Dalton Reimer, Ph.D., joined Pacific College in 1960, as the transition from biblical institute to college began.
While his background was communication, Reimer accepted the challenge to build a theater program. “With a small faculty, you did whatever needed to be done,” says Reimer, who picked up directing and set construction along the way. He applied carpentry skills learned from his father while leaning on students—and occasionally his wife—to stitch costumes and paint canvases.
One-person departments were common in the early decades. Dietrich Friesen, for example, in music, and Rodney Harder in visual art. Roughly 60 years later, the arts are woven into the tapestry of Fresno Pacific University. Today’s students choose from more than a half-dozen majors and minors, take a variety of classes and participate in music ensembles, stage productions and art shows.
The Culture and Arts Center will give nomadic programs a new home. Dedicated space, Reimer and others point out, is among the challenges the arts overcame over the decades.
“I am very pleased with the significance of what we did then in building a foundation and building a base for a program,” says Reimer.
Theater and music have strong roots in FPU’s Mennonite Brethren tradition and academic forerunners. In the 1940s, for example, dramatic sketches were part of campus worship.
Productions ranged from familiar musicals (Fiddler on the Roof) to the religious-themed (Rejected) and thought-provoking (In White America). “We were engaging students with some pretty heavy stuff that raised social and political issues, says Reimer, emeritus communication.
After Reimer became a dean in the early 1970s, other faculty members carried the theater banner. One was his daughter, Julia Reimer, who directed the program from 2002-18 and created the theater major (a minor debuted in the 1980s).
As a girl, Julia Reimer, possibly the first theater minor, watched her father build props on the back porch. The wagon pulled by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof became a vehicle for childhood imagination.
Once on the faculty, she found it sometimes challenging to attract serious theater students with only a minor. The program’s roaming existence was another hurdle as productions cycled in and out of a variety of venues.
She tackled the academic issue by creating a major, and added a few part-time positions. Now she is optimistic the new Culture and Arts Center will finally anchor the program.
“I think all the pieces are in place for a thriving theater program,” says Julia Reimer, who continues to teach at FPU. “Theater teaches about the imagination and creativity. There are many reasons why a university—and a Christian university—needs to have a theater program, and I think we are well set up now.”
Music has been an unmistakable presence in each incarnation of Fresno Pacific. Former faculty call Dietrich Friesen instrumental in improving that tradition as the Bible institute became a college, particularly by building up the choir.
Roy Klassen, D.M.A., music emeritus in (choral), attended Fresno Pacific in the 1960s. “Choral music was a big part of the school when I was a student,” he says. “In fact, when the choir went on tour the school would close down…They couldn’t have classes because everyone was on tour.”
Larry Warkentin, D.M.A., music emeritus (piano and composition), attended a recital at Pacific Bible Institute as a boy. He joined the faculty in the 1960s and “the music program, and especially the choir, was an attractive force,” he adds.
An award-winning composer, before retiring in 2002 Warkentin wrote for the choir, directed musical theater, created the folk opera Crazy Quilt and composed other pieces performed both on and off campus.
For about a decade he also directed the choir, which toured the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, East Coast and occasionally Europe. Klassen, who retired in 2010, took over in the late 1970s and has fond memories of those days and students. “Sitting on a bus with them for seven hours when you’re going on tour certainly either bonds you or separates you,” he says.
Wayne Huber, music emeritus, estimated one in five or six students were involved in music during his tenure, which began in the 1970s. “Music has been a large part of the campus, as it is in the church,” says Huber, who taught music theory and trumpet and led several ensembles before retiring in 2014.
Students are drawn to the choirs, Crosswind (singers and instrumentalists performing contemporary Christian music), the Symphonic Band, Pacific Brass and Pacific Bronze (handbells). Adjunct faculty have supplemented the teaching ranks.
In 2008, FPU began a summer music camp for ages 11 to 19. The camp combines a study of music with a love for Jesus Christ.
According to Walter Saul, D.M.A., music emeritus who started the tradition, the camp has helped with recruiting and brought together diverse students. “We have had people from incredibly different backgrounds come and not just get along, but really love one another,” he says.
Building on Huber’s groundwork, Saul established the Pacific Artist Series, welcoming musicians from around the area and country. Last September, in a farewell performance, Saul opened the series with his original work From Alpha to Omega.
Likewise, the visual arts also have grown since the 1960s. Well-known artist Rodney Harder, a Fresno Pacific graduate and former professor, is recognized as key to that development.
“He was a unique and very important person because he was fully aware of the traditions of the church, and he took that and combined it with the cutting-edge art world in the 1970s,” said Chris Janzen, M.F.A., assistant professor of art.
Other professors expanded art over the years. In 2008, a major was added and about 30 students have declared that major in recent years. Today there are majors in art administration, graphic arts and studio art as well as a minor.
The Culture and Arts Center will offer much-needed display space that “certainly opens up a lot of new opportunities for us,” Janzen says. The program also has a new name—The FPU Department of Art, Design and Creative Innovation—to better reflect the future of visual arts in contemporary society.
“At the core, we are training students to think outside of the box,” he says. “That’s the fundamental purpose of studying art. Creative problem-solving is always going to be a very important skill in life.”