BLUFFTON — Delbert L. Gratz looked every bit the librarian. For nearly four decades the balding, bespectacled Gratz oversaw the Musselman Library and the Mennonite historical library at Bluffton University.
But if ever a book couldn’t be judged by its cover it was Gratz, who also was an author, an authority on Mennonite history, an avid mountain climber and an occasional tour guide. In the lean years after World War II, Gratz oversaw a Mennonite program that fed German children, including a future chancellor.
Gratz was born March 5, 1920, on the Amstutz farm in Richland Township west of Bluffton to Harvey and Fannie Lauby Gratz. According to Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Gratz from an early age “was intensely interested in Mennonite and Swiss family history and in the lore of the Swiss settlement where he had lived all his life. His childhood mentor — educator and storyteller Wilhelm Amstutz — lived on an adjoining farm.”
Gratz told the Lima News in 1959 that Amstutz, a longtime social sciences teacher in the Bluffton public school system, was one of his earliest influences. “Amstutz, himself a Mennonite scholar and ‘explorer into early Bluffton history’ encouraged the young man’s probing mind,” the News wrote.
The Mennonites grew out of the Swiss Anabaptist movement of the Protestant Reformation and took their name from Menno Simons whose writings formalized and articulated their beliefs. Anabaptists believed in separation of church and state, opposed participation in war and rejected infant baptism. Often persecuted for their views, which ran counter to the political order in Switzerland, many left for France, where they were allowed to rent land, and to Germany. Eventually, many came to America, settling in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and other states farther west.
As a youth, Gratz was baptized in the First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, where he was a lifetime member. He attended the Bluffton public schools and Bluffton High School, where he was a member of the high school band and choir. Upon graduation in 1938, he enrolled in Bluffton College, receiving a degree in history in May 1942.
In May 1942, history on a major scale was occurring outside the walls of Bluffton College. As a Mennonite, Gratz would not fight in World War II. Instead he worked in the Civilian Public Service program in the forests of Virginia and at a hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
His service, however, did not end when the war ended. From 1945 until 1948, Gratz and his wife, Thelma Dailey, whom he married on Sept. 5, 1943, served in Germany with the Mennonite Central Committee as relief workers. At one of their stops, In Ludwigshafen, they directed a feeding program for 8,000 children, among them Helmut Kohl, who served as chancellor of West Germany and Germany from 1982 to 1998.
The Gratzes left Germany for Switzerland in 1948 and Gratz entered the University of Bern for two years of doctoral study that led to the publication of his book “Bernese Anabaptists and Their Descendants” in 1953. Gratz also received a master’s degree in history from the Ohio State University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan.
In 1950, Gratz came home. For the 1950-1951 term, Bluffton College had 206 students and seven new faculty members. “In charge of Musselman library and the Mennonite historical library is Dr. Delbert L. Gratz, who recently returned from Europe where he received his doctorate degree at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and served as a relief worker for two years for the Mennonite central committee,” the Lima News reported on Sept. 17, 1950.
Steeped in Mennonite and ethnic history, and with many published papers to his credit, Gratz also taught history at Bluffton and helped to form a Swiss Mennonite historical society in the Bluffton-Pandora area. He remained at Bluffton College (now Bluffton University) until his retirement in 1988.
Although he stayed, Gratz didn’t stay put. He led more than 30 Swiss Mennonite heritage tours to Switzerland and Germany. Since 1973,” the Bluffton News noted on Nov. 7, 1996, “he has directed many tours of persons from the United States and Canada to Germany, especially to the Palatinate region in order to deepen German-American relations.”
His wide-ranging interests took him not only on historical treks, but also treks to the tops of mountains. Gratz for many years taught a mountain climbing course at Bluffton.
“Librarians supposedly like to remain associated with their many volumes of dusty, outdated books. He appreciates books and is a Mennonite scholar, but is too active to keep himself ‘hidden among the books,’” the Lima News wrote on Oct. 2, 1972. “Dr. Gratz has done mountain climbing in the United States and Europe. ‘It is a hobby I fit in with my research trips,’ he said.”
In addition to the challenge, Gratz told the News, “Scaling a mountain height can be a very spiritual experience, too. To realize the immensity and strength of God’s creation of mountains is very humbling.”
In August 1984, Gratz became the first American to receive the Order of Merit from the Rhineland-Palatinate province in what was then West Germany for “his work administering a food program to aid German school children affected by the post-war food shortages as well as his continuing efforts to strengthen U.S. and West German relations,” The Lima News reported on Sept. 2, 1984.
Gratz, the News noted, joined West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who as a child received food from the program Gratz administered, as one of the few “entitled to wear a small red and gold medal denoting them as possessors of the highest civilian honor” bestowed by the Rhineland-Palatinate.
In October 1996, Gratz was awarded the Service Cross First Class of the Federal Republic of Germany. “It is a high honor for Gratz because it has only been given to very few persons who are not German citizens,” the Bluffton News reported on Nov. 7, 1996.
In 1999, Gratz’s book “Was Isch Dini Nahme? (What Is Your Name?)” was published. The book, according to the Bluffton News of Aug.7, 1999, “can help people learn about their Swiss ancestry by reading about their names and their meaning.”
When Gratz died on Aug. 24, 2000, the GAMEO website paid tribute. “Delbert Gratz will be remembered as a keeper of the Mennonite memory, attentive helper to many seeking to recover their family’s history, a bridge-building in Mennonite peoplehood between Old World and New, one who has rekindled in the hearts of many an affection for their Anabaptist heritage, a dear friend, and a humble disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.