ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Woodworker Jonah Kliewer worked for months building a pulpit for Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church.
But he didn’t expect any dedication service or fanfare when it was installed a year ago.
“I did it the way I wanted to get it done and said here it is,” Kliewer said. “You can have it or you can give it back-no strings attached.”
The church kept it, and it’s been serving the congregation ever since.
“I know for me, wood is something that invites touch,” he said. “Every time I come up (to the pulpit), I have to rub my hand across it.”
Since retiring five years ago as a Tabor College music professor, Kliewer has had more time to pursue his woodworking hobby.
But in the years before retirement, he still found time to build furniture for churches, Tabor, his children, his grandchildren and his home.
Kliewer was born 68 years ago in Isabella, Okla., a small town of about 70 inhabitants, 10 miles from Fairview. Two older brothers, a younger sister, and he were sent to bible school rather than public school.
Shop class was a requirement when he reached high school. Shop teacher Leonard Reimer “taught us how to look at wood as something that was beautiful,” Kliewer said.
“I know that even at that time, I began to look at wood as something that had an innate beauty, which I really appreciated. That you could shape it to what you wanted was something that appealed to me at that time.”
With graduation came the decision to go to college, and Kliewer chose to study music at Tabor College.
“Herbert Richert was ‘Mr. Music Man’ of our whole conference, and so there was nothing beyond coming here,” he said.
Kliewer received his bachelor’s degree in music in 1955 and attended Kansas University, where he completed a master of arts degree in music in 1957.
Upon graduation, he spent five years as a teacher and church choir director in California before accepting a full-time position in 1962 as music director at Tenth Avenue Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
He was also working on his doctorate in church music at the University of Southern California.
When his course work was completed in 1967, he accepted a full-time position as choir director of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.
By this time he and his wife, Elinor, had three children to raise and support. In 1970, he finished his dissertation.
“In 1975, the call came from Tabor College and I came down here,” Kliewer said.
He was professor of music and chair of the music department for 23 years here and officially retired in 1998.
“Now it’s professor emeritus,” he said. “They confer that on you if you’ve been there long enough and you do an OK job.”
Elinor also worked at Tabor and retired at the same time as her husband.
Kliewer’s oldest son, Jan Michael, 44, teaches music at Northwest College in Wyoming. Daughter Joan, 42, is a homemaker living in Chicago. Kenneth, 40, lives in Hillsboro and is a cabinet maker and finish carpenter. And David, 33, is working for the Newton school district in maintenance.
Kliewer taught all his boys to “do their own cars and whatever wood working, electrical work or plumbing work is needed,” Kliewer said.
“Since I was raised on a farm, we were taught if you want something done, do it yourself, because you know you’ll get it right. I was able to pass that along to my kids.”
Kliewer gathers exotic and unusual wood from his travels or purchases it at lumber stores.
He works out of Kenneth’s woodworking shop in a garage behind his son’s house.
From start to finish, Kliewer has a process he follows, beginning with a design plan. Then he chooses wood appropriate to the project, uses a thickness planer, saws the wood pieces to size, joins and glues the pieces, puts edges on with a router, hand and machine sands, stains or leaves the wood its natural color and finishes it with tung oil or natural shoe polish.
“The church, where some of my things are, has some of the most ambitious things I have tackled recently,” Kliewer said.
One project, a cross sculpture made of wood, was installed a month ago in the prayer room at HMBC.
A vine cross in light maple is encased in a triangular frame made of a special red wood, called Padauk, from Africa. Praying hands-carved from the heartwood of red cedar, which Kliewer found in the South Fairview Cemetery-are placed under the cross.
The theme of the cross sculpture comes from the pulpit Kliewer completed for the sanctuary. The need for a new pulpit was voiced by the church’s former pastor, Dennis Fast, Kliewer said.
More than three years ago, Sunday school children were asked to draw pictures Fast as pastor.
” And they made a big box with a little head at the top, which simply indicated that all they saw was the pulpit and his head sticking up above it,” Kliewer said.
But nothing was done about replacing the pulpit until after Fast moved to another pastorate.
“Then, just before the new pastor came, somebody on the staff said they just didn’t like this whole pulpit. ‘It’s falling apart, why don’t you just go ahead and do it.'”
Kliewer designed an oak pulpit with a see-through panel of stylized vines made of walnut on the front. He overlaid the vines with an open Bible. Two crosses are part of the structural support on both sides, and an adjustable lectern, inlaid with walnut, sits on top.
“I have to admit, I was really surprised that they liked it,” he said. “The response on the part of the congregation was very enthusiastic.”
Tabor’s Wohlgemuth Music Education Center also has several pieces of furniture built by Kliewer.
“Wohlgemuth was tragically killed and his death galvanized the large Mennonite Brethren community and the Tabor alumni to say, ‘Let’s finish this building and name it after him,'” Kliewer said. “But we didn’t have enough money to buy all the furniture we needed and so I made it.”
Among the items crafted by Kliewer were lockers for each of the practice rooms, end tables and music centers for speakers.
Although he makes gifts of his pieces, Tabor paid him for two lecterns and a microscope cabinet. He was also paid for a communion table, two pieces to sit beside it, and four large room dividers for a memorial for Wes Prieb, a former professor at Tabor.
For his family, friends and himself, a few of the many items he has made are mirrors, door stops, tables, end tables, shelves, magazine racks, a bunk bed and doll cradles. He also repairs furniture.
For two grandsons and one granddaughter, he has made boxes measuring 16 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches high. Each box has two or three secret compartments and his granddaughter’s is a music box. He plans to make boxes for five more grandchildren.
Kliewer said he also enjoys sculpting wood.
“I love to dream up new shapes for things that are useful but also for free-form things,” he said.
“I allow the shape, texture or grain of the wood to say something about the shape (of the sculpture).”
A current project took its inspiration from a piece of driftwood Kliewer found on a beach in Baja, Calif. The driftwood is being shaped into two sails, and they will be placed on a wave made of walnut.
“I’m calling it ‘The Second Try’ because one sail is on a lower portion of the wave, and the other is on the top portion,” he said.
“Most of the things I work with are utilitarian. They’re things of beauty, but they don’t define an emotional part of human experience, and sculpture does that.
“You can create shapes that show agony, joy or exuberance. That, I wish I could do-but I’m going to try. So I’ve got something to aspire to.”