A lot of you know Richard Stevick from his book Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years, or through comments he has posted on various articles on this site.
I’m happy to share that starting today, Rich is going to be writing for us here from time to time. In his first post (below), Rich discusses how he came to know the Amish, a journey that began nearly 50 years ago and continues today.
I’ve always appreciated Rich’s sense of humor and easy manner. If you’ve ever met him, you quickly understand why he gets along with the Amish so well. I think you’ll get a glimpse of that in today’s piece.
First, a bio:
Rich Stevick is a mostly retired Professor of Psychology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and has studied and taught about the Amish for over 20 years. Prior to that, he was a high school English teacher in New York State and later a guidance counselor in Pennsylvania. He continues to teach a course on Amish culture in which he and his students live with Amish host families in both Lancaster County, PA and in Holmes County.
Over the years, he and his wife, Pauline, have been guests at numerous Amish weddings, youth singing socials, and dozens of church services, including funerals, a baptism, and a communion service. Besides these experiences, Rich has worked with both Amish youth and adults in arranging mental health evaluations and treatments. He has also served as a consultant to a research team at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, who are studying bi-polar spectrum disorders among Amish children and youth.
His book, Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years, presents an in-depth look of Amish youth and their parents as they experience the stage of life when youth have a new freedom to socialize with their peers and begin seeking a mate. How they experience this transitional period depends on the customs of their settlement, the maturity of the individual, and the example of their parents, siblings, and peers.
Rich has interacted with the Amish for more than two decades and has earned the respect and confidence of both Amish parents and youth. Donald B. Kraybill, the foremost authority on anything Amish, describes Stevick as “the person who knows more about Amish youth than anybody else in the world, including the Amish.” Rich says that Kraybill had to say that to make up for all the badgering and pressure he exerted on Rich to research and write the book.
He and his wife moved to Holmes Count this past spring. They have been married 53 years, are the parents of three adult sons, and have nine grandchildren—and a cat named Spunky. Rich says that if he should ever come back in a future life, he would want to come back as Polly’s cat. She has also written a book of Amish vignettes and sketches from her years of travel to Amish communities with Rich. It is Beyond the Plain and Simple: A Patchwork of Amish Lives, published by Kent State University Press.
How I Came to Know the Amish
By Rich Stevick
When people ask me how I got into Amish studies, I often find myself amazed at the answer. In August of 1965, National Geographic featured an article on Lancaster County’s Amish, and on a whim, my wife and I decided to spend a few days exploring the county to see for ourselves. I clearly remember the stunningly lush fields, immaculate vegetable and flower gardens, and how clean and well-maintained the houses, barns, and yards were. But I also felt keen disappointment in failing to engage a single Amish person in a meaningful conversation, despite our stopping at roadside stands or watching at the edges of fields.
We returned to upstate New York, still interested in learning about the Amish but frustrated by our lack of success. A few months later, we experienced the Winter of 1966, an unbelievably cold and protracted ice age culminating in an early May snowfall of two inches. At that moment, we realized that we needed a less rigorous climate, so despite our earlier disappointment, we moved to Lancaster County. We were still attracted by the presence of the plain people.
Alas, despite living in an Amish-built house and having near-by Amish neighbors, we could not develop a single friendship. In those early days, I bought dozens of eggs at Amish farms, hoping someone would invite me to step inside while they got change. Did they have furniture like we did? Were their houses warm in the winter? Were there clocks on the mantel and pictures on the wall? These questions went unanswered.
During this time, I “learned” some things on my own and heard disturbing rumors. For example, in the middle of the night (actually in the wee hours of Sunday and Monday mornings) I heard buggies clip-clopping down Farmland Road, only to learn that these were courting teenagers returning from their parties or singings.
Furthermore, friends reported Amish teens throwing up on the streets of Intercourse after their “drunken parties” (not only was I shocked but I assumed that all Amish youth were behaving this way). Of course, many of the boys had vehicles, barber haircuts, and English clothes and were actually frequenting movies at Dutch Wonderland with their girlfriends and then organizing barn dances with live music, courtesy of young Amish musicians.
In the face of such observations of a closed society, one that seeks no converts, I announced to my wife that “the Amish will be extinct by the end of this century” and basically gave up my quest to establish relationships with anybody Amish. After all, they would soon devolve from relic status to extinction. I turned my focus and efforts to viable alternatives, one of which was moving from counseling in public schools to teaching at Messiah College.
Finding a (Temporary) Home
Fast forward 25 years. I had been teaching psychology, including adolescent development, for eleven years. One of my special interests was the study of cultures, how various people live their lives, express their humanity, face challenges, and survive or disappear. A colleague of mine knew of my interests and asked me to be a guest lecturer in his three-week May term class. It turned out that it was a class on Anabaptist History and Amish Life.
I accepted his invitation, and 10 days later he called and asked if I would like to go with the class to Shipshewana, Indiana, to visit MennoHof and stay with a Beachy Amish family. I had never heard of Shipshe but I did pick up on the word “Amish” and accepted his invitation. When I crawled in the van, lo and behold, as we say, there were several real Amish people as part of the load. This van trip was my first extended contact with anyone Amish. And among other things, I learned that Amish were actually human and that we could converse as equals.
Nine months later in March of 1992, I received a call from my professor friend who informed me that he was leaving Messiah and hated to see the Amish course dropped. I was surprised when he asked me if I would pick up the course and become the permanent teacher. “But, Milton, I don’t know much of anything about the Amish,” I told him. He was not to be deterred. “The class is only three weeks long. Why don’t you learn along with the students?” It was hard for me to argue with that point. I have been doing that all of my life. He clinched his appeal by telling me that all of the Amish family stays for the students were in place. It was an offer too appealing to refuse.
Needless to say, I did a self-directed study on Anabaptism and Amish culture between mid-March and mid-May when the course was to begin. Of course, I did not have to motivate myself to prepare. My goal was to know more than the students before the class began and to keep learning throughout our three weeks together.
I had asked my professor colleague if he stayed with families while the students did, and he informed me that he did not because he needed to be available in case of emergencies. Even at that early stage, that reason did not make much sense to me. So when I dropped off the last student with Sam and Rachel King, I asked Sam if he thought there was any Amish family that might host my wife, Pauline, and me. He thought a minute, then replied, “You could ask my brother-in-law, David. They might keep you.”
Such a statement did not inspire much confidence, but I drove over to the King farm and down their long lane, in my little red station wagon. Picture this: As I got out of the car, I was approached by a 40-something farmer who asked, “Can I help you?” He was neither cold nor friendly, just impersonal like the other Amish who had dissed me.
I told him who I was, described my class, and then said, “Your brother-in-law, Sam, said I should ask you if you know anybody that might be willing to keep me and my wife while my students are in home-stays with Amish families.” In retrospect, I realized that I said the magic words: “Your brother-in-law, Sam . . . .“ He scanned my face for about 10 seconds, then replied, “I can’t think of any good reason why we couldn’t keep you for a few days.”
Those words changed the direction of my academic life and, ultimately, have enriched our lives for more than two decades. I called my wife, told her to dig out her dresses, skirts, and blouses: “We are staying with the Amish” (my wife wrote about that first day together in her book, Beyond the Plain and Simple: A Patchwork of Amish Lives).
The Farmer Tests the Prof
Just a brief addendum on an important test that I took and passed the next day, without realizing that I was being tested. In preparation for their home stays, I told the students that they were to work right along with the families, doing anything their hosts were doing and would let them do.
So when we were ready to go to bed at David’s place, I asked him if I could help with the milking. I thought I noted a bit of surprise, but he said that would be fine, if I wished. “What time do you start,” I asked. “Four-thirty,” David responded without any other comment. I’m sure I blanched a tad but determined to be there for the morning milking, my first.
I woke in the night with the sound of a very loud engine jolting me out of sleep. They had turned on their diesel, and it also turned out to be 4:30 instead of the middle of the night. Crawling out of bed, I donned my work clothes, gum boots, gloves, and bill cap and appeared in the barn 10 minutes later. Again, David seemed a bit surprised but set me to work under the supervision of eleven-year-old Elias who was carrying and dumping milk into the bulk tank.
By 7:00, I felt starved. I wasn’t accustomed to two hours and twenty minutes of physical labor before breakfast. After we finished and observed our final silent prayer, David proceeded to tell the children, in Deitsch, what their work assignments would be for the day. When he finished, I asked him what he would like me to do. He told me that the peaches were too thick this spring and that I could thin them. I said that would be fine and asked him what he and the boys would be doing. “We are forking manure in the bull pen. It hasn’t been done all winter.”
“I’d be glad to help with that,” I said, not knowing what that really meant. Once again, I thought I detected a look of surprise on David’s face as he assigned me to work along with the boys. After twenty minutes of “forking,” I realized that this was not a task that would end soon. But I determined to stick with it until it was done or until my arms stopped functioning.
Around 11:00 a.m., a woman appeared in the barn, and David told me that she was their veterinarian. Another stereotype shot down: Yes, indeed; why couldn’t a woman be a vet. As she worked, I saw her do unbelievable things, such as putting on a shoulder-length plastic glove and reaching into areas of a cow that I never dreamed would be touched by a human hand (I also noted that when she withdrew her arm, a blob of manure hit her on the forehead and stuck. She never flinched as she flicked it off without even a break in their conversation).
I was on a steep learning curve. About 11:00 a.m., I overheard David say to her, “See that man over there?” She nodded. “He’s a college professor,” David announced. She looked unimpressed. “I’ll bet,” David continued, “that he’s the only college professor in Pennsylvania forking manure this morning.”
He sounded proud—of me, of course. I am convinced that I passed the test that I did not even know I was taking. Had I slept in, eaten a late courtesy breakfast, and watched and chatted with David and the boys as they worked, I doubt that our relationship would have turned into a life-time joy and friendship.