Winfield Fretz, the Innovator

One individual who had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century was Joseph Winfield Fretz, a native Pennsylvanian, who taught for many years at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, before serving as the founding president of Conrad Grebel University College.

Winfield also was a driving force in beginning the Kindred Credit Union, the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario and MCC’s New Hamburg Relief Sale. Winfield engaged the Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario like no scholar had done previously.

He was a gregarious man, who seemed to never forget anyone’s name, and would pick up a conversation from a decade ago as if little time had passed.

As it happens, Winfield’s wife, Marguerite, was also my second cousin once-removed. Below is the GAMEO article I wrote in 2013. For the full bibliography and other links, see the article in GAMEO.



Joseph Winfield Fretz: sociologist, college president, and institutional innovator, was born 29 September 1910 in Bedminster Township, Bucks CountyPennsylvania to John Clarence Fretz (15 August 1878-27 May 1963) and Ella Landis Fretz (19 March 1873-10 June 1963). “Winfield” was the ninth of 11 children. His three oldest siblings were from his mother’s first unhappy marriage to Christian Gross (3 August 1869-17 July 1895). On 9 September 1936 Winfield married Marguerite Irene Geiger (2 July 1913-17 March 2002). They had three sons and one daughter. J. Winfield Fretz died 24 January 2005 in North NewtonKansas. He and Marguerite were cremated and their remains interned at the Deep Run Mennonite cemetery in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Winfield had a happy childhood on the family farm where he was born. The family attended the Deep Run Mennonite Church-West, a General Conference Mennonite congregation where his uncle, Allen Fretz, was the pastor. However, life in the country ended in 1922 due to the farm’s bankruptcy resulting from over expansion and the the loss of several livestock herds to disease. The family moved into the town of Lansdale, where his father worked for a pretzel bakery. Winfield, who had previously attended a one-room school, was thrust into a larger urban educational system. He was put back a year in order to catch up on some basic courses, but he soon thrived in the Lansdale high school of 300 students where he graduated in 1930. He was class president his last two years, and was captain of the basketball team.

Against the advice of his pastor at the new Grace Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Winfield declined attending Moody Bible Institute, and chose rather to study at Bluffton College, a Mennonite school. He majored in history, and was deeply influenced by C. Henry Smith, his major professor. Another influence was a fellow student of Methodist background and socialist political leanings who questioned how the teachings of Jesus and the principles of capitalism could be reconciled. Through these conversations Fretz became aware of the co-operative movement associated with the Ohio Farm Bureau. This was the beginning of his life-long interest in mutual aid organizations. Fretz graduated from Bluffton with a B.A. in 1934, but had difficulty finding work due to the Depression. For a time he was employed by Bluffton College as a student recruiter.

Fretz’s courtship with Marguerite Geiger took place during the two years following his graduation. Immediately after their 1936 marriage, they moved to Chicago where Winfield began graduate studies at the University of Chicago where his mentor, C. Henry Smith, had also studied. He completed his M.A. with a dissertation on “Christian Mutual Aid among Mennonites” in 1938. Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR) editor Harold Bender was so impressed, he published two chapters of the dissertation in MQR in 1939. In 1940 Fretz completed a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary, and in 1941 he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Contribution Toward the Establishment of a Christian Community.”

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz moved to Kansas where he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Economics at Bethel College in fall 1942; he served on the Bethel faculty until 1963. Soon after arriving at Bethel, in order to help the College’s tight financial situation during the war, he accepted a two-year assignment with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In this assignment he visited Russian Mennonite immigrant communities in Canada from British Columbia to Ontario. His report on this study was also published in MQR, and solidified his strong relationship with Mennonite Church academics at Goshen College and further enhanced activity within the inter-Mennonite scholarly community. One result was the formation of the Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, a gathering that met annually from 1942 to 1947, and then biennially until 1967. This inter-Mennonite gathering encouraged a myriad of research projects. In 1951-1952 Fretz took another leave sponsored by MCC to study 25 years of Mennonite colonization in Latin America; this resulted in the book, Pilgrims in Paraguay (1953). He did another immigration study in 1958 that produced Immigrant Group Settlements in Paraguay (1962). During the 1950s, partly to supplement the family income and partly as an experiment in “real world” economics, he opened “The Guest House” restaurant in Newton, together with his sister, Ethel. This enterprise continued until after his move to Canada, and was the first to break racial segregation customs in Newton and serve black and Hispanic customers through the front door rather than the back door.

Fretz’s interest in mutual aid extended to his volunteer board work. He served as chair of MCC’s Aid Section, and was the executive secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Board of Mutual Aid in the 1940s and 1950s. Although not a founder, he was active in the Mennonite Community Association formed in 1947.

Following an administrative crisis at Bethel College, Fretz agreed to serve as Acting President of the College for 1959-1960. The experience was not a good one, and he decided it was time to seek a new position outside the college. In 1962 he considered an offer that would have seen him become a country director for CARE, a leading international relief organization. However this changed after a conversation he had with Harvey Taves, the MCC Ontario director, at an MCC meeting in Manitoba. During a break during the meetings, Taves asked Fretz if he would like to become a college president in Canada. Followup conversations with the presidential search committee soon followed. In 1963 Winfield and Marguerite Fretz, with their youngest two children, Thomas and Sara, moved to Waterloo, Ontario to help found the new Conrad Grebel College affiliated with the University of Waterloo. For the first year Fretz taught on the university campus as Conrad Grebel College was built; the residence facility opened in fall 1964.

Fretz served as the College’s president until 1973, and continued on the faculty until his retirement in 1979. In the 1963/64 year Fretz taught a total of 38 students. By the time he ended his service as president, the College was teaching over 1750 “course-students” per year with a full-time faculty of seven.

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz joined Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church within a year of arriving in Canada, and Winfield served actively as a lay leader on the Board of Deacons and the Missions Committee. His innovation continued as a founding board member of the Mennonite Savings & Credit Union in 1964; it utillized the mutual aid concepts he had articulated for years. Fretz was also the founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario in 1965 and founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada in 1968. In addition he was a key promoter of Mennonite Relief Sales in Ontario.

In 1989, during retirement back in North Newton, Kansas, Fretz completed his book, The Waterloo Mennonites: a Community in Paradox, based on research he had done in the 1970s. He also found time to serve as Acting President of Mennonite Biblical Seminary inElkhartIndiana in 1983-1984. He received two honorary doctorates–from the University of Waterloo in 1982 and from Bluffton College in 1988.

Winfield Fretz had boundless energy and enthusiasm; he was known for routinely sleeping only four or five hours a night. He had a remarkable memory for names and details of a person’s life; he would ask about family members after years of no contact. He was able to relate to Mennonites of every stripe and theology; he garnered the trust of Old Order Mennonites, as well as leading business persons and academics. His ecumenical spirit served to draw Mennonites together in cooperation, not in division or rancor.

–Sam Steiner

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