Obituary: Dr. Arnold M. Wedel

Longtime college professor Dr. Arnold M. “Squeak” Wedel died on June 30, 2018, in North Newton, Kansas. A mathematician, he devoted his life to the vision of North Newton’s Bethel College as a first-rate liberal arts institution on par with the best in the country. Besides his family and mathematics, he was passionate about Mennonite values and genealogy, peace research, following the stock market and the Boston Red Sox.
Bringing the spirit of an iconoclast to nearly everything he did, Wedel pushed past barriers to achieve what might seem the impossible. With scant resources, he built a nationally recognized mathematics program; developed a cooperative math program with four area colleges and brought to Bethel both world-renowned mathematicians and peace activists, such as folk singer Pete Seeger, Nobel Prize winner Mairead Corrigan, and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. Together with his wife, Dolores, he helped lay the groundwork for infrastructure—both for residential development in
North Newton and for Dolores’s family maple syrup business in her northern New York childhood home.
Arnold was born in Lawrence, Kan. in 1928, when his father was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Kansas. Both of his parents were of “Swiss Mennonite” ancestry, speaking “Schweitzer,” a Germanic dialect; his grandparents had migrated to Kansas in the 1870s from what is now Ukraine. During the Depression, his father secured a job as a math teacher and moved the family to Holdenville, Okla., where Arnold spent his elementary school years playing saxophone and violin and grading his father’s students’ exams. With no other Mennonites in Holdenville, Arnold was baptized and raised in the Methodist church. When his family returned to Kansas and settled in North Newton, he took up sports writing at Newton High School, but skipped a year in high school and college.
He graduated from Bethel College in 1947 and earned a master’s degree from the University of Kansas in 1948 and a Ph.D. from Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in 1951, specializing in statistics. A few months later, Arnold joined the Bethel faculty, only to be drafted in 1953 and to serve two years in I-W service as a hospital admitting clerk in Denver, Colo. There, he met his future wife, Dolores Lehman, who was working as a nurse at another hospital.

Returning to Bethel, Wedel resumed his teaching career and recruited faculty in math and other fields. Within a decade, he had attracted a stable powerhouse of young math scholars to the college. Under his leadership, the mathematics program grew and thrived. He introduced and coached students, taking the annual premier national undergraduate math contest, the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, or the Putnam. The successes of Bethel students regularly exceeded those of students in comparable colleges: Five of Wedel’s students placed in the top 100 in the nation and one year, the team ranked 14th in the nation; the 1964 team is legendary (https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-67/article/the-year-bethel-made-the-sweet-16-in-mathematics/). This was an astonishing achievement for a tiny school competing against the largest and most prestigious universities with unlimited resources and supposedly top-flight talent. During Wedel’s tenure, Bethel graduated over 150 math majors; 15 subsequently received a Ph.D. in math, with others earning doctorates in other fields.

Wedel wrote the Joy of Mathematics: The Mathematical Adventures of Herman Bubbert (a fictitious character renowned in the Bethel community and beyond). He used this text to introduce non-math majors to the wide range of mathematical thought, history and theory. He served the Kansas section of the Mathematical Association of America as chairman, as well as governor and was granted its meritorious service award. A room at the Mathematical Association of America headquarters in Washington, DC, is christened the Arnold M. Wedel Room.

Citing statistics showing the United States falling behind in math competency, Wedel led an effort to put a mathematician on a U.S. postage stamp. Math concepts should be introduced along with crayons in preschool, he believed, and he campaigned relentlessly to bolster elementary and secondary education.

Besides mathematics-related endeavors, Arnold was a genealogy aficionado known for his expertise in the history both of his own “Swiss Mennonites” and that of Dolores’s family with Amish roots. He served as president and vice-president of the Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association. His curiosity and skills also prompted an interest in business and finance and he was recruited to serve on the boards of several local corporations.

Arnold was a long-suffering Boston Red Sox fan. His love of Ted Williams, the outstanding Red Sox rookie in 1939 likely sparked the enthusiasm for this boy growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma, which persisted throughout his life. In 2003, in honor of his 75th birthday, he threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Only a year later, the Sox curse was broken as the team finally won the World Series.
Throughout his life, Wedel sought opportunities that enabled him to integrate ideas from the larger world into Bethel’s curriculum, from big, marquee institutions, as well as from small colleges. He took sabbaticals at Cornell University (N.Y.) on a National Science Foundation faculty fellowship and Rice University (Texas). During other sabbaticals, he taught at Ottawa University (Kan.) and Goshen College (Ind). After participating in a history of math course at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he led an effort to get math at Bethel integrated into its proper division—humanities.

Wedel spent summers traveling to recruit students and teaching at other universities–the University of Kansas (Kan.), Mankato State College (Minn.), Lehigh University (Pa.), Knox College (Ill.), and Emporia State University (Kan.), among others. Many later summers were enjoyed with Dolores in her childhood community, Castorland, N.Y. They also took pleasure in their avid pursuit of square and round dancing in Kansas and New York.

Wedel was preceded in death by his parents, Edward B. Wedel and Kathryn (Wedel) Wedel; only sibling Elaine (Ozzie Goering); and eldest child, Dr. Suzanne Wedel (died in 2016, Marblehead, Mass.). He is survived by Dolores Lehman Wedel (N. Newton), his wife of 63 years; son-in-law Dr. Alasdair Conn (Marblehead, Mass.); two children, Janine Wedel (Washington, D.C.) and Edward (Ted) Wedel (Melissa Manda, Jefferson City, Mo.); five grandchildren—Kathryn Conn (Dr. Arun Nair, Austin, Texas), Christopher Conn (Emily Comstock, Baltimore, Md.), Alexander Conn (New York, N.Y.), Meredith Manda Wedel (PaloAlto, Calif.), and Michael Manda Wedel (Hannover, N.H.); a community of former students spread across the country and the world and, of course, the legendary Herman Bubbert.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, August 18, at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton.
Memorials may be made to Arnold M. Wedel Scholarship fund, Bethel College; or KIPCOR, the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Bethel College.