Leader of Laurelville Mennonite center bids farewell
It was an off-the-cuff prediction which turned prophetic.
As a second-grade student attending Smoketown Elementary School in the Conestoga Valley School District near Lancaster, the Rev. John H. Denlinger possessed a penchant for borderline impish behavior.
“I would have been about 7 or 8,” said Denlinger, 61, with a laugh. “You could say I was causing a little too much ruckus in the classroom.”
So much so that his instructor, who today he recalls only as Mrs. Keller, took to paddling the precocious lad before sitting him down for a stern talk.
“She told me ‘John, someday you're going to be a preacher or a teacher,'” Denlinger said. “I wound up doing both.”
These dwindling days of 2012 mark the last of Denlinger's four-year tenure as executive director of the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center.
“I truly have enjoyed the diversity involved with being executive director, from working with campers of all ages and working with adults to being involved with the programming and being manager of the staff,” said Denlinger, adding that he was inspired early in life by his late grandfather, the Rev. Galen Hostetter of Lancaster.
“One of the things I learned early on is the best thing you can do is surround yourself with good people. I've been very blessed with an excellent staff,” he said.
Center considered a ‘hidden gem'
For decades, the center was a place which was sort of a mystery to those living in Mt. Pleasant and surrounding areas.
Not to Denlinger, though, who spent summers there in the late 1980s while serving as campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
“My wife and I and our children enjoyed our time there then,” said Denlinger, who earned a master's degree in education at Ohio State University in 1976 and a master's degree in divinity from EMU in 1992.
Tucked away off of state Route 982 in Mt. Pleasant Township, the center was established in 1943 by a group of Mennonites affiliated with the nearby Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, who purchased the property's original 43 acres from the First Methodist Church of Scottdale, today known as the Trinity United Methodist Church of Scottdale.
The buyers soon after established the site as the first Mennonite campground of its kind in North America, Denlinger said.
“We are celebrating 70 years in 2013,” said Denlinger said, his voice arching upward with enthusiasm. “I think most would agree that most of the other Mennonite church camps have modeled themselves after Laurelville.”
For decades, the destination has been frequented by members of the Mennonite Camping Association from 42 other camping sites in the United States and Canada. However, it always lacked a firm local identity.
That was before the arrival of Denlinger.
“I always thought it was sort of a hidden gem but, everyone always seemed to think that unless you were a Mennonite, you had no reason to go there,” said Jeff Landy, Mt. Pleasant Borough manager. “When John was hired there, he reached out to borough officials and invited us to an event he was having there. It gave us a chance to see the place, how nice it was, and to discover what it had to offer.”
In recent years, the center has been the annual site of the G5 Conference — a summit on municipal resource sharing coordinated by Landy involving Mt. Pleasant Borough, Scottdale, Connellsville, South Connellsville and Everson.
Denlinger makes his return to center
By fall of 2008, Denlinger had been pastor of Ridgeview Mennonite Church in Lancaster for about a decade.
“I was sensing the need for a change, so I was keeping my eyes and ears open,” Denlinger said.
He then returned to Laurelville for a value-based leadership program where he met Lee Schmucker who, at the time, served on the center's board of directors.
Schmucker let Denlinger know that he should apply for the executive director opening. He did so and was subsequently hired to begin 2009.
“Lee was clearly instrumental in that,” Denlinger said.
Schmucker — who today is chief executive officer of Schmucker Training in Wichita, Kan. — said the center's decision to bring John on has more than worked out.
“It's been an honor working with him; he's been well-positioned in my mind,” said Schmucker, who added that she returns to Laurelville two or three times a year. “I think one of his gifts is connecting people.”
A mission to touch community unfolds
Upon assuming his role as executive director, Denlinger said he made it one of his missions to invite local residents to see the center's grounds, which today offer 600 acres of scenic, Laurel Highlands woodland cut by Jacobs Creek and topped off by a stretch of the Chestnut Ridge.
“Many just thought it was a private club ... that you had to be a member to go there,” Denlinger said. “I've worked very intensely to make Laurelville visible and open to the public.”
In the process, his affable ways aided his appointment as president of The Rotary Club of Mt. Pleasant between July 2011 and July 2012.
Richard Snyder — president of the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical Society and a longtime Rotarian — initally served as what Denlinger termed as “his mentor” during his first days as a Rotarian.
“I think John did an excellent job as president,” Snyder said. “I mentored him when he first joined our club three or four years ago, familiarizing him with operations of the Rotary for how it works in the community, the country and around the world.”
Denlinger credited his affiliation with both the Rotary Club and the Mt. Pleasant Ministerium in helping him make invaluable headway toward his goal of increasing the center's local visibility.
“Just getting connected to both of those groups represented two huge steps for creating that visibility for the center,” he said.
Thursday Morning Coffee Hour debuts
Beginning in January through March, Denlinger helped start the Thursday Morning Coffee Hour at the center. During that time, he and center volunteers Ed and Gwen Schute and Lorne Peachey opened the dining hall there to members of the public who wanted to come and have coffee and doughnuts and socialize.
“John started that under his watch, and I think it was something great,” said Snyder of the event, which will begin again at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 10. “He's done a lot of good for this area. He's a really good person. We're really going to miss him.”
Denlinger will return to his home in Lancaster where his wife, Debbie, works as a reading specialist at the Conestoga Valley School District.
“She deserves so much credit for keeping the home fires burning while I served in Laurelville,” Denlinger said.
The couple has three children: a son, Jeremiah, 33, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife Kristine and their sons, Isaac, 5, and Lucas, 2; and two daughters, Jonalyn Risser, 29, who lives in Baltimore with her husband, Jon; and Julie Bushong, 26, who lives in Lancaster with her husband, Tyler.
A.J. Panian is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.