By Lauren Anderson ‘15 and Kinsey Van Houten ’16
Simpson College Chaplain Fritz Wehrenberg is retiring in July after spending four years making the kind of impact he never intended.
“I have been so fortunate and blessed to have had these four years here,” he said. “It is a wonderful way to end the working years. I couldn’t think of a better place to be. There has been a depth and a richness to these four years. It’s kind of like dessert.”
Wehrenberg has been a pastor for 38 years. He has spent 14 of those years in campus ministry, the past four at Simpson. Prior to working at Simpson, Wehrenberg worked at Iowa State University.
Asked what he planned to do during his retirement, he replied, “Nothing,” then listed several activities, including traveling to Hawaii, Italy and Switzerland.
Wehrenberg said he hopes, to some extent, to leave no legacy at Simpson as he faces a new phase in his life.
“What’s important to me is what we need to be doing, not what has already happened,” he said.
“Simpson had existed for 148 years before I got here; it’s going to exist long beyond my time here,” he added. “To some extent I hope that what I’ve done is carry on that legacy and to pass it on well. Part of me would be a little disappointed if somebody said ‘Well, boy, it used to be so good when he was here.’ ”
Despite his humility, Wehrenberg has made many solid contributions to Simpson. He wrote the job description for the new chaplain, which didn’t exist previously. He oversaw the transformation of Dirlam Lounge and planned to oversee changing the basement chapel into an interfaith meditation center.
Students, faculty and staff will also miss his seemingly endless collection of Hawaiian shirts. He said that started with a gift from his wife’s sister, whose family was from Hawaii originally. He said he continued to wear the shirts because they’re colorful and comfortable.
Making the chapel more inviting was one of Wehrenberg’s goals when he arrived on campus. He wanted to make the chapel a more lighted, or positive space on campus.
Ann Shepherd, the chapel’s office manager, said Wehrenberg moved his office closer to the door to be able to greet visitors to the chapel.
“He’s intentional about making you feel welcome here,” she said. “That’s his top priority.”
Jim Hayes, the director of the Center for Vocation and Integrative Learning (CVIL) at Simpson, met Wehrenberg at Iowa State.
“We ended up sitting next to each other at a meeting and he said, ‘I heard you play golf?’ and I said, ‘Yes I do.’ So we became golfing friends,” Hayes said. “He hopes in his retirement to get his golf game good enough to beat me.”
When Wehrenberg was hired, the selection committee was still searching for someone in July after one of the applicants declined the job offer.
“We were looking for someone to fill the year or fill the semester until we could get the search going again,” Hayes said. “I was calling colleagues in campus ministry circles that I knew. When I called Fritz about it we chatted about the position and he said, ‘You know, I might be interested in this.’
“I knew he was getting ready to retire so I was shocked actually that he said he might even be interested. So I said, ‘Well, come on down and we can talk about it further.’ He came down and had lunch with me and (Dean of Students Jim) Thorius and we talked about what we were trying to do and he thought it sounded kind of interesting. I knew he was pretty good at what he did so I said, ‘Well, he’ll be fine for six months,’ and that’s how it started.”
Hayes said he wasn’t surprised that Wehrenberg accepted the position.
“He’s sort of got a sense of spirit of adventure like that,” he said. “It’s just in his personality, always ready for a new challenge,” he said.
Hayes said he will be among those on campus who will miss Wehrenberg.
“I’ll miss having a friend that I’ve known for a lot of years,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to have somebody you know that well that you work with. Even though I don’t see him that often, it’s just nice to catch each other for lunch every once in a while.”
Hayes says Wehrenberg’s good works at Simpson might never have happened had he applied at the beginning of the search process. Wehrenberg is Lutheran, while Simpson is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
“He probably wouldn’t have gotten into the final mix,” Hayes said.
Junior Kristina Roth, an elementary education major, is the president of Religious Life Community (RLC) and said she feels a Methodist affiliation is important for the Chaplain.
“Having the connection with the Methodist church is going to create more prospective students, because then we can branch out to the other Methodist churches in Iowa,” she added.
As RLC president, Roth works with Wehrenberg often as a mentor and resource. The close relationship between the two is something she said she feels is important, but she would also like to see the new chaplain be more involved with other students.
“I think Fritz has done well engaging with the interns and the president, but I think the next chaplain needs to have more engagement with the actual students,” she said. “I mean, Fritz’s door is always open, but having more engagement opportunities with the students, or meeting in other places besides the chapel (would present) the opportunity for more students to be involved,” she said.
The new chaplain will be the Rev. Mara Bailey, a 2006 Simpson graduate who is currently serving as University Minister at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She received her Master of Divinity at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“I wanted her to become the new Chaplain so I am very excited about that,” Roth said. “Her answers during our interviews were awesome and she has a lot of new exciting things and programs to bring to campus.”
Both Hayes and Roth said that they will miss Wehrenberg and that they hope to see a lot of the things he has done here carried on.
Lance Kramer, the Holy Grounds Coffee Shop manager, said Wehrenberg has challenged him in what he does in life and in the chapel.
“I’ve learned from him that talking and asking people about what they want and what they need is most important,” he said.
Shepherd, the office manager, said she will miss the tone that Wehrenberg set in the chapel.
“When he walks in with a smile on his face, it just makes the day so much better to start off with,” she said.