April 19, 2013


Category: News — Ira @ 6:42 pm


They are still-burning, homely particles of the night, that light
the huge tent of the dark with remembered fire, recalling the
familiar hill, the native earth from which we came…

—Thomas Wolfe

I was busy that day at the office a few weeks ago, talking to a customer when the iPhone in my shirt pocket quivered and pinged. A text from somewhere. A few minutes later, when I had a chance, I checked it out. The message was from my sister, Rachel. She’s still connected to what’s going on, as she always was. And that day, she was passing on news I needed to know, as she often does. A simple message. Charlie Newland died. Funeral is tomorrow.

I wasn’t that surprised. But still, I paused from work and let it sink in. Charlie Newland. I’d heard through the grapevine that he hadn’t been doing that well lately. And when someone’s 89 years old, there usually is only one ending to news like that. But still. I let the emotions sink in, absorbed them. Charlie Newland. One more character gone, from the English world of my Amish childhood.

Sixty years ago last month, my parents bought a 110-acre farm in the new little fledgling Amish settlement struggling to life in Aylmer, Ontario. That farm would be the home place, where all my siblings from Rachel on down were born and raised. That farm was the only home I ever knew until I was fifteen years old. The place as it once was is branded into my brain. All the sights and smells and sounds and tastes of it. And the man who sold that farm to my parents was Charlie Newland.

I’ve always marveled at how the Aylmer settlement was born. How the young families managed to buy farms in such close proximity to each other. Nicky Stoltzfus lived a half mile east of us. The road separated Jake Eicher’s farm from ours. A half mile west, LeRoy Marner settled with his family. And just west of them, barely a quarter of a mile, Homer Grabers. Across the road from them, my uncle, Bishop Peter Yoder. And my uncle Abner Wagler a half mile west of there. How could that happen, so many farms so close to each other, all for sale at the same time?

Seems like I recall murmurs from my childhood, something about the real estate guy who was their buddy. The one who sold them all their farms. He went out and shook up the English farmers. The Amish were coming. Strange people who drive horses and buggies. I’m talking, strange. There’s nothing you can do. If you’re thinking of selling, sell now. Who knows what will happen to farm prices, after they get here? Land prices will probably collapse. And a lot of the English farmers bit and took his bait. Makes a lot of sense to me, that scenario. Or maybe those times were just different from what we know, times where such things came down naturally, now and then, on their own.

Charlie was a few years younger than my father. Both were in their early thirties. Both were born in December. I don’t know when he and his wife Ruth had bought the farm and settled on it. It couldn’t have been that long. And the funny thing is, he didn’t leave the area. He bought another farm a few miles southeast of ours, over close to Richmond, along Highway 3. Well outside the borders of the Amish community at that time. And that’s where he lived, in all the time I knew him.

Charlie didn’t just disappear onto his new farm. We rarely saw his wife, a school teacher. And if you asked me, I’d tell you they didn’t have children. Because I can’t remember ever seeing any. But they did. Two daughters and a son. Of them all, Charlie was the only one who made any attempt to stay connected with us.

It’s one of the earliest memories I have of any English person, seeing Charlie standing out there in the barnyard, talking to Dad. Standing there in the dirt and gravel by the old water tank by the windmill, a slim man of medium height with a flushed red face and a ready smile, hands stuck in the front pockets of his jeans. Once in a while he’d reach up and adjust his John Deere bill cap. I was just a raggedly little barefoot kid, pre-school age. Charlie looked you in the eye, I remember. And he looked down at the ground a lot, too.

He liked to haul Dad around, on the occasional trip to London and such. And once, I got to go along. I sat there beside Dad in Charlie’s pickup as we sped down the highway, excitedly drinking in the new lands flowing past me. We headed north to 401, then west to London. It’s my first memory of ever seeing a four-lane road. I don’t remember a whole lot about what happened in the city that day, but I do remember that. Two lanes of traffic going in the same direction. How wild was that? Charlie and Dad chatted right along. The two of them were real friends, good friends. It may seem like a paradox from the outside, but it’s not. People are people, wherever they are. And friends are friends.

Charlie didn’t go to church. From my memories, which may be inaccurate, he was pretty much irreligious. And I’ve thought about it some, since those years. The English people around us in my childhood, how they weren’t religious at all, a lot of them. Guys like Charlie. Carl Sansburn. Max Firby, who lived right across the road from Carl, in the center of the community. They never went to church. Never displayed the slightest indication that they believed in much of anything. And it’s not that they weren’t honest decent people. They were. But I’ve wondered, and still do, sometimes. How did that develop, such a culture? Where you just worked and worked, seven days a week? What stories were told, when someone passed on? How was it dealt with, explained? And how would it be, to be raised like that? Where you know nothing else. It’s always been hard for me to grasp, that picture. So I can’t fully grasp the place those people were coming from, either. Who knows what they saw and lived?

Charlie was there, a part of the community, but not of it. He knew everyone, and the Amish all knew him. And one day, he was called on to do one of the hardest jobs he ever faced. I’ve written before of how my uncle, Peter Stoll, moved to Honduras with a small group of family and friends, back in 1968. The Stolls of that particular family and that particular generation had serious heart problems. And Peter was not spared. Sometime in 1971, he collapsed from a heart attack and died. In Honduras. His son, preacher Elmo Stoll, had remained in Aylmer with his family, working and writing for Family Life. And redefining what the Aylmer Amish were. The Honduras people passed the word on up to their relatives in the States and Canada. And someone had to go out and tell Elmo his father had passed away. Someone they could trust to get it done. They called on Charlie Newland.

The news was a huge shock to Elmo and his family, and to everyone in Aylmer. And I remember how it flashed through the community. How my parents, too, grappled with the suddenness of the loss. Peter was married to my father’s older sister, Anna. The next Sunday, church was at LeRoy Eicher’s place, a half mile east of us. We sat there, completely still, as Elmo somberly rose to preach. His face was drawn and drained from all the grief and shock and stress. He stood there for a long time, just looking at the floor. But then he found his voice, as he always did. “It’s not sad,” he said softly. “It’s not sad. It’s hard, but it’s not sad. My father is in a better place.” And he went on to tell of how it happened, how this English man came out that day. He never mentioned Charlie’s name, not in the sermon. But we knew that’s who it was.

Charlie had pulled in and stepped out of his truck. He greeted Elmo somberly. Today he wasn’t the smiling, cheerful Charlie we all knew. And then he just stood there, shuffling his feet, staring at the ground, mute. He could not find the words to tell another man’s son that his father had died. I mean, who could? Elmo felt sorry for him, he said, even after Charlie finally stammered the message he had come to tell. I felt sorry for him, too. Who would ever want a job like that? I couldn’t imagine it. But the bottom line is, he did it. Faced a hard thing. He did what his friends in Honduras had asked him to do.

And time slid on, and things happened as they did. In 1976, my father uprooted his family and moved to Bloomfield, Iowa. It was just the flow of life, but I’m thinking guys like Charlie and his friend Carl Sansburn were sad to see us go. They had seen it, the Amish settlement planted there around them and take root. And now, 23 years later, one of the original founders, my father, was picking up and leaving.

They accepted this new development with good cheer, though. The summer before we moved, in August, Charlie hauled a load of us to Bloomfield to build the new dairy barn we would need that fall. Dad and Joseph, Titus and me, and a couple of my sisters. A merry lot we were, off to new lands and new adventures. Of course, Carl piled in, too. He wouldn’t have missed that little trip for anything. Charlie had a cap cover on the back of his pickup and that’s how we traveled. Packed in the back on cushions and mattresses.

After we moved, that was pretty much the end, we figured. We wouldn’t see our English friends from Aylmer much, anymore. But Charlie and Carl weren’t having any of it. Every couple or three years, the two of them headed out in Charlie’s late model pickup. Two old friends, hitting the road. They always headed south to Marshfield, Missouri, first. To see my uncles, Homer Graber and Bishop Peter Yoder and their families. Then they would drive the three hundred miles almost due north to Bloomfield. Pull in, all smiles, to stay and hang out for a day or two.

And we were always genuinely delighted to see them. All of us were. I’ve never seen Dad more relaxed than when those two guys showed up. They’d sit there and visit and visit, catching up on all the latest gossip and reminiscing about old times. Mom smiled and smiled and chattered, and Dad threw back his head and laughed a lot. And always the three men, Dad and Charlie and Carl, headed up to Ottumwa for at least one full day to run around and do some shopping. It was like old times. They always returned by late afternoon, Charlie’s pickup sagging under the load of groceries and other stuff Dad had bought.

And sometime in the 1990s, I can’t pinpoint exactly when, Charlie hit a pretty rough snag on the road. I never knew his wife that well, saw her maybe half a dozen times in my life. And I know nothing of the details. Of who said what and who did what. But, after raising their children, at a time they should have been settling in to enjoy life and grow old together, something snapped. And they divorced. I wasn’t there and didn’t see it. I don’t know how it affected Charlie. But he came out to my sister Rosemary’s place, where Dad and Mom were staying at the time. He told them. He was divorcing. “It’s wrong, but it just is what it is,” he said. Dad and Mom clucked and sympathized with him. And he was still their friend.

I have no clear idea of the time frame of some of the details that followed. But I know they happened, because Mom told me. Smiling and chatting, back in those days when she could, back when I knew her in no other world.

“Charlie wanted to ask out this nice widow lady he knew,” Mom told me, chuckling. “And she told him. She’s not going to go out with anyone who wasn’t baptized. Go take care of that, then come back and see me.”

And for the first time in his life, whatever his motives, wherever his heart, Charlie Newland made a profession of faith. Went through whatever it took, to take instructions and be baptized. There was probably a good bit of judgment going on around him among the Amish about the whole situation, right there. (Might be a good bit of judgment going on in some of you who read this, too.) I didn’t sense any in Mom, though. She was just happy for him. Anyway, after he he was baptized, the nice widow lady was receptive. They began seeing each other quite regularly. And somewhere in that time frame that eludes me, they got married. “And Charlie is so happy,” Mom said, smiling. “He brought her out to meet us. She’s such a nice lady.”

And it’s strange, really, when you think of it. How my parents and Charlie were right there around each other, in Aylmer, as the encroaching twilight closed in around them. Mom has left us, for all intents and purposes. And as she was sinking, Charlie showed up now and then to see her and Dad. She left before Charlie did, except she hasn’t. Dad, meanwhile, is slowing up a good deal, too. I’ve wondered sometimes how that must feel. To see all those you knew from long ago take off and leave you like that. And you remain. Receding, but you remain.

I knew Charlie wasn’t doing all that well, lately. And I look back to when I was up there last August. He was frail then, they said. I can’t remember if he was still at home, or in some facility somewhere. I do know that I didn’t make the effort to go see him. I thought about it a few times. But I was there to see Mom, and that took up about all the emotional strength in me. So I didn’t go see Charlie.

I last saw him probably four years ago, or so. The door at the office opened one day, and a smiling Charlie walked in. I had no idea he was even around. I gaped, then hollered and welcomed him. Rushed to him and shook his hand in welcome. He smiled and smiled and talked. He was just traveling through the area with another couple, he said. He introduced me to his lovely new wife. She smiled at me and chatted. And we stood around and talked for a good half hour or more. I showed them around the place. Told them what I did.

That was before my book was anything but a dream, but at a time when my blog was pretty well known, especially to those who had any kind of Aylmer connection. And he’d heard of it. He read my stuff on his computer at home, he told me, smiling. “I enjoy your stories. Especially the ones about Aylmer.” I laughed and thanked him. Yeah, I said. You know, one of these days I’m going to have to write a blog about you and Carl. Charlie and Carl, I’ll call it. About you two guys being our friends, and how you traveled together to come see us for years after we moved to Bloomfield. How we all stayed connected. I’m going to have to write that. And I will, one day. He beamed and beamed at me.

And I never got that story written. I thought about it now and then, tried to scratch it out a time or two. I figured it would come, but it never did. You can’t harvest a field that has no crops. So you go to fields that do, and speak from there. And now Charlie’s gone. And now I’m writing about him. Maybe that’s how it was supposed to be, all along. I don’t know.

I do know that I’m honored, to tell of who he was. But I kept only half the promise I made to him, back when we last met. Because somehow, it seemed like his name alone was all the title this post needed.


Earlier this week, I attended a continuing legal education (CLE) class over in Mechanicsburg. I have to do twelve hours of those things every year, to keep my law license active. I try to pick classes that halfway interest me, and last Monday’s was actually a pretty good presentation. But I always dawdle in such places. You pay your fee, they don’t care what else you do. Sleep all day, it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, that day, as I sat there bored, fiddling with my iPad, I googled my name for the first time in a long time, just to see what would come up. I was pretty astounded. Hundreds of pages. One caught my eye, and I clicked to check it out. Reviews on Goodreads. Over 5,000 votes on my book. I flicked down through them, checking out anything from one star to five. I read a dozen or two. Some of them weren’t very kind. And I thought to myself, good grief. Some people really need to get a life. But then I thought, I’m the one googling my own name, and reacting to what others wrote. I’m probably the one who needs to get a life, here.

When a big thing’s coming at me, I normally don’t pay that much attention until it gets close. Kind of eye it off to the side and watch it approach. And that’s how it’s been with my upcoming trip to Germany.

Sabrina and I communicate, now and then. She has fretted a bit, and reassured me a few times. I’ll get the itinerary to you. Let you know what’s going on. And I responded. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you plan will be fine. I’m totally OK with it. I’m excited, just to be coming over.

And just this week, she sent me the poster they designed. I was pretty impressed, still am. And it really focused me a good bit. It’s getting closer and closer. I can feel it. Departure time. My next blog will be posted on the eve of my journey. I’ll fill you in then about some of my plans and what I’ll be doing.



  1. Your writing’s getting better.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — April 19, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

  2. Great story of a great friend!

    Comment by Rhonda — April 19, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

  3. Very nice tribute to your friend Charlie. Looking forward to reading about your trip. Enjoy!

    Comment by Martha Staton — April 19, 2013 @ 8:45 pm

  4. I wonder if you ever came across this article by Elmo Stoll. It’s about the Christian Community that he was a founder of in Cookeville, TN. This project brought together people from various Anabaptist backgrounds, and also readily welcomed “seekers.” In this article, Stoll wrote to those seekers, offering advice on how they could best fit in with those of Amish and Old Order Mennonite background. It’s very interesting. Ultimately, the community failed.


    Comment by Tammy — April 19, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

  5. Probably the three most outstanding English men in Aylmer during my time there were Charlie, Carl and George Randall.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — April 19, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

  6. Another well created blog. You can write the most interesting articles. I stand in awe of your ability.
    I wish I had the talent to write. I’ve been told that I should write a book about my life. I wouldn’t know how to even begin.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Linda Morris — April 20, 2013 @ 12:25 am

  7. The story of your neighbor and friend was a very good and moving story. It is sad to see friends pass and as we get older it doesn’t get any eaiser.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — April 20, 2013 @ 9:00 am

  8. What a nice tribute to Charlie. I’m happy you had good memories of him, that makes it more special. It really is tough seeing those we love getting older and more frail. Somedays I’m like, ‘Eh, well, it’s part of life,’ and other days it just makes me sad. This post, however, made me happy because he made you and your family smile and he sounds like everything a great friend should be.

    EEK – I’m so excited about your Germany trip!! I know you’ll keep us all updated.

    Comment by BethR — April 20, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  9. Great piece on Charlie …like you said he always was there..even in the last years Dad would get him for a driver and sister Rosemary kept saying Charlie is no longer able to drive. Another landmark in Aylmer was George the mailman. And you wonder why these people even took interest in us as a family or the neighborhood. Like you say, people are people the world around. Thanks for a well written memory.

    Comment by Rachel — April 20, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

  10. Ira,
    Your folks were such hospitable people. From your writings, they received great pleasure in connecting with others. Really knew how to partake in the joys of life when presented. I expect your father still looks forward to a good chin wag with the right person.

    I’ve noticed a lot of people are dying these past couple of months. Five within my church family alone. The only time I question death, to a large extent, is when there are dependent children left behind. It always hits me hard. “Why God?” “Why now?” “Why her?” This is the case in three of the deaths I know of. But God doesn’t answer such questions. He obviously doesn’t feel a need to as He didn’t with Job. Maybe if He did I still wouldn’t get it. Or maybe, He just grieves with us in the moments when it is necessary.

    Just a word on the Chicagoland weather since I’m sure you’re dying to know all about it. Ha! Exciting for us, but not for people with basements. Strapped with camera, the boys and I headed to the nearest man-made pond which is only a block away. We saw stranded vehicles taking on the appearance of small islands, the red caps of fire hydrants, teenagers giddy, chatting it up, daring each other to wade into the murky, gray water. And my favorite, a bright yellow, blow-up raft toting two spirited boys paddling against the current. It was a windy day. Such memories they were making, not soon to be forgotten. My youngest was infatuated with the 3 inch rapids making haste under our car as we ventured through on our way to the next “disaster”. As he hung his head out the window he laughed with delight.

    Then, the next day, on April 19th, it snowed. Some of it stuck to the ground, but melted soon thereafter, from the hot rays of scorn pulsing through the air in its direction.

    I’m hoping that May, the month of my birth, and the glorious day dedicated to mothers, won’t be hampered by an earthquake. That would make for some crummy celebrations.

    Comment by Francine — April 20, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  11. Ira—-Another great read!!!! Barry also knew Charlie, and said he was a wonderful man!!!! We love it when you write about your past in Aylmer, as your community was not far from our home. So happy for your upcoming trip. Have a wonderful and safe time—-Blessings!!!! Barry and June.

    Comment by June Kinsey — April 20, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  12. An interesting piece on someone that I hadn’t thought about in years. Charlie and Carl were a part of our life back in those days but not as much so as Gordon McEwen and his little yellow Datsun pickup. He lived just a piece up the road towards Aylmer from us, had a dairy, raised hogs, and was never married that I know of. Thinking back now I know that there has to be a lot of interesting history behind that man. It seems like I heard he used to attend the Aylmer Amish church some at one point. If someone could write a post on him I know it would pique the interest of a lot of us.

    I think it is good to give tribute to those people who selflessly helped out us Amish folks. Maybe many of those individuals weren’t church goers, but it seems somehow they exemplified Christ’s teachings more so then a lot of religious folks.

    Comment by Andrew Yoder — April 21, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

  13. Thanks for sharing. A rush of memories for all of us who lived in the country with neighbors close by. They were always there for us when in need or just for fun times. Have a wonderful trip. Will look forward to reading about it as only you can write!

    Comment by vicki — April 21, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  14. I never recall meeting Charlie, but know most of the step children, the Presseys. Here is the link to Charlie’s obituary. http://kebbelfh.frontrunnerpro.com/book-of-memories/1533475/Charles-Newland/obituary.php

    Ira’s response: Thanks. I see he was born a few years after Dad. He was closer to Mom’s age. I edited that little error in the narrative.

    Comment by Eli Stutzman — April 22, 2013 @ 9:56 am

  15. The memories of an old friend, no longer here. The anticipation of a new adventure, not yet here. You communicate so well the movement of life.

    Comment by Eric — April 23, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

  16. I agree with Eric and others….the way you write so simply, yet tellingly, about the movement of life creates a bond with your readers. We all have these deep feelings that we can’t express about people we love passing on, and all the other trials of life that you can put into words that we can’t. It gives us that connection with strangers that you make into friends, and allows a kinship that the Amish can’t experience with us. But you can and do, and want to! Thank you, Ira! God bless your trip to Germany. God rewards the faithful and you will be given grace and abundance in your journey. We, your fans, go with you in spirit and celebrate your popularity as ones who live vicariously with you!

    Comment by Pam — May 2, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

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