In Loving Memory: Reflections on Russ Neufeld

By Mackenzie Miller – News & Features Editor

So, thanks very much for your support in the myriad ways you’ve shown it. For my birthday I’d like to steal an idea from a friend and ask you to take all this love you have and share it. It only multiplies and there are so many who could use it. Whether it’s just a random act of kindness, or helping at your local homeless kitchen / shelter, or repairing broken relationships, just spread the love folks – it’s the only thing in this world that endures. We’ve received more than we could have imagined – let’s continue to spread that a little wider.

On Jan. 11, five days before his birthday, Russ Neufeld shared the above post on Facebook and the message was instantly passed along to family, friends, and the Hesston College community.

Ten days later, Neufeld, a student at Hesston College from 1995-1997 and later on a member of the IT department, passed away after an 18-month battle with cancer. His obituary noted that “Russell Lee Neufeld, “Russ,” finished running his race at home in Newton, KS, surrounded by family and friends, with his band playing music for him. He fought with an inquisitive mind, courageous heart, stubborn will and graceful soul, maintaining his positive spirit and concern for others right to his last hours.”

“Recycle America” Band Members: Steve Janzen, Russ Neufeld, Julia Wyse Richer, Shem Hartzler, and Denver Dorsing

About 450 friends and family filled the Hesston Mennonite Church sanctuary at his memorial service Friday, Jan. 27.

During the service stories of Neufeld’s time at Hesston College resurfaced, offering a window into the transformational time that Hesston proved to be in his life. And so, these past couple of weeks, friends and faculty members from Hesston College offered their memories of Russell – from the black and white pictures to the funny stories and even the audio recordings of Russ’ college band.

A few words stood out among the rest:

Fearless.

Steve Janzen, a long-time friend of Russ’s, described Neufeld this way. Recalling their time in “Recycle America,” a band the two helped start while at Hesston, Janzen said Neufeld once stayed up so late editing the new album that the next day, he fell asleep during his final exam.

There are many more of stories where that one came from, Janzen said.

Janzen laughed and added, “It’s all that crazy stuff and being honest with people. That’s fearless.”

Russ was up for anything. From selling plasma to afford to skydive to riding his motorcycle all the way from Vancouver to Hesston, Neufeld’s random acts brought joy and humor to those around him.

People today are afraid to be who they are, Janzen said. But Russ wasn’t. His advice for Hesston students: “Emphasize friendships and make the long drives to see old friends because they work into your lives in ways you don’t realize.”

Smart.

Gary Oyer, Director of Media and Instructional Technology Services at Hesston College, quickly responded that one word embodying Russ Neufeld was “smart.”

“He had the technology skills, but he also had the people skills,” Oyer said. “That was an unlikely combination.”

As a student Neufeld would often work on the tedious projects in the IT department. While most would find these jobs to be time-consuming, Neufeld, much to Oyer’s surprise, took them on with curiosity and ambition. That was a smart kid.

Genuine.

Rusty Whitcher, a close friend, said that Neufeld was the most genuine person he ever had the pleasure of meeting. “He genuinely cared about his friends, and even the people he had yet to meet. He wanted to make you better, he wanted to make the world better in the most genuine way possible.” And so, Whitcher and Neufeld became fast friends. But that was the case with everyone who met Russ, Whitcher said.

And so, the memories of Russ Neufeld clearly continue to impact the lives of all he came in contact with.

Neufeld is featured in the 1995-96 Hesston College yearbook, titled “Winds of Change.”

For some the year floated by like a gentle breeze. For some it gusted and blew hard. Others experienced swirling winds of turmoil and change. It was a year stirring with changes. Change. Once again the winds of change will blow in all of our lives. Never will we be exactly as we were this year. Our lives will change like the Kansas wind.

Russ Neufeld and his wife, Kendra as students at Hesston College.

At the January memorial service, people continued to affirm the ways in which Russ positively changed the environments of which he was a part of, as well as impacting the lives of those around him.

Winds of change transform our lives. Likewise, Russell Neufeld changed the lives of all those he came in contact with.

But as the pain of his loss still lingers, Rusty Witcher offers these words:
“In the tears of anger, the tears of sadness the smiles through the pain of our shared memories, and the joy of being able to have friends like Russ and Kendra, I know I will carry on Neuf’s request, by sharing the love. After all “it’s the only thing in the world that endures.”

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