A husband. A father. A pastor. A missionary. A civil rights activist. A president. A legend.
J. Lawrence Burkholder was all of these and was humble enough to have taken issue with "legend." But for those who knew him, Burkholder was just that.
Friends and family gathered in the Koinonia Room at College Mennonite Church Tuesday to pay their final respects to Goshen College’s longtime president, who died Thursday morning.
"He was a heroic figure at the college and in the world," said Judith Davis, a former professor at the college whom Burkholder had hired. "You won’t see anyone like him again for a long time. He was one of a kind."
One of a kind indeed.
Of his many accomplishments in life, Burkholder was well-known for being an up-close witness to 20th century history. Longtime director of international education Arlin Hunsberger chuckled, "He had boots to know where to go at the right time."
Burkholder, while a theologian at Harvard Divinity School, became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he was arrested during a sit-in at a segregated restaurant in St. Augustine, Fla. And after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, Burkholder gave the opening eulogy and prayer at Dr. King’s funeral ceremony at Harvard.
When a coup against Russian President Boris Yeltsin failed, Burkholder was in Moscow’s Red Square.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Burkholder was in East Germany.
When the democracy movement in China was crushed at Tiananmen Square, Burkholder was in China.
And when Chinese refugees needed relief supplies during World War II, Burkholder flew a cargo plane over the Himalayas to deliver that help.
That mission to China with Mennonite Board of Missions and Mennonite Central Committee led to a longtime relationship with the Chinese people.
When Burkholder became president of Goshen College in 1971, he worked with Hunsberger to continue developing the Study-Service Term program, which started just three years earlier. When China opened its doors in 1980, Burkholder used his contacts there to begin an exchange program — a program of its first in the United States. Goshen College students not only went to China, but Chinese teachers came to the United States, Hunsberger said.
"So that was an exciting thing," he noted.
But at the same time, Goshen College was a presence in East Germany, Poland and Korea, along with several Central American countries.
Burkholder was "very, very supportive of the SST program," Hunsberger said. And the former president had a true interest in each country, asking for reports not only on the program but on events in each country, plus the economics, government and other details.
"He wasn’t satisfied to say, ‘Oh well, the situation in Haiti is bad,’" Hunsberger said. "He’d want to know details on all fronts. … He kept abreast of it all."
Burkholder’s concern was for peace and justice, Hunsberger explained, whether it was marching for civil rights or to open up cross-cultural dialogs. "I think the peace and justice came through in SST," he said.
Based on Burkholder’s beliefs, SST was founded on the concept of students not just traveling to another country to learn, but to work in cross-cultural communication, he said. Burkholder wanted students to get to know the people of a country, understand where those people were coming from and learn what they have to offer.
"I just really, really appreciated him, his breadth of knowledge and interest," Hunsberger said.
Burkholder was an intellectual — he was Princeton-educated, chairman at Harvard Divinity School, a research scholar at Cambridge University, president of Goshen College and an author.
His provost, Henry "Hank" Weaver, said Burkholder didn’t want "yes men." He wanted staff who could think for themselves and offer ideas. One of the most impressive things about Burkholder, Weaver said, was his integrity.
"He never played games," he said.
But there were other sides. Those sides — in photos and words — were on display during visitation Tuesday.
A few include:
• His down-to-earth side — taking time to visit with his friends’ goats, plus shooting pool and baskets with students.
• His community side — a longtime Rotarian, Burkholder believed in being involved in the local community. He also gave the opening prayer to a session of the U.S. House of Representatives.
• His adventurous side — flying. Burkholder became a pilot in his teenage years, flew relief missions into China during World War II and enjoyed flying his own plane and ultralights.
• His family side — spending time with his wife Harriet, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His daughter, Janet Friesen said, "We’ll miss his wry sense of humor, love of high-flying adventure, enduring curiosity about people, events and ideas, articulate expressions of thought, and his calm demeanor in the face of life’s challenges."
Friesen also wanted to thank the whole Goshen community for being so gracious to her dad for his life here and through his recent illness.
"He enjoyed everyone here," she said.
The funeral service was set for 11 a.m. today at College Mennonite Church.