Both were born in eastern Germany, both fled their homes in the aftermath of the second World War, and both arrived in North America as laborers on Mennonite farms before attending Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in the 1950s.
The second weekend in October, 2010, Carl Wesselhoeft, EMU class of 1955, and Werner Will, class of 1960, returned to Virginia to celebrate their 55th and 50th class reunions during homecoming at Eastern Mennonite University. [This article was published in 2010.]
Though they only lived briefly in Harrisonburg, both men said they gained much-needed opportunity and purpose at EMU.
Werner Will grew up in a poor family in the village of Waldow, now a part of modern-day Poland. His formal education ended when he was 13, when the German Army commandeered his school building as World War II drew to a close.
After the war, Werner worked for a Polish farmer until, in 1947, German families were expelled from the area. Taking only what they could carry, the Wills were sent to Gorlitz, in what soon became East Germany.
There, Werner apprenticed as a mechanic, and began attending worship services held by a group that emphasized community and personal faith, in contrast to the cold formality then prevalent in the German Lutheran church.
The church was a lone bright spot; life otherwise in East Germany after the war was hard, particularly for refugees like Werner, whose presence was resented in Gorlitz.
In 1951, when Werner caught word of a possible job in Luxemburg, he bid his family goodbye and rode west on his bicycle. With the help of his sister’s friend, Werner crept across the border one night, then hitchhiked, rode the train and walked across West Germany to Luxemburg, where he found work planting potatoes and cleaning barns for a Mennonite farmer.
In Luxemburg, Werner met American Mennonites who wore “plain coats” and had been sent by the mission board in Lancaster. They told him about an exchange program for farm workers in North America, and in 1955, Werner set off once again – this time for a potato farm, in Gap, Pa. He learned English there, and decided he liked the Mennonites, and began to think about resuming his interrupted education.
Carl Wesselhoeft was raised on a farm along the Baltic Sea near Rostock, in northeastern Germany. His education also came to an abrupt pause when an Allied bombing raid destroyed his school. As the war ended, the family fled to West Germany, where – like Werner – Carl’s future looked bleak.
In 1950, he went to Sweden through a yearlong farm exchange program. That year, a friend of his who’d moved to Britain clipped out and sent Carl a newspaper advertisement inviting farm workers to Canada. For lack of better options, the next year he sailed to North America and wound up working for a Mennonite farm family in Markham, Ontario.
Though he initially detested the family’s church services, he occasionally went along for the good Sunday dinner that followed. One Sunday, however, a visiting evangelist’s message grabbed Carl in an unexpected and deep way; that winter, he took classes at the Ontario Mennonite Bible School. There, he decided to resume his education, and he met a girl from Ohio, named Leota Good. They married in 1952 (she liked to joke that Carl spoiled her Good name), and a year later, moved to Harrisonburg where Carl enrolled at EMC.
Carl graduated in 1955 with a Bible degree. With his senior year ending and the future looming large, Carl and Leota accepted an invitation from the Eastern Mennonite Missions board to go to Somalia, where they spent the next five years establishing a school in the remote village of Mahaddei Wuen.
After a furlough, during which Carl earned a graduate degree in education from the University of Ohio, the Wesselhoefts went back for another five-year term in Somalia. After that, the family returned permanently to southern Ohio, where Carl taught junior high math for the next 20 years. Now retired from teaching, he serves as a minister at Turkey Run Mennonite Church; his family of seven children now includes 25 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren (Leota passed away in 2006).
The year after Carl left for Somalia, Werner arrived at EMU. Despite struggling academically early on, he graduated in 1960 with degrees in Bible and English and an ambition for even more schooling. After earning a graduate degree from the University of Iowa, he returned to Harrisonburg with a master’s degree, and taught German at EMU. While there, he married Grace Bontrager, a 1961 EMU graduate, whom he’d met as an undergraduate.
He still wasn’t done with school, though; before long, the couple moved back to Iowa, where Werner earned a PhD in linguistics and German, which he taught for the next 26 years at Western Illinois University. After his retirement, the Wills moved to western Montana and ran a bed and breakfast, before retiring for good. They have four children and four grandchildren.
Looking back half a century after graduation, both men said they gained a love for education at EMU
“Without [EMU], I wouldn’t have become a teacher,” said Wesselhoeft. And, perhaps more importantly, the college launched both men on trajectories that they could hardly have imagined from ruined Germany, a few short years before they arrived in Harrisonburg.
“Without that help, I don’t know what my life would have been like,” Will said.