and how to honor his memory:
Pastor Phil Kniss of Park View Mennonite Church will conduct a memorial service via live stream on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 2 p.m. The service can be viewed by visiting www.pvmchurch.org/omareby. A phone option is also available for those without video access.
Due to the pandemic there will be no viewing or visitation. At Omar’s request his body was cremated and a graveside burial was held privately for the family.
In lieu of flowers, Omar’s children Katrina Yoder, Maria Lahman and Lawrence Eby request that memorial contributions be made in his honor to EMU’s Language and Literature Department: online at emu.edu/giving/lang-lit or via mail by indicating “In Memory of Omar Eby” on the check and sent to EMU, Attn Development Office, 1200 Park Rd., Harrisonburg, VA 22802.
Online condolences shared in the comment box at the end of this article will be shared with the family. You may also visit www.mcmullenfh.com and offer condolences there as well.
A beloved mentor
Former students of Eby’s who were contacted for this article, and some who reached out independently, sent in paragraphs of poignant memories. Omar Eby would no doubt be pleased by the crisp clarity and grammatical correctness of their writing, their conveyance of both narrative and meaning, their enlivened characterizations, the beauty of interaction and relationship held up to the light.
Here are some excerpts. If you’re interested in reading the fulsome tributes, these are appended with permission of the author in the comments at the end of the article.
“I and countless other students will always be better because Omar was a part of our lives during these formative years,” summarized Isaac Wengerd ‘96.
He recalled a relationship that grew and deepened over time, from visits to Eby’s office and later in his home, their “wandering conversation spanning not only language and literature but also challenges or struggles that one of us, or perhaps the EMU community or larger world, was facing. In his authenticity, Omar did not shy away from sharing freely of his own struggles with faith, doubt, vocation and writing…”
For many, Eby’s influence is ever-present.
Roy D. Brubaker ‘92 says that “very few days go by in my work as a public sector forester and ecologist that I don’t find myself realizing what a formative role Omar had on me as an educator, mentor, friend, and role model.”
Author and teacher Jessica Penner ‘01 still wrestles with Eby’s advice. In a journal entry for his class, she once explained she did “the homework I hated” first and “my true loves last.”
Thus, my ‘fun’ homework got the shortest time. Omar responded something to the tune of: ‘Why on earth would you do that? I always do the things I love first. The other stuff will take care of itself.’ I still catch myself doing the things I hate before the things I love—but then I hear Omar, chiding me for wasting joy.
Eby was a confidant and a “prescient, prophetic mentor” as Chad Schrock MDiv ‘02 contemplated leaving the pastorate for a life of teaching and scholarship.
I confided in him once that I had qualms about leaving the pastorate for a life of English teaching and scholarship. Surely pastoring I could reach more people than selfishly, alone, writing articles that a few dozen people would read and care about! I did not expect Omar’s stinging, withering critique. Who did I think I was, judging the many more important than the few? More people could reach the many; perhaps I was the only one capable of reaching those particular few.
Now a professor of English at Lee University in Tennessee, Schrock observes “my current life of deep, rich relationality and discipleship is one he imagined on my behalf when my own faith fell short.”
Wendell Shank ‘02, a student during Eby’s final year at EMU, benefited from his advice as his first-year advisor, and then “drag[ged] him out of retirement” for an independent study on William Faulkner that turned into bi-weekly dinners and wide-ranging discussion as Eby shared stories of his life in Tanzania; his courtship of his love, Anna Kathryn; and struggles as a writer and scholar.
Shank, an instructor in EMU’s Language and Literature Department, holds Eby as an exemplar: “Omar inspired me to write, to question my faith in the process of owning it, and to apply both my writing and my faith in my understanding of the world around me … I continue to treasure the way in which he took me under his wing and helped me make sense of literature and faith. I hope to someday serve my students in the same way.”
Tributes to Omar Eby shared below will also be passed along to his family.