Amish researcher and writer Donald Kraybill will be retiring from his position at Elizabethtown College as senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. This semester will be his last one teaching at the college.

I wanted to share a few thoughts, including on how I first met Don. I also asked Don a few questions about his plans now, challenges of his work, and favorite memories. His responses are interesting, including a pretty funny story I think you’ll enjoy.

Interpreting for the Amish

If you’ve followed the Amish for any length of time, there’s a good chance you’ve read one of Don’s books, such as the classic The Riddle of Amish Culture, or seen his input into educational films on the Amish, or read his comments in the media over the years.

Donald Kraybill with Amishman

Photo by Daniel Rodriguez

As this Lancaster Online profile notes, Don sees himself foremost as an interpreter for the Amish:

“I don’t see myself as a protector or advocate of the Amish,” Kraybill says. “Rather, I see my vocational responsibility to try to interpret their beliefs and practices with sympathetic understanding of what they do, why they do it and try to explain it in truthful fashion without sensationalism and hyperbole.

“For me, it’s involved a lot of face-to-face visiting and interviewing to try to understand how they look at things. I try to get into their cultural shoes.”

I can say firsthand that Don is widely respected among the Amish for his “sympathetic understanding” and commitment to truth without sensationalism.

I’ve personally heard Amish people speak warmly about him and his work on multiple occasions. I think Amish especially appreciated his efforts following the Nickel Mines events, though that is just one example.

How I met Don

Personally, Don has been a friend and a great support over the years. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this here, but I first met Don because of this blog.

I had been at it for a year or two, and one day I got a surprise email from him in my inbox. I had mentioned an upcoming visit to Lancaster County here on Amish America, and he asked if I’d have a chance to meet while in the area.

The spot was supposed to be a local Starbucks; we still chuckle over the crossed signals (turned out there are two of them on Fruitville Pike in Lancaster City; he wanted the one inside the Barnes & Noble).

After we got the location correct, it was a great visit. Thanks to Don, I learned of the Young Center Snowden Fellowship, and he had helpful ideas and support to give for my Amish business book, then in process.

I’ve always thought of this a perfect example of his humility, openness, and warmth. He didn’t have to reach out to a random blogger on the internet, but that’s how he is.

Nonetheless, he still ribs me good-naturedly, from time to time, about being a blogger. But, I think he realizes that I don’t (always) sit around in my pajamas all day. 🙂 I have a collection of other good memories which I hope will only grow.

But what next? 

I reached out to Don to get a few answers to questions as he enters this next phase, including what he plans to do next, and about his favorite memories. Here they are:

What are you planning to do now? More writing on the Amish?

Donald Kraybill: Although I won’t be teaching in the fall of 2015, I may continue on at the Young Center for some months in order to make a seamless transmission with my successor. I will certainly remain in the shadows of Elizabethtown College and the Young Center hopefully for a number of additional years into the future.

I plan to donate my books, papers, research manuscripts, etc. to the newly constructed and christened Hess Archives in the High Library of Elizabethtown College. Thus I will need to devote some time to preparing and organizing many boxes of stuff to transmit to the Archives.

I am currently writing the Centennial History of Eastern Mennonite University (1917-2017). The manuscript is due to the press in September 2016 and this is a nonnegotiable deadline! It’s an enormous project and I expect to be immersed in it full time for the next eighteen months.

Beyond that in terms of Amish studies I have begun working on the third edition of The Riddle of Amish Culture. I’ve also written several chapters for a book on Amish technology which has been collecting dust on my shelf for several years. That is another project I may undertake in the future.

What do you see yourself missing once you’re retired?

Donald Kraybill: The biggest thing I will miss is my wonderful colleagues in the Young Center and at Elizabethtown College who assisted and supported and affirmed my research and teaching over the years. I will also miss the wonderful support services provided by the Young Center.

Any favorite memories you’d like to share?

Donald Kraybill: I made a list of about twenty-five humorous things that I’ve experienced during my fieldwork with plain communities over the last twenty-five years. Sometime I hope to write those up but haven’t had time yet.

For starters when I was working on the first edition of The Riddle of Amish Culture, I was working with a professional photographer. The Amish family kindly invited us into their house to take photos of their kitchen and living area (without any people in the photos).

The photographer had set up cameras and extra flashes and was in the midst of shooting photos when a horse-and-buggy–clip-clop clip-clop–came in the driveway. The father of the family urgently told the photographer he must disassemble all photography equipment immediately, and take it out the back door of the house to the photographer’s van and leave for the evening.

So as we were escaping out the back door through the washroom, Amish visitors were coming into the house through the front door without ever seeing or detecting any photographic equipment.

What has been the most challenging part of your work?

Donald Kraybill: The most challenging parts of my role are these: balancing the delicate roles of representing Amish culture with respect and truth telling yet not exposing all their sins nor making them into saintly people; managing the delicate gatekeeping from hundreds of students, scholars, and media who want access to the Amish.

I have to be very selective and thoughtful about giving out contact information or advice regarding Amish individuals. They have lives to live, and families and work to tend to, and are simply overwhelmed by many novice researchers driven by curiosity or simply wanting another television program.

And many of the outsiders don’t comprehend the cultural restraints or how tiresome their questions and invasive contacts feel like to Amish people who simply want to live a quiet and peaceful life without external distractions.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

Donald Kraybill: For me the most rewarding and satisfying part of my research has been to develop lifelong friendships with dozens of Amish people who I’ve learned to know as people and friends and not merely research subjects.

They have been generous in sharing their time, opening their homes and opening their lives to me far beyond what I ever deserved. And for their generosity and kindness I will be forever grateful.

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