Island Living - Ron Tiessen (BA 1969)
“What drew me here to the island and kept me here is seeing how a bunch of people who are thrown together on an island in the middle of Lake Erie can fashion a life together and get along with their neighbours and help one another,” reflected Ron Tiessen (BA 1969), about his life on Pelee Island.
In a small community of 250 year-round residents, it’s important to make a space for everyone. Grebel’s founding president J. Winfield Fretz understood this. “Fretz had a high degree of tolerance for people on the periphery. He was accepting of different kinds of Mennonites,” observed Ron. I've often thought with regret that I should have tried to get to know him better while I was a student. But after his retirement, Winfield did come to the island and visit me and another Grebel alumnus, John Driedger, who also lived here for a time.” Both John and Ron were part of the first generation of students who lived at Conrad Grebel (University) College, where Ron studied Geography.
Another influence in Ron’s life during his university experience was Walter Klaassen, who served as the College’s first Chaplain and taught Religious Studies. “We had such respect for Walter, as he was talking about our Anabaptist roots and took it seriously. He brought his way of looking at history and allowed it to inform us.”
This love of history inspired Ron to study Greek History and Classics as a graduate student in Athens after he taught at United Mennonite Educational Institute in Leamington. Ron observed that many classicists have a military bent. “And no one asks the question ‘were there people going up against the system?’ saying ‘this isn't right!’ Asking these questions is a gift that was given to me by my parents and by Grebel and people like Walter Klaassen.” He reflected further, “This gives you a different vantage point from which to look at the world. And then you start noting things like Sophocles’ line in Antigone: ‘It is not my nature to join in hate, but in love.’”
Ron spent a winter on the island of Paros in Greece, researching the Seven Sages, who were 7-6th-century BCE classical Greek philosophers, statesmen, and lawgivers. “There are small glimpses that come into play from a civilization that was very diverse, yet they are very clear and intriguing. For example, they say ‘if you come into conflict, seek reconciliation.’”
This fascination with Greece resulted in Ron leading 11 tours to Greece that were mostly publicized by word of mouth. Ron also used his experiences to pen Menno in Athens, a 2022 novel that blends memoir and travelogue with insights from ancient Greece and the tenets of Anabaptism. Writer Margaret Atwood, a friend from Pelee Island, offered a commendation for the book.
Another book that Ron researched was called Pelee Island, Shipwrecks and Rescues. “Usually it's a windstorm in the middle of the night with eight-foot waves. And people are rowing out in dangerous conditions with the understanding that ‘my life isn't as important as yours’ and ‘I'll try to rescue you if I can.’ These are important stories,” he explained. “For example, James Cummins was given a gold watch by the Dominion of Canada for lives that he'd saved while living alone in the lighthouse.”
Islanders on Pelee are there for each other and, like the dorm at Grebel, keep their doors open. “This exhibits the value of caring for each other regardless of the political leanings of your neighbor. We have Orangeman on the island living here among Catholics. There isn't a bridge that needs to be built on an island.”
The development of Pelee Island Heritage Centre is an example of Ron’s community-building efforts. “I went to a Township Council meeting and they were looking for suggestions about what to do with the Old Town Hall building. I suggested they create a Visitor’s Centre and their response was ‘will you do something about it?’” Today, the Centre is brimming with history and stories, giving visitors a glimpse of island life. Ron has used the talents of Grebel alumni at the Centre: Sandra Dick (BA ’06) built the centre’s first website as a summer student and Ricki Otlean-Lepp (WLU ’99) provided artwork depicting islanders in a variety of scenes. Colin (BASC ’01) and Jennie (BES ’99) Wiebe also worked with Ron on the Heritage Centre’s farming operation in the early 2000s. The Heritage Centre also focused on conserving 10% of the island as nature reserves and interpreting the island’s ecology as well as human history.
Offering advice to current students, Ron suggested, “take as many Grebel courses as you can. It is also valuable to mingle as much as you can with upper-year students – they'll give you a head start. I appreciated guys like Eric Friesen, Ernie Regehr, and Victor Klassen – he was a character!”
Ron observed that when he was a student, Grebel was an “experiment,” and there are always “potentialities of making it better. On a small stage like Pelee Island, these lives make a great impact. Everything is here on the island including, saints and others, and everyone is represented here even when it's just a couple hundred people.”
Not unlike Grebel.
Ron'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 Fred Martin
Ron Tiessen has lived for 44 years on Pelee island where he has farmed and led a variety of community initiatives, like the Heritage Centre. He and his wife Kathryn, also a retired teacher and native of Pelee Island, raised 3 boys there.