Chapter Two, "Walking the right way"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 20, 1998

By Ken Koons

Dale Aukerman lies in bed at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda during a session of chemotherapy in January 1997. "Ruth has said a number of times: 'If only I could take it myself.'"

In the winter of 1997, friends cut and split firewood for Dale Aukerman. Dale wasn't sure he'd live long enough to burn the wood he stacked.

Before they were married, Dale Aukerman encouraged Ruth to attend art school in Germany. Now her job as an art teacher with Carroll County's public school system supports the family.

daniel and dale
Dale grew up on a farm and taught his children, including Daniel, here, how to work the land.

christmas"Singing carols with Ruth," Dale recalled, "I feel the persisting question. Will we have another Christmas?"

Maren Aukerman joined her father Dale at a peace march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in December 1996. Cancer treatment weakened Dale's immune system, and he had to wear a germ filter when he was around large groups of people.

Article, Carroll County Times, December 20, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

Ruth Seebass and Dale Aukerman became friends in August of 1961 at an international peace seminar in Germany.

He visited her in the hospital when she came down with appendicitis. When he left Germany for England, he sent her copies of his writings - reflections on peace or quotes that impressed him.

There was no romance. They were like brother and sister.

In the summer of 1962, Ruth joined the Brethren Volunteer Service, which trains people to do humanitarian work, and wound up working with Navajo children in Utah. With a couple of months left in her year-long BVS time, she went to South Bend, Indiana, to work with the inner-city poor.

Dale was there, too, touring churches and giving peace lectures. They stayed in a house that served as headquarters for BVS staff.

``That's when the turning happened,'' Ruth said. ``That's when we sort of began dating. The first time we kissed, we knew we would get married.''

Dale Aukerman's journal entry: Thursday, Thanksgiving, Nov. 28 [1996]. At the beginning of the evening meal in the prayer time I felt so keenly the pathos that this would likely be our last Thanksgiving all together. I was so overcome that I could hardly say the prayer. Ruth said later: ``We all felt that.''

Ruth left Indiana for Germany in July of 1963. He was 33, she was 20, and they wanted to be engaged for a while before getting married.

Back home, she discovered her father had enrolled her at the university in Marburg. But Dale had talked Ruth into going to art school in Kassel. Her parents were put off: First, she came back to Germany engaged; next, she wasn't even going to college. Ruth had an answer to her parents' concern.

``The thing I was thinking at the time was that I was marrying a pastor,'' Ruth said.

In Germany, that meant state pay and security. But Dale had embarked on a life in which his jobs were either volunteer or low-paying. They were married on July 24, 1965. He began writing a book about Christianity and nuclear war. From 1966-68, he was director of studies at a peace center in West Germany called Friendship House. He made just enough for them to live on.

He organized seminars on peace, nonviolence as a tool for social change, or theology. Students from Eastern bloc countries often attended the seminars. In August 1966, Dale was the first to hear that Soviet troops had invaded Czechoslovakia, and he had to break the news to several Czechs at the center.

After the Aukermans returned to the U.S., in September 1968, they moved from church to church in the Midwest - sometimes in Indiana, sometimes in Michigan. It was a simple but hard life: Few amenities, little money, the love of God and family. They farmed to supplement Dale's income.

Heiner Westphal, a friend who lives in Bethesda, said Dale's commitment to that way of life sometimes has been hard on his family.

``[But] he has never tried to convince by force; rather, by example,'' Westphal said.

Dale's parents were old-order, plain-clothed German Baptists with, in Dale's words, ``a vigorous emphasis on nonconformity with the world.'' That included the belief that war contradicted the teachings of Jesus Christ.

But their church banned radios, and his parents were excommunicated because his father refused to give up a radio he used to listen to grain prices.

For himself, Dale chose a less rigid church - the Church of the Brethren. Its 142,000 members, about 10,000 of whom live in Maryland, believe in living as close as possible to Jesus' example in the New Testament. One of the church's most important events is a Love Feast, which the Brethren Church holds twice a year, usually on the Thursday before Good Friday and on the first Sunday of October. As part of the service, Brethren wash each others' feet - as Jesus did to his disciples before he was put to death.

But even as he was baptized into the church, he criticized it for allowing its historical pacifist nature to soften amid the turmoil of the Vietnam war.

Dale's war protests included refusing to pay the federal phone excise tax, instituted in part to raise money to fight the war. He was coordinating secretary for the Brethren Action Movement, made up of groups of peace activists across the country. In 1969 and 1970, Dale said, the movement raised money to buy food and medicine to send to North Vietnamese villagers who were suffering under a U.S. embargo. The symbolic gesture made the point that Jesus was concerned for his enemies, too.

By late summer of 1972, the Sunfield, Michigan, Church of the Brethren had had enough of its pastor's anti-war views. Dale's pulpit lectures on peace disturbed some of the congregation who had brothers or sons overseas.

Rumors made the rounds: Dale was a hippie preacher who had burned the American flag (he hadn't); Dale and Ruth were communists who kept an open line to East Germany (they weren't and didn't).

``Supposedly, we were keeping East German communists informed about events in Sunfield, Michigan,'' Dale said, smiling.

Tuesday, December 24 [1996]. We turn toward humor and laugh somewhat more, probably, than we have otherwise. This is not forced. It's not analogous to whistling in the dark. It's a way of intimating that death has been defeated and that we don't begin to see ourselves as defeated by death.

Some believed the rumors and some didn't, but the church council thought Dale's presence was harmful. It asked him to leave.

``Here we were with three little kids,'' Dale said. ``I was only on half-time salary, no savings, and all of a sudden I was without work.''

Ruth, who had dropped out of art school in Germany when Daniel was born, could not work because the children were ages 4, 2 and 1. Dale got a job with a landscaping company, but it only lasted until winter. The family went on welfare, receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children from December 1972 through March 1973.

``It was a humbling experience, but it certainly gave us a lot more empathy for people who get in a situation where they need to have that for a while,'' Dale said.

Dale had spent a week in 1964 with Reuel B. Pritchett, an elderly Brethren preacher with whom he'd shared a father-son relationship. Dale wrote a slim book of Pritchett's memoirs that was published in 1980. In the preface, Dale wrote that Pritchett was the last survivor of the church's leaders from the first half of the 20th century. ``The spirit of an era already ended continued in him,'' Dale wrote in the preface.

The same could be said of Dale and his countercultural way of life. But just as Dale believed in Ruth's talent for art, Ruth believed in Dale's philosophy. She sacrificed material things. If he preached at another church or went to a peace demonstration, she went with him if she could, sometimes taking the children.

``While I wouldn't be as radical as he was and struggled with it more, basically he was doing what he was called to do, and I wanted to be part of that,'' she said.

``Even in the traumatic times, both of us knew we were walking the right way.''

In April 1973, Dale got a job with a peace evangelism program for the Church of the Brethren's Mid-Atlantic District. It paid enough to get the family off welfare. They lived at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor before moving to Stem Road in 1974.

Soon, Ruth became the family's provider. She was hired as an aide at the Maryland School for the Deaf. Then she got her teaching certificate and became an art teacher with Carroll County Public Schools. She now has a master's degree in art education and teaches at Elmer Wolfe Elementary.

Dale grew pick-your-own strawberries, preached and wrote essays on such topics as the death penalty and the peace movement.

He finished seven years of writing the book Darkening Valley: A Biblical Perspective on Nuclear War, and it was published in 1981.

He also worked on the house, but his desire for a simple life meant the house had no air conditioning, no central heat - just one woodstove in the dining room and another in the family room. The Aukermans had no television, and the children didn't listen to rock music or dress in the latest fashions.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25 [1996]. ... Miriam and Chuck gave each other family member a framed photo of me. Mother's frame was empty. Miriam said that it can remain empty so long as Father is still with her. Maren: ``We are not going to relegate Father to photographic status just yet.''

Dale and Ruth gave their children, Maren, Miriam and Daniel their values.

``I remember once being in fourth grade and some kid had drawn a swastika all over her notebook,'' Maren said. ``I don't think she had really any sense of what that was, but I can remember being absolutely appalled that this was going on.''

Miriam remembers her mother and father reading to the children constantly, giving them musical instruments and lessons, taking them on trips to Germany. And she remembers that her family was different, and that her public-school classmates knew it.

Certainly, few children had parents who wrote to and befriended a death row inmate.

When the state of Alabama set convicted murderer Ronnie Dunkins Jr.'s execution date of July 14, 1989, Dale drove his rickety 9-year-old Toyota to Atmore, Alabama. He visited Dunkins, who had admitted he and a friend had raped a woman but denied that he was present when she was killed. In prison, Dunkins had turned to God.

Dale witnessed the execution, then wrote a column published eight days later in The Washington Post condemning what he considered the injustice and inhumanity of the execution.

Dale and Ruth tried to live for Jesus and be the examples their children would follow. Dale remembers learning religious views from his parents and solidifying them through reading the Bible. The Brethren believe family members should choose to enter the faith as opposed to being baptized into it before they're old enough to understand it; the Aukerman children modeled themselves after their parents' independence and took different paths in faith. Daniel is the only one of Dale's three children who has joined the Church of the Brethren.

In their careers, the Aukerman children reach out. Until just before Dale's diagnosis, Miriam, 29, worked in Russia with the Ford Foundation, helping set up a memorial to honor people who'd been prisoners in a Soviet concentration camp. She has since entered law school at New York University, intending to work in human rights law relating to the former Soviet Union.

Maren, 28, was a bilingual teacher to Spanish-speaking children in Arizona before leaving to enter graduate school at California-Berkeley. She wants to work with children who have reading disabilities and with the teachers who teach them.

Daniel, 31, completed medical school and has about a year left in his residency. He plans to establish a family practice.

But in the summer of 1996, he was focused on his own family. He had noticed that his father was slowing down. He thought to himself: Father may have cancer.

Go forward to Chapter Three, " many undone things"

Go back to Chapter One, "Start something new"

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