The 2018 mennonite heritage cruise is dedicated
to the memory of historian and lecturer Paul Toews

November 27, 1940 - November 27, 2015

Paul Toews
Dr. Paul Toews on the cruise ship

Paul Toews was born on 27 November 1940 to John B. and Nettie (Unruh) Toews. He died on 27 November, 2015.  He grew up as the middle son with older brother John and younger brother James. If it takes a village to raise a child, it took many Mennonite Brethren villages to raise Paul and brothers. His father was a Mennonite Brethren minister, educator and administrator. So Paul lived in numerous villages: Freeman, South Dakota; Buhler, Kansas; the MB village section of Winnipeg, Manitoba; Reedley, California; Hillsboro, Kansas; and Corn, Oklahoma.  Later in life Paul hunted out and visited Mennonite villages (extinct and living) in Paraguay, Brazil, Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia, India.

In addition to teaching for 44 years he was also Director of the Center for MB Studies for 31 years and Executive Director of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission for 17 years.

Through the association with Fresno Pacific two special opportunities brought much meaning and texture to his life.  For twenty-years he was involved in the Mennonite Experience in America Project, the writing of a four-volume history of American Mennonites of which he authored the fourth volume. 

As that project ended in the mid-1990s he became the lead historian on the Mennonite Heritage Cruise between 1995 and 2010.  This brought contact with an even wider segment of Mennonite people and many in the Mennonite diaspora.  He was exhilarated by this annual cruise and the retracing of the Russian Mennonite story.  He became a Russian Mennonite historian, one of the best. He was active in academic research, academic conferences and lecturing, including a teaching fellowship in Ukraine.

It was in this last important twenty year chapter of his life that Marina and I grew to know him. The association changed our lives. Although he often came across as a quiet and reserved person, we in turn warmed to his genuine love for people. He loved to spend time with a wide variety of people. He was a great listener. Love for him was a verb, not merely some shop worn concept. He lived a life of glowing and accepting love. It carried him through both good and personally challenging times.

He also had a wonderful and mature sense of humour. It exhibited itself in a wide range of often surprising expression. It was always endearing.

Our association was often long distance with Paul in Fresno or Ukraine and us in Toronto. The two weeks annually on the ship were quite frenetic. Paul was a much needed calming presence. He hosted not only the lectures but also other key events on and off the ship. The passengers eagerly signed up for his particular village bus routes. The “pilgrims” as I called them, responded warmly to him. The Ukrainian ship crew held him in smiling awe.

In the last decade of his life we spent important relaxing times with Paul and Olga in “Sanctuary”, our term for time spent in the California desert, often with cruise resource leaders and spouses. They were sunny times in every way. We bade farewell to Paul with this small group of close friends in November, 2015, short days before he died. I sent a poem to Olga to read to him. As she read it to him he quietly slipped away.

Walter Unger, September 2017


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