Merle Leroy Bender, 89, died peacefully in his home in Hesston on the morning of Friday, July 20, 2012, six days short of what would have been his 90th birthday.


Merle Leroy Bender, 89, died peacefully in his home in Hesston on the morning of Friday, July 20, 2012, six days short of what would have been his 90th birthday.
Merle grew up on a farm outside of Milford, Neb., with his brother, Merton, and his sisters, Dorothy and Barbara, where his family toiled for years of Dustbowl-era drought and Depression-era fortunes. Small of stature but tough, Merle played high school football and baseball, and remained physically active his entire life. Merle attended Hesston College, where he received his AA in 1949 and where he met Donna Byler, his wife of 49 years. Merle received his BA from Friends University in 1950, and an MS in public relations from Boston University in 1953. Merle’s professional career embraced the spiritual and the academic worlds with equal passion. He was ordained as a minister in the Mennonite church in 1948, and held full-time and part-time pastorates for many years thereafter. He worked as a director of public relations for Hesston College and Friends University, and from 1965 to 1972, he was director of development for Bethel College.
At 50, Merle left his familiar Kansas surroundings to accept the challenge of working in New York City for the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. His duties as the board’s director of development included extensive travel to places he’d dreamed of visiting as a child, including Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. When not travelling, he carpooled from his home in suburban Montclair, N.J., to Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the next 15 years. Merle and Donna returned to where they’d first met, retiring first in Wichita (where they lived for 10 years) and then to Hesston’s Schowalter Villa community. Their retirement years included regular international tour vacations throughout the world. Merle continued to do good works on various local boards; his most recent legacy is the Hesston Public Library, which recently underwent a major expansion and relocation.
While no musician or singer himself, Merle loved live classical music and musical theater. Merle’s wife Donna died in 1998; he continued to travel and work throughout his retirement, and he is survived by his five children, Dawn, Diane, David, Dirk and Dana; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Merle’s memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Friday (July 27) at Hesston Mennonite Church. In lieu of flowers, his family has requested contributions in his name to Dyck Arboretum (www.dyckarboretum.org), where Merle enjoyed visiting and nurturing. Miller-Ott Funeral Home, 107 S. Lancaster, P.O. Box 32, Hesston, KS, is handling the arrangements.