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2011-02-01 issue:

A long life of witness and service

Martha Graber 'helps make things work out.'

by Susan Miller Balzer

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Martha F. Graber reads steadily, modulating her voice to adapt to the content. Reading The Mennonite on tape for those with visual impairment is the one volunteer job that she continued to do in her ninth decade.

Martha Graber reads
The Mennonite at home. Photo by Susan Miller Balzer.

Martha says she can't remember exactly when she started reading The Mennonite on tape. It was "20 or so years ago—in the early or mid '80s." (At 91, a five- to 10-year discrepancy doesn’t make much difference to Martha.)

In January, she ended her monthly responsibility. "I find that I stumble a little bit," she says, then adds, "I enjoy getting to read The Mennonite before everyone else does. There's always interesting things in it."

Martha has packed many varied activities into her long life. While raising a family of five children —James, Kenneth, Lowell, Karolyn and Marilyn—Martha and her late husband, Eldon, made their home in four Kansas towns (Whitewater, Pretty Prairie, Chapman and North Newton), as well as Bluffton, Ohio; Freeman, S.D.; Chicago and Zaria, Nigeria. Martha and Marilyn now live in the home Martha designed on Minneapolis Street in North Newton. To keep connected with all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Martha plans "Graberamas"—when the family clan meets to visit, reminisce, pray, eat and play together.

Martha describes herself as a facilitator, one who "helps make things work out." She seems to have been equally at ease in the public eye as she is when working behind the scenes. Her interests and Christian convictions guide her activities, which now include taking part at Bethel College Mennonite Church and its Golden Agers group, exercising three times a week "to keep my strength up" at the Senior Center, which she helped start in Newton, attending Life Enrichment at Bethel College and participating in the Heartland Peace Tax Group. Last summer, the Heartland group honored her for her lifetime of peacemaking and gave her a scarf embroidered with "Foreclose on War, Invest in People," words that describe her lifelong priorities.

Foreclose on war
Martha was born in Turpin, Okla., to Marie Schmidt Friesen and Gerhard Friesen. Her father, she said, "was ahead of his time" in advocating war tax resistance and speaking out at Mennonite conferences against profiteering from the war economy. "His conscience would not let him support the military."

She said her father would have approved the 1983 action by the General Conference Menno­nite Church to honor employee Cornelia Lehn's request to not have her income taxes withheld from her paychecks.

The Friesens practiced war tax resistance by living simply, giving generously and usually not earning enough to owe income taxes.

Although as a youth she was embarrassed by her father's outspokenness to audiences unreceptive to his message, Martha embraced her parents' convictions about Christian discipleship and peacemaking and taught them to her children. She files tax returns but usually has a zero taxable income due to living simply and giving 50 percent of her income to charity. She has also advocated for the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund legislation.

Invest in people
Martha has invested her life and her money in helping people in all stages of their lives, from toddlers to senior citizens.

She contributes stocks through the Mennonite Foundation to Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference and supports environmental and health-care organizations as well.

"She gives (to organizations that are working) to solve problems," Marilyn Graber says.
Martha has served her church, family and community as a volunteer and in jobs as varied as church organist, dietician, editor, child-care director and city clerk.

She earned a degree in home economics with minors in English and chemistry at Bethel College, North Newton, and later returned to Bethel for teacher education courses.
She taught in, organized and/or directed nursery schools and community day-care centers in Chicago, Bluffton and Wadsworth, Ohio; Hesston, Kan., and in Zaria, Nigeria.

Margie Swartzendruber, a founding leader at Hesston Community Child Care, remembers Martha’s thriftiness, “She never wanted to throw anything away. When a toy was broken, she would try to fix it.”

Martha was director of information services and admissions counselor at Freeman (S.D.) Junior College and Academy while her husband served there as president. When Eldon directed the education department at Bluffton (Ohio) College, Martha worked there as an instructor in geography and director of publicity.

From 1972 to 1977 she was a lecturer in home economics and psychology at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, where she and Eldon served in the Teachers Abroad Program. At ABU, she not only developed the home economics curriculum and degree program but worked with the architect to plan the classroom facilities.

At Bluffton, she served as advisor for the Student Christian Association, and in Nigeria her role with the Student Christian Fellowship was that of "Senior Friend," She tutored and counseled international students in university settings.

While her children were in school—a long time, since James is nearly 23 years older than his youngest sister—Martha chaired Parent Teacher Associations and led Cub Scouts. She did substitute teaching in local public schools.

Martha invested much of her life in Christian education. She taught Sunday school and Vacation Church School nearly 40 years and served on congregational and denominational Christian education and curriculum committees. She pioneered in including sex education in the Christian education curriculum. "People didn't talk about it at that time. We thought the church should be more involved in it."

Martha also gave leadership to local, regional and national women's mission and service committees and to the Bethel College Women's Association. Chair, president, consultant, organizer, director, resource person, speaker and writer are some of the "hats" Martha has worn.

Martha's can-do attitude often took her into the kitchen, where she helped organize and prepare fundraising meals and receptions. Although assuming many typical "women's jobs," Martha says she prefers participating in groups and organizations that are not exclusively for women.

Martha began researching and taking action on senior issues in the 1980s and was a co-director of the new Inter-Mennonite Council on Aging (later Mennonite Association of Retired Persons) in 1982-1986 and the founding president of Harvey County (Kan.) Coalition of Aging Services in 1984. She served on the county transportation advisory committee and chaired the local AARP community service and legislative committees. She also volunteered with the Central Kansas Adult Basic Education Literacy Program and with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

She was named Outstanding Older Kansan (already in 1986), Outstanding Branch Member of American Association of University Women in 1987 and Outstanding Member of Newton Area Retired Teachers Association in 1989.

What's ahead?
One of Martha's grandfathers lived to be more than 100 years old. A great-grandfather experienced a miraculous rescue by an angel when he was sinking in the ice near his Russian village.

Throughout her first 91 years, Martha has contributed to even more helping organizations than these listed in this story. In unpretentious ways, she has been the angel behind many miracles—giving a hand, sharing wisdom and encouraging young and old. Reading The Mennonite kept her abreast of the thought and news of her faith community. Sharing this with others, gave her a double blessing.

Susan Miller Balzer is a member of Hesston (Kan ) Menno­nite Church.

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