On October 6th, 2007, my father died after a long, mostly slow, decline from Alzheimers disease. For his funeral, I wrote a life sketch based upon the memoirs he began to write soon after being diagnosed with the disease around 2000. The Metamorphosis of a Born Loser Alfred G. Voth was born August 23, 1921 at Axtell Christian Hospital in Newton, KS, the first child of Jacob A. and Maria (Unruh) Voth.
He was followed by a sister, Gladys and two brothers Harold and Larry. Raised on a farm north of Walton, he and his brothers helped with all the farm work, beginning with horse-drawn equipment. The Voth family were members of Tabor Mennonite Church near Goessel where Al was baptized.
Al entered first grade at Walton speaking only Low German. He was active in drama, played the slide trombone, ran track and was the smallest man on the football team. He graduated in 1939 and took a road trip with four buddies to the Ozarks, driving 1000 miles in a 1913 model T ford pickup with no windshield, no top and no back seat. They actually drove home from KC without brakes, using reverse. He completed his freshman year at Bethel College, earning a letter in track, before returning to help out on the farm.
He met Clara Neufeld while roller skating in Newton. They were married by Rev. J.E. Entz at First Mennonite Church, in Newton on Feb. 23, 1944. In their early years they moved from farm to farm raising wheat, oats, chickens, pigs and the landlord’s children. For a while, Al tasted cream for Tip Top Dairy in Hillsboro. In 1946 Alfred was drafted into the army. As a conscientious objector, he served non-combatant and was sent to Japan near the end of the war.
In 1948 they bought an 80-acre farm locally referred to as “rattlesnake hill”, “jack rabbit 80” or “starvation hill”, all of which were somewhat true, and started a dairy. Alfred and Clara raised three children, Roberta Ann was born in 1948, John Robert in 1951 and Mary Ruth in 1954.
When they bought the farm, it had no electricity, telephone, running water or even a well. Between repairs and improvements needed for the house and dairy, plus several setbacks with the diary, Al needed to work off the farm to make ends meet. He went to work at Rounds and Porter in Newton as a paint and lumber salesmen and, and other than a brief stint in a factory – which he hated – stayed with the lumberyard for the next 17 years through many changes of name and ownership: Houston-Doughty, Antrim, Boise Cascade, etc.
In the early 1960’s, after buying 10 cows that turned out to have “Bangs disease”, Alfred and Clara decided to sell the farm and move to town. Unfortunately, auctioning off all the cows and selling the land was not enough to cover all of their debts and they continued to make monthly payments for the next 10 years. In Newton, they first rented on east 8th street, then bought a four bedroom house from two elderly sisters and did the remodeling themselves.
They joined First Mennonite Church where dad served as a deacon and taught Sunday School for 30 years. When we grew up, if there was anyone left at church to talk to, dad was still there while the family was waiting in the car. He never met a stranger. He had a long-standing interest and commitment to jail ministries, visiting jails for 30 years.
In 1968 he attended the Congress on Evangelism in Minneapolis, Minnesota which changed his life. He visited a prison ministry program at a local prison. As a group, they attended a Billy Graham crusade, sitting very near the front. During the alter call, Al felt as if Jesus was speaking directly to him, “Al, come down, I’m coming to your house today.” When talking about this later, he quoted James 2:14-17 “My brothers, what use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him suppose a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, “Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat, but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So with faith, if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.”
Dad returned with a renewed sense of mission to the High School Sunday School classes he taught and the young offenders he visited in the Harvey County Jail. Al served on the board of deacons and was the chair when his youngest refused to be baptized with the catechism class. He joined the Gideon’s International, served as President of the Newton Camp and was awarded a life-time membership. He taught Sunday School for the older women under the balcony for many a year. As long as he was able, he maintained a prayer list of the families of those who had died in our church and prayed for each family for a full year after the death.
In 1971, Al began a “habilitative program for juvenile offenders”. With help from his brother Larry and his old track coach from Bethel College, Otto D. Unruh, then a probation officer, Al formed First Step Industries, Inc. With it’s innovative structure tying payment for work to good work habits, First Step eventually had a rehabilitation success rate of 85%. He began working with young men on probation, teaching handyman/construction skills with a heavy does of good work habits. He used to say he taught them three things: Show up, show up on time, and take orders.
In 1975, at age 54, dad left the lumberyard (losing retirement benefits in the process) as First Step became part of Newton’s alternative high school. With only one year of college, Al was required to take college courses working towards his degree in order to get a provisional teaching certificate. In the early days, Warren Flaming was his first co-teacher, followed after Warren’s accident, by Mike Doerksen and Nathan Dyck.
In 1983, at age 62, Al graduated from Bethel College alongside nieces Leslie and Vernita Voth. He taught for two more years before retiring. First Step won several state and national awards, including â€œOutstanding Vocational Special Needs Teacher of the Yearâ€ in 1986. Even later in life, former students would see Al at CJ’s restaurant or at the lake and the first thing they would say was, “Do you remember me? I’ve been working at _(name business)__ for (number of years)____ years.”
After retirement, there was more time for fishing and camping, with Spring Lake and Harvey County East Lake being favorite spots. With John and Colleen, they had some real adventures in the Ozarks… Joined by mom’s siblings, they would park for days, or weeks, and dad could fish to his heart’s content, often giving away some of the catch. He had learned to golf and even made a hole in one. Though he said it went in on a ricochet, he still kept the prize.
As a grandparent, he spent many hours fishing with his grandchildren though he didn’t make the girls bait their own hooks or clean the catch. As their grandchildren were growing up, they tried to follow their sporting and attend special events.
Just two years after retirement, Al was diagnosed with a severe case of colon cancer. At the same time, Clara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Between all the treatments and the need to stay away from crowds due to lowered immunity, Al and Clara were unable to continue active participation at First Mennonite, though Al continued his prayer list and they listened on the radio for many years. He remained cancer-free till the end, though his doctor had once predicted him, “Mr Voth, your death will be from cancer”.
About 2000, Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, in part because of a family history of the disease. They moved into an apartment in independent living at Schowalter Villa.
In 2004, precipitated by Clara’s heart issues, Al and Clara moved into Assisted Living with dad eventually moving to Memory Care and then to total care. When Al was diagnosed, he began to write his “memoirs”, calling his book, “The Metamorphosis of a Born Loser”. While life had dealt many obstacles and he often felt like the underdog, he also felt God’s hand through it all. Even as he struggled with losing his memory, he remained the gentle spirited man we all knew. Staff at the Villa consistently talked about how sweet he was and how much they loved him.
This spring, he began to go downhill more rapidly, especially after breaking his hip in May. He never recovered mobility and was always in bed or in a wheelchair. In the last few days of his life, he could no longer swallow and slept nearly all the time, rousing only when he was moved or turned. He held on long enough for all of his children to spend time with him before he died. Clara sat with him all day on Saturday, kissing him goodbye and telling him she loved him as he drew his last breath. He died peacefully, secure in his salvation and ready to “graduate” one more time.