John D. Roth: Lessons in life learning

By Lavonne Shetler

“Do you mind if I eat while we talk?”askee John Roth from the swivel chair in his office, as he pushed stacks of papers aside to make room on his desk for food.“I’m running late today,” he added with a laugh. “How unusual.”

Under a pair of glasses, his eyes crinkled with a smile as he added homemade bread to his microwaved chicken noodle soup and explained his collection of Amish kitsch. In a room wallpapered by books, icons, poems and an ever-growing pile of papers to grade for class and manuscripts to edit for The Mennonite Quarterly Review, the several hundred Amish figures—made of everything from carved wood to cheap plastic—add a touch of humor to the room.

Roth, a history professor at Goshen College, buys additions to his collection anywhere he can find them. “But I haven’t bought any for three months,” he said with a smile reminiscent of those worn by recovering addicts.

As Roth pulled “Boxing Andy,” an Amish puppet in a boxing stance with clenched fists made in China, out from the crowd of faceless miniatures, he estimated that there are several hundred figures tucked into the crevices of his office. Roth’s collection ranges from an ashtray with Amish children perched on the edges to a wooden carving of an Amish nativity scene.

“My wife hates them,” admitted Roth, explaining why his entire collection is kept in his office.  Roth replaced “Boxing Andy” and settled back into his chair, relaxing as he thought back to the first time he saw his wife, Ruth.

“My family bought World Book Encyclopedias from her mother, and she came along to deliver them,” Roth remembered. “I loved those encyclopedias… and that little girl with long blonde braids who brought them.”

After their first meeting, both at age four, their lives were always somehow intertwined. In middle school, they attended the same church in Millersburg, Ohio:  Millersburg Mennonite. They went to high school together, and that was the first time that John and Ruth dated. As college was quickly approaching, Roth had every intention of going to Eastern Mennonite University. But Ruth was going to Goshen, and in the fall of their freshmen year, that’s where John was enrolled, too.

Roth did not always want to be a history professor.  He grew up in western Holmes County, Ohio, the third oldest in a family of six children. While Roth remembers always loving to read (especially the World Book Encyclopedias that reminded him of Ruth), he had expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“My dad was a country doctor,” Roth explained. “It was assumed that I would take over his job.”

Ruth, however, would have none of that.

“Ruth didn’t want to be married to a doctor,” he said. She knew that being married to a doctor would  mean that she would rarely see her husband, and that her daughters would rarely see their father, and she didn’t want that for her family.  When it came time to think about graduate school Roth had to decide between history or medicine, and the University of Chicago, along with its history program, helped to determine Roth’s future.

While still in graduate school, Roth got a chance to teach at Goshen College while another professor was on sabbatical. Roth remembers the wonderful mentors he had at Goshen, and how they combined being historians and devoted Christians and Mennonites.  Upon graduation, Roth received job offers at big state universities, but Ruth knew they belonged in Goshen.

“I married a wise woman,” Roth said in a voice softer than usual, conveying his obvious adoration and respect for his wife. “She wanted to raise our children in a community where she would find support in raising a family. It took me longer to realize that Goshen was a wonderful place, but she was convinced… and she was right.”

John and Ruth have four daughters: Sarah, Leah, Hannah and Mary.

“It was wonderful,” John said of living in a house full of women. “I tell people it’s like being a janitor in a women’s dorm.”

The Roths have lived on 8th Street, 50 yards from the College Avenue gated entrance to the college, ever since John knew his stay at Goshen would be a permanent one. Roth feels fortunate to have a job that he loves, and he enjoys living so close to the college—close enough “to roll out of bed and into the office.”

All four of Roth’s daughters have gone to Goshen College.  Roth said that at first they were a little nervous about being so close, but that all of them have enjoyed it a lot. “They know they can stop by if they want to,” Roth said. “But they can also be as far away as they want to be.”

The summer after his freshman year in college, Roth wanted to be as far away as possible. In 1978, Roth went to Austria to work on a farm for a family there. He went to Austria completely alone, only knowing the name of the family he would be staying with and without knowing any German. For the first few weeks there, Roth described himself as living entirely in his own world, simply because he didn’t know the language. Roth stayed in Austria for about six months and his time there had a huge effect on his world-view.

“I realized how ignorant I was,” Roth said of world events like World War II. “I just had no clue.”  While in Austria, Roth had his first encounter with stories of Nazi Germany, and he felt what it was like to live in the shadow of the Soviet Union. “There was a barbed wire fence at the edge of the fields,” Roth said, explaining how close to the Soviet border he was.

After returning to the United States, Roth realized that history mattered to him—and to everyone everywhere—in some way, even if it mattered in a way different than medicine did. “I came back more aware of the world,” he said.

The German that he picked up in Austria still comes in handy on a daily basis. Roth stresses that he isn’t fluent in the language by any means, but he does know enough to read and understand articles written in German. As editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, being able to read German comes in handy.

He has been editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review for 15 years and 60 issues —what “seems like forever.” As Roth began explaining his current project for the academic journal, his passion for what he is learning about became obvious. He drops names like Balthasar Hubmaier as if he is a household name that everyone would know. As Roth glanced down at the stack of papers he needed to edit for the next issue, he offered a metaphor for his job: “It’s like having a dairy herd–I’ve always got to be home to milk the cows.”

Even though the work for The Mennonite Quarterly Review is never done, Roth still finds time to do other things with his life.  Roth has written a handful of books, mostly about Mennonite religion and culture, including “Choosing Against War: A Christian View,” and three books related to Mennonite life titled “Practices, Stories and Beliefs.”

“Most things I’ve written because somebody asked me to. But it’s always something I’m interested in, not drudgery,” he said.

Roth is deeply connected to his church, Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship. He and his family have been attending there every Sunday for 20 years, and he also helps teach the college-age Sunday School class.

Church is very important to Roth. When he writes, he tries to write his books in a language for his congregation, not in a voice that only scholars would attempt to understand. “Work and church life are not different categories,” Roth stressed.

And every evening at five p.m., Roth heads back across campus to the Rec-Fit Center to work out. “Ruth tells me to go,” he said. “And I’m a better person because of it.” After a day of mental exercise, Roth said that it’s nice to feel tired in a different sense.

Around the Goshen College campus, Roth’s workouts are a bit of a novelty. First-year students often wonder if a professor’s work is ever done, but Roth stressed that the books he reads while he runs on the cross-trainers are just for fun. Rumors sometimes float around campus that he wrote his most recent book while running, but to that Roth gave a little laugh and shoke his head as he said, “I might think about books, but I don’t write there.”

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