What a Life!: A Memoir

What a Life!: A Memoir

by Donald R. Jacobs

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The African missionary, founder of the Mennonite Theological College in Tanzania, and author of A Gentle Wind of God looks back on his life of service.
Don Jacobs, exuberant, wise, and remarkably capable of regarding himself lightly, has written a memoir. Here he candidly explores how he simultaneously held the trust of conservative North American Mennonites and the respect of African Mennonites who chose him to be their first bishop. He writes openly about his parents and their cultural differences, and he locates the source of his ability to swing comfortably between worlds in his childhood home. Jacobs earned a doctorate in anthropology from New York University, although he gave his life to the church around the world, rather than to academia. He reflects on that reality in these pages. His rollicking sense of humor, his clear spiritual commitments, and his searching questions about his own motives thread through this book. Photographs throughout show him at home with his beloved family, and at home in both North America and Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781680990324
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 01/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,176,518
File size: 5 MB

Read an Excerpt



* * *


"Twila, look here!" I carefully lifted a rough brick from the dark soil and moved my hand across it with the tender touch of an amazed lover. My fingers explored every nick, every bump, every smooth section, while my eyes welled with yearning and hope. I knew it. "Twila, this brick is from Great-Grandma Susanna's oven!"

What was driving me, a 70-year-old man, as I forced myself into rough brambles covering an area on which an ancient farmhouse once stood? I was consumed by a compelling need to find and embrace a past that I never really knew, yet I hoped that, if I could somehow recover it, touch and feel it, I could better understand who I am.

My sister Twila, scrambling among the sparse, half-buried bits and pieces that lay at her feet, and as excited as I, triumphantly held up what was left of a blue porcelain bucket. Twila, 15 years older than I am, like me, carried a strong desire to embrace a past that we never knew, but one that we could perhaps create and shape with a few shards of pottery that we could lay our hands on. The pot of the past was broken, we knew that, but in our mind's eye we could see how one piece might fit with another piece. Together we dreamed of a past where our grandmother, the infant Almira Blough, saw her first morning, where she drank the milk of cows that grazed the pasture above the house, and how she grew up in that home with four brothers and four sisters.

Twila, my partner detective, had recently discovered an old framed photograph of the Blough farm. Together we pored over this precious picture. We were always asking "Who?" That was what we wanted to know: "Who were these people who produced us? Who was that Mennonite housewife who baked bread in the farm oven, and who was her husband, Samuel, and that little one named Almira, our mom's mother?"

We had examined the dim photograph carefully. Dominating the scene is a two-story farmhouse on a slight rise. Between the house and the sturdy barn, stand several groups of people. My guess is that the picture was taken on a balmy Sunday afternoon soon after Bishop Samuel Blough's death in 1883. I suspect the woman dressed in black was Susanna, his widow, my great-grandmother.

Those trim and substantial buildings were set on a sloping hillside, on the steady, long rise from the Stoney Creek River on which the town of Krings was located, to the plateau of Richland, near Johnstown in Pennsylvania. I was drawn into the setting by the magnet of heritage.

Pictures are good; exploring the site is even better. So Twila and I drove up the hill above Krings, turned into the lane to the left, around rhododendrons, some in full bloom, to the modern home of Attorney Robert Blough, our third cousin, I quickly calculated. I had never met him before, or his wife. Robert had managed to purchase almost all of the acreage of the original Blough farm and built his home on a small rise just opposite the site on which the Blough buildings once stood. Sitting on his porch, we were not too far from where the old picture was taken 120 years earlier.

Twila and I were eager to cross the little brook to walk into history, our history. We were not daunted by inhospitable Appalachian brush. Using the photo, and with a bit of effort, we made out where the barn and house had stood.

We climbed over rocks to locate the kitchen area. Just behind it were the remnants of a spring where the springhouse had been, so evident in the old picture. It was the back section of the house that interested me, where the kitchen no doubt was. It was not easy pushing the briars aside, but there before me lay a few bricks that must have been in the oven. Here was my connection with my past, a ruggedly shaped, red oven brick.

I could see my mother, Trella Jacobs, as she tried to describe her own mother to us. Her reverence for her mother, Almira, was palpable. I was warmed by that thought as I held the brick in my hands. There is a love bond between generations, I do believe. I want to feel the tightening of the bands of love that connect me with my heritage.

It was not that I needed to make that connection to be at peace with myself. That happened when Jesus moved into my life when I was a teenager and, by some inexplicable grace, lives on in me. That is my linkage with God. Without that, I am not "me" at all. However, my determination to link with my meaningful ancestors filled another need, a simple human one. In my missionary days I had focused my attention on being a son of God — certainly the most important — but I had simply brushed aside the fact that I am a son of a line of ancestors as well. In embracing my grandmother and her parents, none of whom I had ever seen, I felt that I was embracing my total human existence.

I needed that connection with my ancestry. I had paid no attention at all to that element as I moved from one culture to another, from the hills of Pennsylvania to the grassy plains stretching to the east of Lake Victoria in Africa, teeming with zebras and gazelles, inhabited by cultures that I never dreamed existed.

My life is a saga of needing to blend into new cultures, new situations, and new demands. Each of those many transitions changed me, some more, some less, but changed me, nevertheless. Now that I am well beyond three score years and 10, who am I? Is it possible to find out? Would finding out make any difference? I am not sure, but I felt that the missing strand in my life was an awareness of my ancestry. I had already pondered my life experiences; now it was time to braid all those strands with the ancestral strand, to produce an updated awareness of "me."



* * *


In the year 1928, my parents, Paul and Trella Jacobs, already had eight children — Willard, Gerald, Twila, Erma, Merle, Dwight, Arnold, and Duane — more than the average at that time. Those eight may have seemed enough, but Dad and Mom went right ahead and had a ninth, me, then two more, girls — Roma and Dorothea. That was it, 11 of us. Dad had dual quips about his large family. The first, "I have five and a half dozen children," and the second, "I wouldn't take a million dollars for any of my children but I wouldn't give a nickel for another one!" What made my family different from the average was not only its large number but the cultural elements that met within it. It was not the typical Johnstown home. Let me explain.


Some parts of our family culture were carried by the Blough line. My mother, Emma Trella Risch, traced her ancestry through the Bloughs, right back to Christian Blough, the immigrant during colonial times. He was born in 1710 in Berne, Switzerland. In 1750 he, a widower, and his four children arrived in Philadelphia. They settled in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Two of the sons pushed west and settled in Somerset County. One remained Amish; the other, Mennonite. I trace my Blough bloodline to both of them. The Blough family produced a large number of religious and civil leaders, one of whom was Bishop Samuel Blough, the father of my grandmother, Almira. It was his farm in the picture.

The Blough family retained the customs, lifestyle, and language of their ancestors, using both High German for religious purposes, and Low German for everyday communication. Of course, they used English like other Americans as they sold farm produce in neighboring Johnstown.

Bishop Samuel Blough's daughter, our grandmother, Almira Blough, married Joseph Risch, the son of Wilhelm Risch, a Lutheran immigrant from Germany. Wilhelm and his wife, Margaret, bought a farm among the Mennonites, just south of Johnstown, where lay the best land out of the reach of the floods for which the city was noted. So a Mennonite Blough married a Lutheran Risch. Both families, the Bloughs and the Rischs, spoke German. Language seemed to be more important than denomination. My mother, Emma Trella Risch, was the youngest of three children born to this farm couple.

After Almira died of throat cancer at age 51, my grandfather, Joseph Risch, came to live with our family. He had a great impact on my older brothers, but I never knew him. He died two years before I was born.


Samuel and Susanna Blough raised their nine children on a farm located only two miles from the dynamic, expanding, steel-producing city, Johnstown. The Blough family felt the pull of urbanity just at the time when the Mennonites in the area were switching to English. Consequently, of the nine Blough children, only one remained Mennonite, John Henry. My grandmother, Almira, as already noted, married a Lutheran, Joe Risch, but she was never baptized into the Lutheran church. According to my mother, even though Almira married a Lutheran, she did not become a Lutheran herself. In fact, she considered herself a Mennonite and insisted that she be buried in the Kaufman Mennonite Cemetery. None of her three children received Lutheran baptism as infants, nor were they baptized as Mennonites.


My Dad's side was also German. About 1873, a young German couple, Ludwig and Elizabeth (Koch) Jacobs, emigrated from near Frankfurt. Ludwig was about 23 years old; Elizabeth was 20. In America they settled in the burgeoning steel city, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Ludwig was employed as a steel worker. The steel company provided a house for them not far from the factory gates in the borough of Johnstown, in an area called Cambria City.

Sixteen years later, on Thursday, May 29, 1889, Ludwig just had to be among friends to enjoy the Memorial Day parade in Johnstown. Sloshing through the water was no issue for him; he loved marching bands. It seemed like the rain would never stop. It had rained for days. On Friday, May 30, a rare day off for him, he trudged the streets again, this time to purchase a dog license. Having pocketed it, he joined his buddies in the bar along the river. Suddenly, the violent waters from the broken earthen dam 12 miles upstream struck with deadly force. His body was discovered three days later, down river, identified by a dog license that he had in his pocket.

As the dam broke, his wife, Elizabeth, then at home, managed to take her three-month-old baby, Mary, and the five older children and run to the hill behind their house. Darkness fell as the raging flood destroyed the city. As buildings and debris piled up behind the heavy stone railway bridge, fire broke out. The eerie light from the fires cast a hellish light across the scenes of destruction. It was a night of terror for the Jacobs family.

Fortunately their house was not destroyed, but almost everything in it was, except for Elizabeth's prized White sewing machine. It was a long three days until it was confirmed that Ludwig's body was recovered, downriver.

Elizabeth, then 38, had to remake her life; there was no other way. She would need to depend heavily on her oldest son, Lewis, then 12, and on Lena, 10, to help her to get on with life. My own father, Paul, five years old, had no idea what was going on. It is a mystery to this day how she managed to raise her family without a marketable skill, without a steady job, in a "foreign land." She certainly relied on prayer and hard work, along with some charity from her German friends who shared membership with her at the Zion Lutheran Church in Johnstown.

Life must have been bitter for Elizabeth, far from relatives and the embrace of the German culture that shaped her in her childhood village of Langd, near Frankfurt. That was another world, one she loved but now a hazy memory. Shaken by tragedy, she moved into the future. She not only survived but managed to send her children to the Lutheran school. Eventually, she was able to move out of the company house into one that she purchased with money earned through custom sewing, cleaning, taking in laundry, and that sort of thing. She lived until 1948, age 96. We called her Grossmom. She was the only grandparent that I knew. My dad grew up without a father but with an extraordinarily resourceful mother.

I remember Grossmom. Always slim and fit, and always dressed in black, she never learned English nor did she become an American citizen. The center of her life was God, her church, and her children. She must have had a strong faith to take her through the many hardships that she endured, a litany of pain. First of all, she left family, friends, and motherland to make a new life in America, and then buried her two firstborn daughters in American soil. In addition, she lost her breadwinning husband in the Great Flood. Then she experienced the tragic loss of her 11-year-old American-born daughter one year after the flood, a victim of what was then called diphtheria. On top of it all, her second son, Otto, was sufficiently crippled in his legs that he could not work as others did. As she grew older, she lived in her German Bible and prayed a lot. I think that her constancy in prayer bore fruit through the years. The world could do with more like Grossmom.

That was the home that shaped Paul Jacobs, my father. He was the youngest of the three boys, all of whom were expected to pitch in and help support the family. The major bread-winner in the family, Lewis, the oldest boy, married and moved to Universal near Pittsburgh just about the time Paul, my dad, finished his elementary education. Paul, as expected, worked in the steel mill not far from the family house. He later supplemented his meager pay by opening a sandwich shop near the mill entrance. He was a born entrepreneur.

As Paul grew older, he and his Lutheran friends formed a singing group which became quite popular, singing hymns and Christian songs. Riding the newly-built streetcars that fanned out from the city to the rural villages, Paul and his friends got into the Mennonite and Lutheran communities up on the high plateau south of Johnstown. There he met Trella Risch, a young farmer's daughter whose ambition was to be a schoolteacher. They were married in 1909, 20 years after the Great Flood in which Dad's father, Ludwig, drowned.

Mom had been raised as a farmer's daughter in a rural Germanic community. She married my dad, the son of an urbanized German. Their cultures were miles apart.

Mom got nostalgic when she talked about life on the farm. Her own mother, the daughter of a prominent Mennonite bishop, had tried to keep one foot in the Mennonite community and the other in the more Americanized Lutheran community. My mother experienced the same dilemma. Even though she idealized her rural upbringing, the strongest urges in her life pulled her away from typical farm life to teaching school. Her hero was Lloy Kniss, a neighbor and her first cousin, who left the farm to pursue higher education. Her eyes welled when she told me of how wonderful it was to teach school like Lloy Kniss. When Lloy and his wife, Elizabeth, answered the call to be among the earliest Mennonite missionaries in India, Mom was thrilled.

When Mom and Dad were married in 1909, they set up housekeeping on the Risch farm, where they stayed until Mom's mother, Almira, died in 1912. Willard and Gerald, my oldest brothers, were born there. My parents tried life in Johnstown for a while but moved within a couple of years to the familiar Mennonite and Lutheran community, about seven miles south of Johnstown.

Because she was busy raising her family, Mom could not continue teaching school, but she did teach piano at home later on. She became a housewife. But she could not content herself with that role only. One of her gifts was financial management. As Dad's business ventures progressed, Mom served as his treasurer in both business and land transactions.


When Mom and Dad married, they, presumably, did not take religious matters very seriously. In fact, for more than a decade after they were married, they did not make any congregation their church home but attended both Lutheran and Mennonite churches. Dad was baptized as a baby in the Lutheran church. Since he was an accomplished singer and song leader, he had a wide-open door among the Mennonites who, at that time, were moving from Amish-style chant singing to full four-part harmony. Dad was right at home with that. He was born with music in his blood, a Jacobs trademark.

Neither Dad nor Mom ever told us how they came to know Christ, or how they felt about being Mennonites. They did tell us that they decided to wait to join a local church until their two oldest sons, Willard and Gerald, requested baptism. When the boys were about 10 and 12, Dad and Mom left it up to them to choose which church they wished to join. The boys decided to join Kaufman Mennonite Church because the singing there was much better than in the Lutheran church. There may have been other more significant reasons, but I never heard them. Anyway, I liked the story! When the boys made their decision, Mom decided to be baptized with them at the Kaufman Mennonite Church. She was 33 years old at the time. Hence, our family became Mennonite!


Excerpted from "What a Life!"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Donald R. Jacobs.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Touching Heritage,
2. Shaped in Home and Community,
3. School — A New Culture,
4. Meeting Jesus at Eastern Mennonite, 1944,
5. Teaching in Kentucky, 1946–1948,
6. Feeling Unsettled,
7. Life in Lancaster, 1949–1952,
8. From Lancaster into Academia, 1952,
9. Launching out into the Deep, 1953,
10. A Year in Europe, 1953–1954,
11. Introduction to Tanganyika, 1954,
12. Katoke Days, 1955–1957,
13. From Education to Theology, 1957,
14. Reading Scripture with New Eyes,
15. Being a Lancaster Mennonite in Tanganyika,
16. First Furlough–Retooling, 1959–1961,
17. Second Term in Africa, 1961–1966,
18. Fulfilling Denominational Expectations,
19. Personal and Family Developments,
20. Additional Responsibilities as Bishop, 1964–1966,
21. New Location –Nairobi, 1967,
22. Other Responsibilities in Nairobi,
23. Accommodating to Changes in the U.S., 1973,
24. Family Life,
25. Rethinking the Mission of Eastern 247 Mennonite Missions, 1973–1980,
26. Setting the Course for MCLF, 1980–2002,
27. Global Disciples, 1996–2011,
28. Mennonite Church–At Home and Abroad,
29. Pain for the Church in Tanzania, 1980,
30. Promoting Revival,
31. Working with African Enterprise,
32. Sibling Bonding,
33. Retirement–Time to Reflect,

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