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.
Discussion on “Professor and author Omar Eby remembered for kindness, honesty, mentorship”
I was an EMU English Lit. grad of 1992. I took Omar’s Creative Writing course my sophomore year; I remember him reading over the list of student names the first class. My parents had served in Somalia around the same time; and my name at birth was intentionally a double name. . . Roy Dale. . . a nod from my Dad who had been Roy Jr. and hated it. By college, I had dropped the “Dale” and was just “Roy.”
I’ll never forget him reading my name . . . “Roy. . .” pregnant pause. . .”Dale Brubaker.” Another pause. And that inimitable Omar querying look; half quizzical, half amused, and entirely all too knowing; already. . . about what’s circulating in the poor adolescent male’s mind and soul. “Right?”
It is crazy; how many distinct and concrete memories I have of Omar so many years later. As a teacher and mentor, he imprinted himself on me the way he tried to get us young writers to imprint our readers with meaning created, not told — through sharp metaphor and crisp, clean dialogue.
In fact, the words jotted in the margins of my assignments ring in my ears today: “Archaic!” “Clumsy.” “Cliche” “Contrived” or just a simple. . . “Oh please!” Even an “Awful!” or “Yuck!” now and then.
But the joy of finding an underlined “Yes!” in the margins. Or lines sketching between paragraphs a carefully extended metaphor with a simple “Nice!” jotted in the margins. Oh my goodness. He caught it. More importantly, he thought it worked!
I think it is safe to say that I was an English lit. major at EMU because of Omar and the meaning and value he helped me find in both reading and attempting to write narrative.
Though, like comedian John Mulaney, I’ve never been able to find a job based on having a degree in a language I already spoke, 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.
Looking back, I realize that the way he named me in my very first class was his attempt to place a blessing on me that would go with me through life long after our four year convergence. Roy . . . Dale. . . Brubaker. Somalia Mennonite Missionary kid. Son of Roy and Hope Brubaker. Born, 1970, one of six missionary boy babies that year in the small mennonite community. Part of the story. A piece of a shared narrative around faithful engagement with the world’s hunks and colors.
I first met Omar when I was a prospective student in the spring of 1997. I attended a session where prospective students could meet with professors. I was the lone English major, and Omar was the representative for the Language & Literature department. We went to his office and he asked me why on earth I wanted to be an English major. I am certain the admissions department would’ve been mortified to know that he said that, but I remember liking the fact that he wasn’t afraid to challenge me.
The following semester, I took a literature class from him. It was around registration time, and I wanted to ask him if he’d allow me to take his Creative Writing class in the spring, since it was widely known that he didn’t take first year students. I stayed after class to petition him, and his response was, as usual, straight to the point. He said he usually didn’t allow first-year students in his Creative Writing classes because he found that most hadn’t enough life experience yet, even if they were good writers. If I thought that I’d had enough life experience, I could sign up. I decided to wait. I published my first novel, Shaken in the Water, in 2013. Omar invited me to his home. My dear friend and another student of Omar’s, Bethany Versluis Fairfield, joined us. That visit with Omar and Anna Kathryn in their living room was a wonderful chance to discuss writing, reading, and life. Afterwards, we corresponded more about my novel and the struggles of being a writer. In one of his emails he concluded with “just keep on nailing down one word after another,” which is excellent advice.
I think his honesty made him an effective teacher. He said what he thought, but not to tear anyone down. He wanted students to be open with themselves so they could think clearly about their thoughts and decisions. When we succeeded, he was the first to congratulate us.
Omar Eby was an extraordinarily gracious mentor to me when we attended the same church and I attended a master’s program in English at James Madison. He paid for me to go with him and Carroll Yoder to Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing (in, I believe, 2005), gave me a hundred dollars to buy books when he found out that I was too poor to buy my own (with which I purchased, among others, my still-faithful Riverside Chaucer), and prayed for me every Friday.
Perhaps most importantly, his vocational intervention proved decisive. 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. His judgment proved prescient as well as prophetic. My current life of deep, rich relationality and discipleship is one that he imagined on my behalf when my own faith fell short.
When I learned of Omar’s passing, I went to my bookshelf and took down a copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Inside the front cover, in pencil, is still the shaky script “O. Eby.” Omar gave me that book during my first year at EMU. I was an aspiring male English major and Omar, who was my advisor, showed interest in my education during those first two semesters, which was also his last year at EMU. I extended my learning from him through an independent study on the writings of William Faulkner when I was a junior, dragging him out of retirement for a bi-weekly dinner meeting with Omar to ostensibly discuss the novels I was reading. During that time we did discuss Faulkner but I also learned about his voluntary service in Musoma, Tanzania, I saw the photo of him with the hippopotamus that he shot to protect the irrigation canals around the village he lived in, I learned of his courtship of Anna Katherine and their eventual return to Africa, and I heard about the struggles he faced academically as he worked towards a doctorate in English in two different programs. I also learned about the trials of an aging man, that my professors were as human as I was, and that they struggled with some of the same questions and insecurities that plagued me as an undergraduate. 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. In 2003 Omar gave me a copy of his book Markings my Own and mentioned that I was one of the university students that kept in touch and shared with him my own “artful rowings toward God.” Unfortunately, my contact and interactions with Omar grew rarer in the past seventeen years, but 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.
During my years at EMU, Omar Eby seemed naturally drawn to students who showed a knack for writing or literary analysis, but hadn’t considered becoming an English major. It wasn’t a heavy-handed sell, but over time many of Omar’s first-year students went on to take additional language or literature courses (eventually becoming an English major). I was one such lucky student who benefited immensely from Omar’s encouragement.
This encouragement sometimes took the shape of academic mentoring, but it was always clear that it came from a spiritual and deeply caring place. There was never any question that his work at EMU was both a job and a calling for Omar. He kept his door open and his listening skills sharp.
A visit with Omar in his office (or later in his home as a friend) often included a 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 – often making connections with something he’d read from contemporary writers such as Buechner, Palmer or Nouwen, or themes from classical authors such as Dostoyevksy or Dickenson.
Yes, Omar shaped many generations of young writers and teachers during his career – but it was these “life is literature” connections, his deep authenticity, and the nurturing of young students such as myself that I will always remember. I believe these remain among his greatest contributions to the EMU community and to the larger world. I and countless other students will always be better because Omar was a part of our lives during these formative years.
Omar was one of my beloved professors during my student years as an English major at EMU. Along with enjoying a warm friendship, I appreciated Omar’s instruction and mentorship in my journalistic pursuits as well as engaging the creative and soul-stirring elements in the study of great literature.
Omar was a stickler for precision and excellence. Long before laptops and spellcheck, Omar would deduct one-third of a letter grade for each misspelling on a term paper!
His influence laid the groundwork for my eventual employment at Laubach Literacy international in Syracuse, New York following my graduation from EMU. Coincidentally, I learned later that Omar had also done an internship at Laubach Literacy while working on his masters in journalism at Syracuse University — and, thus, we had occasion to compare notes on world literacy in the years after I graduated from EMU.
On the creative side I will always associate my love for William Wordsworth’s poem, Tintern Abbey, with Omar. Omar helped to illuminate Wordsworth’s world to me — a precious gift!
Glenn Lehman, C’66:
Three of Omar’s books lay by my bed when the news came that he had died– Sense and Incense (read it 6/13/1965); A Covenant of Despair (1973 Christmas gift from Omar to me); and, A Long Dry Season(1988). I keep every book he wrote—The Sons of Adam; How Full the River; The Boy and the Old Man; Fifty Years and Fifty Stories, and, Mill Creek. It was not usual to be re-reading them.
I first saw Omar on September 6, 1960, his first day on the faculty of Lancaster Mennonite School and my first day as a transfer from public school to my junior year there. He was moving to Lancaster after teaching three years in Somalia.
We two auslanders found each other in the pages of my journal, which was required daily writing for his English class of 16-year-olds. Weekends he took the stack of notebooks home to read and grade. His notes in the margins invited me to spread my wings and mind. He opened the door for me to edit the campus newspaper, for example, and to play organ at his wedding reception. In turn, he wrote a poetic essay for my wedding.
After a few years at LMH, he moved to teaching college at EMU where he was one of my profs. After college I served an overseas teaching assignment in Africa sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee and he served some years in the communications at MCC headquarters.
Then we kept growing up and not intersecting very often. I knew of his pride in his growing family. My affection for Omar and my esteem never flagged. Several years ago, after his last book came out, I visited him at his care facility to tell him I read it and liked it. Several weeks ago I called to check in and give birthday greetings. The answering machine said it was not taking messages. Well, Omar. This is the message the telephone would not take.
Glenn Lehman, C’66
Omar is one of a kind. He began his creativity with drawing and then writing. He was a teacher who listened to his students and then drew them to understanding. His novels, both published and unpublished, reveal his craft as a novelist who mastered the art. A master of the language, he controlled the movement and presentation of characters into a unified whole.
I was a class mate of Omar’s from 1953 to 1957.We were roommates in the EMC mens dorm in 1954-5. My memories of Omar and our interactions during that time were and remain so positive and priceless. His influence on my life is enduring. I will continue to remember and be forever grateful. What a special individual.
Omar Eby taught me two writing courses when I was at EMU in 1980 and 1981. I was a little intimidated by him because he was so blunt. However, it was clear he knew what he was doing when it came to writing. Another student and I created a peer writing friendship (we are still friends and exchange our work). We critiqued each other’s writing before turning anything into Omar. We wanted our assignments to be at their best before he had a chance to respond to them. I realized in those classes that I loved writing. I started to find my voice in writing in ways that I hadn’t in high school. I am grateful to Omar for recognizing that I was a writer when I didn’t even know it myself.
I got word through my brother Jim that one more of my heroes has passed into the “undiscovered country,” and that is Omar Eby. Omar took note of me as early as my freshman year at EMC (fall 1974). One morning during IDS, in that Science Center amphitheater with the mounted animal heads, Omar was lecturing all 200-plus of us freshmen sitting there in the Introduction to the Humanities course. As usual, my mind was in another dimension until I heard Omar say, “It says here in my notes that I am to check to see if Eric Bishop is sleeping before moving on…..” That was not the last time that I would be embarrassed in an IDS class, by the way.
During my sophomore year word got to me by way of a Work-Study student who had been asked to retype it that Omar had chosen my essay from Expository Writing to be passed out for peer review in the class. I soon discovered that it wasn’t because it was necessarily good.
As a bit of a caricaturist, I enjoyed drawing caricatures of Omar in my notebooks (when I should have been taking notes) and one time I drew his visage on the inside wooden door in a second floor Men’s Room in “Old Main” that I was sure he would see, eventually. With his carefully coiffed hair, patrician eyebrows, and trademark Van Dyke, Omar was easy to draw and be immediately recognizable.
While taking his Creative Writing course in the fall of 1977, I was required to keep and submit a journal. It was during that semester that I produced some of my best writing, much of which was in that journal. One of his written responses in that journal is classic Omar:
“I’ve seen Eric Bishop in three classes now, other than IDS 102. If I were a new, insecure college instructor, I’d probably be worrying about those many days when I got no indication of connecting with Eric. He has a far away look in his eye, a nervous restlessness—can he be attentive —-have any power of concentration for one subject/topic/interest/? Has the passive activity of listening to music by the thousands of hours affected him? How? So I don’t worry about my teaching so much — as Eric — will he really endure the daily demands of a high school classroom teacher? Or will he in another 10 years be in more the type of thing his brother is now in — public relations? Maybe straight out newspaper work -as a cub reporter on a small daily— May the years deal kindly with Eric.”
NOTE: I went on to teach English at Christopher Dock Mennonite HS for 37 years, and Omar was pleased.
On the Acknowledgements page of my doctoral dissertation I included: …..and Professor Omar Eby, of Eastern Mennonite University, who always affirmed my writing skills.
I photocopied that page and sent it to him. He later told me that only one other of his former students, to his knowledge, ever gave him that particular kind of acknowledgment of his contributions to some aspect of their formation.
The last time I was with Omar, it was in his room at VMRC and we shared some of our mutual struggles. I will always cherish that time together (though I wish he wouldn’t have noted, twice, that I had, indeed, put on a good bit of weight since the last time he had seen me!)
It has been difficult to see the old guard English professors die off: Hubert Pellman, Jay B. Landis….. and now Omar. These men gave me, and generations of students, the quantity and quality of attention that you often don’t get at big name schools where many of your teachers in the early years are Teaching Fellows and Graduate Assistants while the “stars” are away, speaking at conferences, jet-setting around the globe and conducting research of sometimes dubious value to be published in obscure journals with minimal circulation.
I don’t remember if it was in the spring or fall of 1989 when I landed in one of Omar’s classes and then in his office sharing some of the “poetry” I’d written the previous summer.
He was gracious as he responded after reading it. Perhaps he saw something. He didn’t send me off in tears. He somehow invited me into the world of writing, story formation and treating both as a craft. That was inviting me to be part of his life and as I eagerly accepted he was a huge part of mine. He helped me become a writer and journalist. He warned me of the “Mennonite ghetto” of writing. He was a model of someone who could be both honest and gracious.
I was fortunate to be allowed into the fold. Not everyone was the afforded that or chose that, but because of those times together, Omar became a dear friend who continue to shape my life long after graduation.
I am grateful for those times in the classroom with him, those times in his office and visiting his garden. And the connection that remained in recent years. He was a dear man who loved his Creator, his students and stories. I am so grateful.
Although I never had the pleasure of being in one of Professor Eby’s classes at EMU, I respected him deeply as a writer and scholar. In fact, Omar’s essay, “A Distraught Woman,” was published in “River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative,” which I co-founded in 1999 and still co-edit today. To attain a River Teeth publication, Omar overcame a blind review and a less than 1 percent River Teeth acceptance rate. In that essay, Omar compares and contrasts his then-current recollection of a 1959 incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, to an air-form letter he wrote right after the incident, but didn’t read until he unearthed it 47 years later. His resulting reflection on how narrative memory develops and warps over time was cited by David Foster Wallace and Robert Atwan as a Notable Essay in the 2007 edition of Best American Essays. Those with access to the Project Muse database will find a copy of Omar Eby’s “A Distraught Woman” in River Teeth 8.1 here:
In later years, Omar lived with my father Harold D. Lehman in Yoder House at VMRC. Not long ago, I again thanked Omar in person for sharing his rare talent with our journal and congratulated him for earning a literary accolade rare among Mennonite writers. Now he and my father are gone, as is David Foster Wallace, for that matter.
Omar was a gifted teacher of mine at Lancaster Mennonite and EMU. At Lancaster Mennonite, he drove our Laurel Wreath yearbook staff 200 miles to Scottdale to see the former Mennonite Publishing House operation. One amusing vignette: If I recall correctly, Omar mentioned that as a youth, he had to give a confession in his church because he had gone ice skating!
I owe much to Omar, a friend and professor, at LMS, EMU and after. He is a mentor for creativity, thoughtfulness and questioning the status quo as well as an inspiration for my 10-year voyage in Africa and Asia. There are details I could give of personal visits and discussions, however, I would like to mention one action of Omar’s that changed my perspective for life. When I am now in discussions of racism I often refer to BLACK LIKE ME as the first of many volumes that I have read about the African American experience.
One day after English class in 1962 at LMS, Omar pulled out of his desk drawer the thin paperback BLACK LIKE ME which may have been censored from LMS library and handed it to me. I was incredibly moved by John Howard Griffin’s journey through the Jim Crow South, a white man who painted himself black for the experience. The reading shock my white, unexposed foundations such that I memorized a chapter and recited it to my home Mennonite Church.
And I have built on that reading ever since. I owe a lot to Omar and that’s a big one.
Oh, dear Omar – miss you mucho already! You were my favorite prof at then-EMC for expository and creative writing. You saw potential in me back then that I didn’t recognize (or acknowledge) at that time, yet you went the second mile in reading my primitive scrawls (often aloud in class), then offering a careful critique – the good, bad and ugly – making us rework the copy and then actually submitting the unsolicited (unwanted?) to a publication. The first major piece I wrote, “On the Scene With the Record Machine,” detailed my heart’s desire to become a rock ‘n’ roll DJ on a big-time radio station – preferably WIBG (“Wibbage”) radio 99 in Philadelphia if I ever made it through EMC (but settled on WEMC-FM as a student); the DJ dream did come to pass years later, both commercial and public radio). But I digress . . . Just can’t say enough about the caring yet not coddling ways he served as a mentor and sounding board to me, both as a student and Weather Vane staffer and then later when I joined the faculty in 1971, serving as public information officer 40 years. Omar wrote a fantastic ten-year update on the college, 1967-77, while I was editor of the EMC Bulletin (now Crossroads). A couple of the best vintage Omar lines in the piece, alas, were deleted! Omar had a way of writing, and saying, spot-on observations on the human condition that others were only thinking. There’s much more that could be said about this amazing man (some of which has been well-articulated by others here). I cherish our rich relationship over the years and was able to stay connected via regular interactions at the VMRC Wellness Center until that facility abruptly shut down. I regret not being able to bid ‘farewell’ except by this more impersonal cyber vehicle. We are indeed ‘going down the valley one by one.” RIP, Omar!
Rachel I. Fretz ’67
Omar Eby was my English teacher at Lancaster Mennonite High School. He also was the sponsor for the student staff of the Laurel Wreath Yearbook (62). Although I don’t remember a trip to Scottdale (that Carl Rutt mentions above), I treasure my memories of working together on the yearbook and the sense of inclusion that gave me. Understanding the constraints of my conservative Mennonite upbringing, Omar could see my hidden gifts despite my very plain dress and shy demeanor. Later at Eastern Mennonite College, he also was my English professor. I’ll never forget my surprise in reading the comment he wrote on one of my essays: “Excellent. Save this paper for graduate school.” He planted a seed in my heart and mind. Although no longer a plain-dressing young woman during college, I could not yet envision graduate school or imagine my future career as Dr. Fretz, a faculty member of the UCLA Writing Programs. I am so grateful for his gifts in teaching and mentoring and for his inspiration as a writer. His example still encourages as I write during retirement.
Although I didn’t take any of Omar’s courses at EMC, we knew each other through LMS and Lancaster Conference connections. When we met in the ad building hallway one day during my senior year, Omar asked about my plans following graduation. I told him I hoped to get a teaching job in order to begin paying off my college loans. He said he thought the loan repayment could be put on hold and encouraged me to explore taking a several-year assignment overseas through a church program. I remember thinking that perhaps Omar didn’t consider the repayment of loans as high a priority as I did and rather immediately rejected his suggestion. The seed he planted, however, found fertile soil and was watered by other influences. Ironically, two years later we found ourselves as colleagues in the same school in Musoma, Tanzania. Though most of the years afterwards, we were not located close to Omar and Anna Katherine, my wife Lois and I valued the occasions when we could reconnect with them, always being nurtured by the warmth of their friendship.
I first knew Omar as my “boss” the summer before I went to EMC as a junior. He was the editor of EMBMC’s “MIssionary Messenger” and I was a volunteer sent to interview persons serving in NY City, Philly and migrant camps. It was my first launch away from my childhood home. I was quite astounded that Omar assumed that I could handle any assignments that the little editorial board came up with. In all subsequent encounters with Omar – in Creative Writing class, talking with him and Anna Kathryn and driving down the Escarpment to Kenya’s Rift Valley – I was impressed with how freely he voiced his feelings, acknowledging his contrariness, talking effusively about Africa and tut-tuting hypocrisy. I shall forever appreciate how fully he lived wherever he strode. I was happy to visit with him twice at his last residence. I was grateful that I took my grad pic so he could recognize me.
I am sorry to be late adding my blessing to Omar, to his family, co-workers and generations of other students:
Omar often visits my memory, those vivid memories from the cusp of life, university years. But just today I stumbled across this news of his passing.
During “Dine with a Mind,” in the fall of 1994, Omar invited me to chat over lunch. The dining hall sponsored the program and professors pasted their doors with sign-up sheets. Not so Omar, whose gift of mentorship extended to identifying those who needed his unique sort of guidance.
I enjoyed his classes and guidance in university years, but even more the special investment he made in me which I felt to be a privilege, an inspiration, an on-going delightful discourse – but also a responsibility.
Omar had a knack for the probing question, the kinds that provoke silence and self-exploration. With those questions – and eventually the thoughts he shared in their regard- Omar shaped my life. And, while thoughtful and eloquent, he never refrained from clear-eyed assessment.
At a moment of crisis in my adult life, Omar traveled almost a thousand miles to visit me, both exhorting and admonishing me. He later wrote me some words that are still difficult to read, concluding the paragraph with: “All of this is much too harsh-sorry for the way it’s coming out. But I read over it and read over it, and don’t know how to soften it. Left only with deleting the paragraph and retreat behind silence-which is not the terrain of friendship.” But this visit and the ensuing letter ultimately did help me change my life, during a time when I felt that I could not reach out to family or friends.
In the time that elapsed my life became whole again, and I again seized the kinds of opportunities Omar had encouraged my to pursue: teaching, graduate studies, writing — and maybe hardest of all — homecoming.
I was able to visit Omar a couple of times in VMRC, the most recent shortly before the CoVid lockdowns. By that time he suffered from dementia, so as much as anything, I told him our own story. He told me that Anna Katherine made sure he had a room with a window and that he liked to see the birds. I introduced him to my daughter. And the last time I left, perhaps still unsure who I was, he held onto my hand earnestly for a moment and told me that it was so good to see me.
Once, he wrote me:
‘My life flows on, with lawn and garden, exercising and reading, and
too much brooding. But the day passes and I did not self-destruct!
For both of us, Neil, as Jung wrote: “Bidden or not bidden, God is
present.” To which I add: He is waiting in the tomorrow. Let us go
on towards where we think he awaits us.’
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