“It’s a rather improbable kind of story, a twist of fate you might say,” commented Mark Bender (MMath 1965) on his 4,604 km journey from rural Ontario to Norrköping, Sweden. His story begins in a closely-knit Mennonite community in Zurich, Ontario where, as a teen, he grew interested in mathematics and teaching. In his first step to becoming a teacher, Mark completed a Bachelor of Mathematics and Physics degree in 1964 at Western University. After graduating from Western, Mark began a one-year master’s degree in Math at the University of Waterloo. Mark lived at Grebel during his graduate studies and found it provided a haven, a connection to the Mennonite community he was raised in.

Mark saw Grebel grow from the ground up. When he arrived in the fall term of 1964, the residence building had just opened to students—despite requiring a few finishing touches. “My room didn’t have a door during my first night at Grebel; they were still working on the residence building!” he laughed. Beyond the installation of doors in dorm rooms, Mark has noticed many changes to Grebel since his time as a resident. “There were fewer formal activities and only two courses were offered,” said Mark. After reading a recent issue of Grebel Now, he was struck by the variety of music ensembles, courses offered, and overall increased activity at Grebel.

Mark and Elsa on a hike
[Mark and Elsa on a hike.]

The lack of organized clubs and available classes in Grebel’s early days did not stop Mark from making friends—friends who were close enough to take a “whirlwind trip through Europe” together. “I met these two guys at Grebel, and the three of us decided to make an epic trip to Europe: 11 countries in six weeks sort of trip.” The group of worn travelers eventually found themselves in a Mennonite Voluntary Service Camp (MVS) in Diemerstein, a small town near Frankfurt, Germany. There, they helped at an orphanage for displaced children. “This was an international work camp, and there were young people from many different countries including a girl from Sweden called Elsa.” After a few years of letters and long-distance correspondence, Mark and Elsa were married. They lived in Canada for two years before moving to Sweden where they continue to live today. “Grebel led to my permanent detour to Sweden,” Mark observed.

Attending Grebel was an eye-opener for Mark. In his discussions with peers, at the events he attended, and in the Grebel class he was enrolled in, Mark gained a new perspective on the wider world. “The ‘60s were very turbulent times. There were a lot of things happening in the world that I hadn’t heard about in rural Zurich, Ontario. Grebel was a place where we could get our orientation on where we stood on things.” One specific instructor left a lasting, positive influence on Mark: “Professor Walter Klassen had a significant impact on my life,” said Mark. “He was a good teacher and very scholarly. He had strong foundations in the Bible and in Anabaptist History—things I was interested in receiving a more in-depth study of. He broadened the field and modernized the ideas we grew up learning at home.”

Mark and his peers were part of many ‘firsts’ during their year at Grebel: first to sleep in the dorms, first to fill the dining room with laughter, and first to assemble Grebel’s don team. “There were 4 or 5 of us dons at the time. Our job was to act as an interface between the administration and the students.” Mark added, “One issue that came up very soon was the College’s curfew. Everyone was to be inside the dormitory with their doors locked by 11:00 pm. And that caused quite a disturbance.” Mark and the rest of the don team appealed to Grebel President Winfield Fretz on behalf of the students, but the College held the curfew. “It was a bit heated,” said Mark.

Grebel has gone through numerous changes since Mark’s time in residence. There have been additions to the building, clubs formed, classes added, rules adjusted, and doors installed. Despite all this change, Mark’s story affirms the unaltered importance of community. “We students sang, talked, argued, and learned together. We had deep, meaningful conversations as we strove to make sense of the turbulent ‘60s,” reflected Mark. Just as he and his peers struggled to understand the world around them and where they stood in it, so too do current Grebel students. Like Mark, students today find grounding in the friendships they establish, and they experience a broadening of perspective through their classes.

Today, Mark is enjoying life as a retired teacher. He taught high school and college math and physics courses full-time for about 40 years before retiring in 2008. In his spare time, Mark enjoys exploring Sweden’s natural environment. “One thing I appreciate here is nature, and the use of nature. Here, we have an unwritten law [Allemansrätten] which roughly translates to ‘free access to nature,’” said Mark. “You won’t find any ‘No Trespassing’ signs here,” he added. Mark has made good use of his freedom to roam the country by participating in outdoor activities including biking, hiking, and long-distance ice skating on lakes and rivers in the wintertime. “I can complete around 20 skating tours in a winter, with each tour being about 30 kms long. So, I skate roughly 500 or 600 kms each winter. It’s an exciting pastime!” he shared.

Mark is an adventurer. Throughout his life, he has repeatedly found himself exploring uncharted territory. Mark made the leap from Western University to the newly-established, Mennonite campus in Waterloo; he navigated the tumultuous ‘60s despite having a sheltered upbringing; he seized the opportunity to explore Europe; and he eventually left his home to settle in Sweden, completing the journey of a lifetime—one that concludes with a happy ending.

Mark's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Tim Saari

Mark Bender graduated from the Master of Mathematics program at the University of Waterloo in 1965 and completed further studies at Uppsala University. He now lives with his wife, Elsa, in Norrköping, Sweden. Mark retired from a long and fulfilling teaching career in Math and Physics in 2008. During his days as a retiree, Mark enjoys spending time with Elsa and his grandchildren, singing in Norrköping’s Chamber Choir, and exploring Sweden’s great outdoors.