December 3, 2010

Return to Me: My Father’s Face…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:55 pm


And which of us shall find his father, know his face, and in
what place, and in what time, and in what land? Where?

—Thomas Wolfe

Some childhood memories are vague and murky things. Shifting shadows, barely visible through the misty fog of years, recalled from many decades of snapshots stored in the mind. So many events and characters are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday. And yet, some things are so remote that no amount of careful consideration can rouse them from the slumber of the past.

And when it comes right down to it, some of the faces that were around me each day are no longer clear in the setting in which I knew them. The mind is a tricky thing. As are memories. This fact was recently brought to my attention in startling fashion.

The Aylmer community of my childhood was blessed (or afflicted) with a long train of outside seekers. Young English men who wandered in, no one knew quite from where, and made known their desires to join the Amish church. There in Aylmer. And always, a place was found for them. A place to stay. To live, to acclimate into this new culture.

In retrospect, I feel a bit sorry for them. In all earnestness they came, starry eyed and sure that they had found the great golden utopia on earth. To adopt the simple, plain lifestyle. Faith reflected by works. The true and honorable road to a rather harsh and severe God.

It takes a certain personality to pursue such a path to such a point. And a good deal of inner strength. They all had the personality and the will, no question about that. Some of them, I suspect, were about half mad as well.

And most of them lasted a good while. Six months or so. Some few hung around for a year or more. But none of them ever really had a chance to make it. In time, most of them strode merrily and zanily from the beaten path of accepted Amish norms, triggering furious frowns and sharp rebukes from the stern Aylmer leaders. And all of them eventually departed, sadder and possibly wiser. Not one of them, as far as I know, actually made it all the way through to full membership. Which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just symbolic of how it went back then, and how it tends to go today, in similar quests. Mostly, anyway. There are always exceptions, I suppose. There usually are.

I remember a host of their names and a few of their faces. From the times they lurked about in Aylmer, so different, yet so honestly convinced that this was the right path for them. It’s tough, to try to join the Amish from outside. Almost impossible. The harsh plain lifestyle. Always, the language barrier looms, an almost impenetrable wall. And we weren’t exactly that kind to them or accepting of them, either, truth be told. Which is neither here nor there. It was what it was. A long tough road.

And yet, you gotta hand it to these guys. They tried. They didn’t make it, but they tried.

They’re still out there, most of them. Somewhere. And amazingly, or maybe not, some few of them read this blog. At least upon occasion. A connection from way back for them, I suppose. In a distant, seeking, innocent phase of their lives. They are welcome. I wouldn’t mind meeting them and just talking, catching up on the years that have passed since those long ago days. I’m sure all of them would have some stories to tell.

Last week, one morning, I opened my email. A message, with a picture attached. The sender’s name was one I had not heard in probably thirty years. One of those “outside” guys who hung around Aylmer, way back. For a few months, maybe six or so.

He wrote a short note. He had enjoyed the pictures of my family on my blog. And by the way, he had located an old photo from some archives. From that time, back in Aylmer. It was attached.

I opened it. And there it was, in clear color. An Amish man, leaning against a wall, grimly staring straight ahead, while some Beachy guy stood there gazing at him with admiring, worshipful eyes.

Clearly the man was a Stoll. Dark, humorless, like a smile would be sinful. Huge beard, with just a hint of a mustache. That was always a big thing in Aylmer. They hedged around, always allowed the mustache stubble to grow, just a bit. Sheared it now and then with a hand clipper. Somehow it must have made them feel unique, superior. An Aylmer hallmark, was the mustache stubble sported by many (not all) of the married men.

Convinced the man was a Stoll, probably Stephen Stoll, the deacon, I posted the picture on Facebook. Who is this man? Opinions and queries flowed in almost immediately. A Stoll, for sure, said the Waglers. Yep, looks like Stephen all right. Must be Stephen. I even went so far as to state affirmatively that this was the man who read Scriptures aloud in church on Sunday mornings. So it was settled, we thought.

But not so fast. Some feedback from the Stolls themselves. Notably from Sam and Ruth Eicher. Ruth is Stephen’s sister. It’s not him, she claimed. And she should know her own brother.

And then the Eichers made a startling comment. It might be David Wagler. Your father. He wore glasses. Had a gold tooth. I was appalled. No way. Not that man, staring so darkly at nothing in particular. It wasn’t Dad. Couldn’t be. Didn’t resemble him at all.

I recoiled from the suggestion. The Aylmer men of my youth were a pretty somber, humorless bunch. Grim. Stern. Took themselves far too seriously. Freely lectured other Amish communities about their glaring sins and shortcomings. Almost all of them were like that. And it all got a little tiresome to those of us who lived among them, those of us who knew their flaws, their faults and failures.

We called them Bears, the dark Aylmer men. Behind their backs, of course. A rather nefarious term, but totally accurate, we felt. Because they grizzled and growled incessantly. And their grim, bearded visages, well, they literally resembled bears. I take full credit for coining the description, along with my brothers, Stephen and Titus. It was so apt and so natural that it instantly stuck. Even today, in certain circles of former Aylmerites, if you describe someone as a Bear, it is instantly understood exactly what you mean.

But somehow, I always held Dad a bit apart from the others. Sure, he could be dark and humorless too, and was, plenty of times. But he wasn’t a Bear. He was my father. Somehow, that made it different, at least to me. I didn’t pause long to consider why it would be so. It just was.

There were no pictures of him from that time. None that we knew of. So there was nothing to which to compare this picture. Except our memories. And they sure didn’t jive with this.

And the matter kind of died, there on Facebook. Those who claimed it was a Stoll seemed to have the upper hand. The Eicher/Stoll camp was silent. Seemed to have been beaten back. And then in the calmness of one morning this week, a startling observation from none other than my older brother Jesse. Grandpa Jess, from South Carolina.

He had studied the photo. And reached a conclusion. The man in the picture was Dad. Jesse did not have any doubt. I was shocked. And that’s stating it mildly.

That man, leaning against the wall, back in 1968 at my uncle Pete Stoll’s public disposal auction before leaving for Honduras, that dark man symbolic of so much that was so wrong with Aylmer, that man was my father? It could not be. But I looked closely. Studied the picture. Gradually the thought gained acceptance from my recoiling mind. It could indeed be him.

I am now convinced it is. This picture shows my father’s face.

This is the only known photo of him from that period of his life. In 1968. He was going on forty-seven years old. Two years younger than I am today. The year before, in 1967, he and Joseph Stoll had launched Family Life, the monthly magazine that would propel my father into the limelight as one of the most famous and influential Amish figures in the world.

It’s astounding, the picture. And it almost takes my breath away. This is how he looked and who he was, a lifetime ago in another place. This is the man, then, who loomed so large in my childhood world. And beyond. The man whose rich, mellow voice prayed the morning and evening prayers in a rhythmic lulling flow. The man whose deep, rich baritone led many a song in church. The man who gently rocked and soothed his restless toddlers into calm slumber on his lap, crooning “Sweet and Low,” as the sun sank in the western skies.

This man, standing there in an ordinary moment in an ordinary day of his life, more than forty years ago. This man, my father.

Only those born and raised Amish up to and including my generation, and maybe the generation following, can understand what this picture truly means, what a rare treasure it is. Today, it’s not that big a deal anymore. What with digital cameras on cell phones, many if not most Amish people are photographed one way or another. At one time or another. But not back then. Back then, the stars had to align. And even then, the results were rarely so clear, like this.

Back then, Amish history was almost exclusively spoken and written, not visually recorded. It’s impossible to grasp the significance of this particular photo. There are simply no others out there of my father. Not from way back. At least none I’m aware of. Not from his youth. Not from his running around years, or from his camp years during WWII.

Why, then, could not we, his children, glance at the photo and instantly recognize him? Because there is no reference point from which to compare him, at that time. The very fact there are no pictures makes him a stranger to us. We remember him in later years, after we were adults, and he had aged a good deal. After the memories from our childhoods faded.

We, his sons and daughters, will cherish it always, this frozen moment of my father from so long ago. As, I suspect, will future generations of his offspring.

Now, if someone out there could only come up with something similar of my mother.

More photos from the day of Pete Stoll’s sale. The same day Dad’s picture was taken. Amish back then weren’t the “hot” item they are now; the headline erroneously describes them as Mennonites. We’ve come a long way, baby. Thanks to Sam and Ruth Eicher for these photos.

The three Amish men, from front to rear: Uncle Abner Wagler, Alva Eicher, Stephen Stoll (Yes, I’m quite certain that is Stephen, this time. Note his sizable mustache. More distinct than Dad’s, even. )



  1. I remember walking home form school one day when I was in the first grade and this tourist couple pulled up next to me and took my picture . They gave me a whopping quarter just because I posed like they asked me to. As someone who grew up in an Amish “cameraless” world, I would give half a fortune to have that picture today to be able to show my children.

    Comment by Ed Yoder — December 3, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  2. The Amish man in the top magazine, right side, is Pete Yoder?

    Comment by John Wagler — December 3, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  3. Great story, Ira, very well told. What a photo.

    Comment by Shawn Smucker — December 3, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  4. Here is the link where this picture was found. Are there more Aylmer people that anyone recognizes?

    Comment by David — December 3, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  5. The picture, among others, is on Page 4 of the link. Thanks, David.

    Comment by admin — December 3, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  6. My parents are in the area tonite. I showed my father the enlarged version of this photo. His initial reaction; it’s not his dad. After pondering a few more times over the photo, he said he thinks it is his dad because of one big clue…The gaze of complete admiration from the smaller man.

    This is a priceless glimpse into the past..I’m going to frame the pic and save it for my children.

    Comment by John Wagler — December 3, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  7. This is a photo of Grandpa Wagler that will be cherished for many generations to come. To think that your blog has turned up such a treasure! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Titus Yutzy — December 4, 2010 @ 12:51 am

  8. Since there are no pix at all of my little brother or me when we were small, nor of my parents, I can fully appreciate what this pic means to you. Mom and Dad left the church in time for my 2 youngest siblings to be photographed to within an inch of their wee lives when they were little, so we have lots of them!

    I’ve always felt that the Amish lifestyle would be a good one if you just left religion out of it all together.

    Comment by Ann — December 4, 2010 @ 6:47 am

  9. I think this is indeed Doddy Wagler. There is a certain presence there that jumped out at me at the first glance. What it looks like is the little man has just asked him some profound question with a wild grin, and Grandpa is reared back and ready to trot out a full explanation. This is a rare find. Imagine all the elements that had to be in play for you to get this picture.

    Comment by Mervin — December 4, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  10. Ann,
    The Amish lifestyle without religion is generally life for the average farming family in the early 1800’s. There is certainly a charm to it, but generally unsustainable in the presence of alluring modernity.

    Comment by Roland — December 4, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  11. How precious to have this photo of your father, Ira!
    Daudy Kauffman has told me that David Luthy was born English. Did he convert in Aylmer or elsewhere?

    Ira’s response: David Luthy did come from a conservative Catholic background. Highly educated, with a Master’s degree in something or other. He was about to enter the priesthood, when he heard about the Amish and decided to check them out. I’m not sure where he joined. His first contact with the Amish was in northern Indiana, close to Notre Dame, where he was educated. He is a rare exception. There are a few of them out there. One of them will be a very important character in my book.

    Comment by Kate — December 4, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

  12. At first glance I was quite sure he was a Wagler, maybe a young Dave Wagler, but than again you would have known ……and so the more I looked, the less sure I was who the man was.

    Comment by Lavern Stoll — December 5, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  13. I am still not 100% sure it was Dad, but I am not fighting it. Dad’s attitude toward the adoring man is not unlike the actions of some of his sons given the same situation. In Aylmer, the rules were you were only allowed to shave or clip once a week, wonder if it is still like that. Ira, this is an interesting piece……..

    Comment by Rachel — December 6, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

  14. One moment in time frozen forever. “After further review the play stands as called on the field.” Photo evidence confirms he is your Father.

    Comment by Paul — December 7, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  15. His beard and the way he’s holding his mouth reminds me a lot of Joseph.

    Comment by jason yutzy — December 7, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

  16. Thanks for another interesting read. As a young teenage Amish kid whose parents moved from the Old Order to join the fledging New Order in the 1960s–it’s amazing how everyone was still greatly influenced by the Pathway Publishers. Also, for the good and the not so good, my guess is most “plain” groups even today are a bit mesmerized by the likes of Luthy, McGrath, Bercot, etc. Now, as an ordained minister who left the Amish religion 25 years ago mainly because of the truth of the LORD’S eternal salvation, I’m astounded at times how such nice people can be enticed by an almost ancestral Anabaptist worship –our way or the highway excommunicating tradition.

    By GOD’S sovereign grace, E.S.Gingerich

    Comment by e. s. gingerich — December 17, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  17. This is the first time I saw your site and blog, and I find it informative.
    I also was raised amish, “new Order”, and distinctly remember the “Family Life” and “Young Companion” magazines.
    I remember the “Family Life”, infested with such silliness like; should mothers breast feed or not, and it becoming a real issue, “no pun intended’.
    There were other equally elementary debates in there that indicated the small mindset of some of the contributors. Not all was bad, but neither would I rummage through a waste can, hoping to find steak.

    Comment by ordnung — December 25, 2010 @ 12:09 am

  18. It is very easy to take potshots at leaders and a community, especially if you’ve never built one yourself.

    Glad to see you’re writing again, Ira. I’d been too busy to even check, and figured you were on a “break” after the long siege for the book.

    Comment by LeRoy — December 30, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  19. Have sure enjoyed reading your story. I am thankful to know you and believe the best is yet to come for you.
    “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to HIS PURPOSE”. Romans 8:28

    Comment by Terrie Smith — January 23, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  20. Hey Ira,
    I wonder if Amish moms wished they had pictures of their children when they were babies and toddlers. Or of a child who passed away. I’m a person who loves photos even of people I don’t know. Strange. But, then again, I find people in general fascinating.

    Hmmm. What’s an Amish man doing with a gold tooth?

    As an outsider I want you to know you favor your mother as far as looks go. On your picture section there was a shot of her sitting in a van looking at the camera, I believe. Through her precious wrinkles and age I saw you. You are definitely your mother’s son.

    On a side note, I saw a new show called “Amish Mafia” while visiting my mom. Because my husband and I don’t have any tv stations coming into our home (by choice) I had no idea there were shows like this out there. This particular show I didn’t like. It seemed like the tv people were working really hard to bring up some trash or something to shock viewers with. I despise this. Why? Why do they do it? Why are they doing it to the Amish? Why are the Amish doing it to the Amish? I just finished watching “The Sound of Music” today which I hadn’t seen in years. I loved it! Got the DVD for Christmas. Growing up I watched and enjoyed “Little House on the Prairie.” (Michael Landon-hubba, hubba.) That program aired for years, people loved it. So what’s up with this garbage? Ugg!

    Be well and take lots and lots of pictures.

    Comment by Francine — January 4, 2013 @ 1:41 am

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