Local History and Coronavirus: 5 Questions with Glen Klassen

Dr. Glen Klassen is a retired Microbiology professor from Steinbach, Manitoba. He taught at the University of Manitoba for many years. He has a passion for local history and is the author of Hope, Healing and Community: Celebrating 50 Years of Eden and co-author, with Ernie Braun, of the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve. He is currently organizing the Southeast Writers Festival in Steinbach at the Mennonite Heritage Village May 1 and 2, 2020.

  1. How did a Mennonite kid from rural Manitoba become a scholar and professor of microbiology?
    • Stumbled into it. After 2nd year in Science I needed money so I took a permit teaching job in Arborg High School (1959). Teaching suited me so I stayed. I did apply for Medicine twice and got in but got cold feet (thankfully!). After about 8 years of high school teaching (Maths, Biology) in Blumenort, Niverville, Roblin and Vita I took a job as a lecturer at the U of M, supervising student labs. I already had 3 kids by then. After 7 years of Microbiology I got my PhD and stayed on until 2004. Then I taught part-time at CMU for 6 or 7 years. All of this was unplanned much ahead. BTW this Mennonite kid, an EMCer yet, taught Molecular Evolution almost every year for 20 odd years.
  2. How did your interest in microbiology lead to an interest in local history?
    • Around 2008 there was an influenza scare so I thought maybe I can study epidemics of the past since I had been a Microbiologist. Influenza pandemic — deaths — old graveyards —  local history! The local History committee got wind of my snooping around Hanover and enlisted me in their Atlas project. I found over a hundred cemeteries and burial plots in Hanover so I mapped them for the Atlas and learned InDesign software to design the book. Ernie Braun wrote most of it.
  3. What is your favourite historic spot in Steinbach or the R.M. of Hanover?
    • Steinbach: Bush Farm trail.  Hanover: Clear Springs Cemetery.
  4. Can you briefly explain some of the more significant viral epidemics that have struck southern Manitoba?
    • How much space have you got? The biggest killer of children was diphtheria. Many more deaths than the famous Spanish flu of 1918. There was a huge world-wide diphtheria epidemic the early 1880s, and then Hanover had its own in 1900, and then another big one in 1910-12. Sometimes a large Mennonite family was cut in half within a few months. Sporadic cases continued until the vaccine appeared in 1926.
      Another killer was scarlet fever (also not viral) in the early 1890s. But then there was the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 which probably killed more than 50 million world-wide. It had a preference for young adults in their prime. There were about 60 funerals in Hanover over the three months of the outbreak. At its height schools and churches were closed and funerals were very simple. Surprisingly, my research found that Mennonites died at twice the rate of other ethnics in surrounding municipalities. Why? Too much socializing after church and too much sunflower seed spitting in the Gaustshtove?
  5. How do you feel about the public reaction to the COVID-19 coronavirus?
    • The virus is out there. I don’t think it will be stopped. It will kill elderly men like myself and there’s not much we can do about it. But a huge majority of us will survive and life will go on. This is already happening with other viruses all the time and we live with it. If it turns out that COVID-19 has an exceptionally high mortality rate then it will be a great calamity and we should take extraordinary steps.
  6. Bonus Question! Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming Southeast Writers Festival in May?
    • Certainly. May 1 & 2. All welcome at the wine and cheese mixer on Friday night. Come and meet your favourite author and hear more from the Daily Bonnet blogger! (Andrew Unger). On Saturday we have a bunch of workshops for aspiring and interested writers. I am looking forward especially to Robert Freynet’s session on graphic novels. Then in the evening Patrick Friesen comes home to read some poetry coming out of his Steinbach background. Also some exciting music by “Accent”. Even though sponsored by MHV this is not an exclusive “Menno” event. All are included!

(photo caption: Glen Klassen (and Ernie Braun) at the Mennonite Landing Site).