James Wilmer Heisey, 89, died peacefully on May 5, 2013, at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, Va.
Wilmer was born on Sept. 10, 1923, in Manheim, Pa., to Paul Wolgemuth Heisey and Katie Musser Hess Heisey. After his father died when Wilmer was not yet two years old, his mother moved with her three small children to live on her brother’s farm in Mount Joy, Pa. It was there, working with his beloved “Uncle Henry” (Henry Musser Hess), that Wilmer began his lifelong fascination with dairy cows. Although he never farmed as an adult, for years after leaving his uncle’s farm, Wilmer helped maintain the pedigree and production records of the Hess herd of registered Holsteins.
As a youth, Wilmer joined the Cross Roads congregation in Mount Joy, thus beginning a lifetime relationship with the Brethren in Christ Church.
After graduating from East Donegal Township High School in 1941, Wilmer attended Messiah Bible College in Grantham, Pa., for two years before being drafted during World War II. As a conscientious objector, Wilmer performed alternative service in Civilian Public Service for three years (1943–1946), working as a dairy tester with the Androscoggin Valley Dairy Herd Improvement Association in central Maine. His quiet sincerity and gentle spirit won over even those farmers initially wary of a pacifist during wartime. Friendships he made among those Maine farm families endured for the rest of his life.
Wilmer went on to a long and wide-ranging career after the war. From 1946 to 1950, he volunteered with the Mennonite Central Committee, performing humanitarian service in the remote mountain region of Lamao in the Philippines. In 1948, he married another relief worker there, Velma Climenhaga of Kindersley, Saskatchewan. Their first child, Paul, was born in the Philippines in 1949. Wilmer maintained an admiration for and a correspondence with the Tinguian people ever after, revisiting Lamao in 1971 and 1981.
Upon returning to Pennsylvania in 1950, Wilmer completed his B.A. degree at Elizabethtown College in 1952. That same year he was ordained into the Christian ministry of the Brethren in Christ Church.
He subsequently worked as superintendent of the Navajo Brethren in Christ Mission in the Four Corners area of New Mexico. His two daughters were born during this time, Nancy in 1952 and Mary Jane in 1955. Once again, he immersed himself in a life-changing, cross-cultural experience, later writing, “It was from the Navajos that I learned that one must get close enough to people to put down a drawbridge on which they can choose to walk toward you.”
In 1966, he and his family returned to Pennsylvania, where he worked in the Elizabethtown headquarters of the Brethren in Christ Board for Missions, becoming executive secretary in 1968. While there, Wilmer helped to create the Commission on Peace and Social Concerns. In 1982, he was appointed executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., where he also led its Farm Crisis Task Force. After retiring from MCC in 1989, he continued his lifelong engagement with young people by teaching for several years at Lancaster Mennonite High School. Then in 2003, Wilmer and Velma retired to their new home in Harrisonburg, Va., where he volunteered for eight years at Book Savers of Virginia.
Wilmer was the author of numerous articles in Anabaptist publications and two books: The Cross Roads Story: A Brethren in Christ Community Living at the Threshold of Tomorrow (2004) and Lamao 1947-1950: Tinguians and Americans Working Together (1997).
From a young age, Wilmer loved choral music and congregational singing. But his gift for harmony extended beyond quartets and choirs. Throughout his life, he brought harmony to his community, to his church, to his vocation, and to his family, who so dearly loves and cherishes him.
Wilmer is survived by his wife, Velma, of Harrisonburg, Va.; his children, Paul Heisey of Arlington, Va.; Nancy Heisey (and Paul Longacre) of Harrisonburg; and Mary Jane Heisey (and Philip Harnden) of Richville, N.Y.; his daughter-in-law, Melinda Smale of Arlington; as well as by his four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A service of memory and celebration will be held at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 8. A later memorial and burial will also be held at Cross Roads Brethren in Christ Church in Mount Joy, Pa.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to Brethren in Christ World Missions Memorial Fund, PO Box 390, Grantham PA 17027, or to Mennonite Central Committee U.S., PO Box 500, Akron PA 17501.
Condolences are welcome at www.kygers.com .