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Conscientious objector used Army furlough to pursue relief efforts

Staff writer

Some people who attended Lifelong Learning Friday in Hillsboro remembered longtime optometrist Dietrich Hoeppner, who died in 1965, but they didn’t know the details of his early life.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, all men ages 21 to 30 were required to register for the draft.

Hoeppner, 28, of Hillsboro, a Holdeman, wrote on his registration, “War is against my convictions.” However, that wasn’t acceptable as a deferment.

In May 1918, he was sent to join the 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, but three months later, as the war was winding down, the Army gave him a yearlong furlough to join the Quakers’ American Friends Service in Philadelphia.

He was born in 1889 and grew up on a farm at present-day Goldenrod and 180th Sts. His father operated a watch-making shop on the second floor of the building that now houses Cooperative Grain and Supply at 138 N. Main St. in Hillsboro.

Dietrich and his brothers learned the intricacies of watch making from their father. In 1907, at age 18, Dietrich built a model of a steam engine that’s on display at Hillsboro Museums.

After his parents moved to California, he and his brother, Jacob, carried on the business. They made and sold watches, fountain pens, silverware, eyeglasses, and more.

Dietrich decided to pursue training in optometry. He attended the first school of its kind, Needles Institute of Optometry at Kansas City, Missouri, and graduated in November 1917.

After he joined the Quakers’ relief service, he spent helping Europeans and Siberian Russians who were suffering from war and famine.

Hoeppner’s first relief mission was to France, where he spent a year building houses for returning war refugees.

He then went to Switzerland and helped bring 60,000 starving Austrian children to Switzerland, who were fed and clothed for a period of time and sent home.

After spending time visiting churches in America, he joined forces with Mennonite Central Committee and got permission to do relief work in Russia.

At age 32, he went to Siberia to help Mennonite people who were starving from famine. The Communists had taken over after a two-year civil war. He was successful in raising money back home and importing food, clothes, tractors, and horses.

He was an avid photographer and helped the Mennonites to reconnect with relatives in America.

After the famine ended, Hoeppner attended an optometry school in Germany that was touted to be the best in the world. He returned as a highly trained optometrist to the small central Kansas town of Hillsboro, where he practiced until the early 1960s.

Hoeppner died in January 1965. In his obituary, it was said that he looked back on his relief efforts as “the best time of my life.”

Several people who worked in Hillsboro restaurants remembered him. They described him as respectful and a loner.

One woman said she got her first pair of glasses from him.

“He was very slow and methodical,” she said.

One man said he had been at Hoeppner’s sale and bought the toolbox from Hoeppner’s office for his son, who is an optometrist in Omaha.

Hoeppner’s appointment books are preserved at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

Last modified Sept. 12, 2019

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