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John Denver had Mennonite ancestors

His uncle taught at Marion and Florence schools

Staff writer

John Denver was a popular singer who died an untimely death at age 53 when his private plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the cost of California on Oct. 12, 1997. He wrote many hit songs including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

Sara Keckeisen, a librarian at Kansas State Historical Society, with assistance from Peggy Goertzen at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro, researched Denver’s ancestry and uncovered some interesting facts.

Denver’s birth name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. He was born Dec. 31, 1943, at Roswell, N.M., where his father served as a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force.

Denver’s grandparents, John and Anna (Koop) Deutschendorf, lived on a farm near Corn, Okla., and attended the Corn Mennonite Brethren Church.

Denver’s ancestry on his grandmother’s side has a unique history in the annals of Mennonite migrations throughout the world.

Anna’s grandparents, Thomas and Marie Koop, were members of the Mennonite Brethren Church in southern Russia. The group was formed in 1860 as an offshoot of the Mennonite Church.

Thomas and Marie were among a group of Mennonites who migrated east to central Asia in 1880 instead of west to America as many were doing at that time.

These people followed the leadership of several men who believed the “rapture” was near. They persuaded their followers to go with them to central Asia to get away from authoritarian rule and await the second coming of Jesus. One leader purported to know the day of his return.

According to David V. Wiebe, author of the book, “We Seek A County,” published in 1959, more than 100 families left their villages in southern Russia to travel east.

They experienced much death and disease along the way and after they reached their destination. The Koops settled in Kyrgyzstan, where they nearly starved to death.

They and others subsequently became disillusioned, and some of them migrated to America, including Denver’s great-grandparents, Heinrich and Elizabeth (Janzen) Koop in 1887. They came to Kansas first and then moved to Oklahoma.

They bought a farm and became members of the Mennonite Brethren Church at Corn, Okla. Their daughter Anna was born in 1901 and married John Deutschendorf in 1917.

John and Anna had 11 children. The oldest child, Henry, or Hank, later became the father of John Denver.

John Voth, now of Hillsboro, grew up at Corn and knew the Deutschendorf family. He was the superintendent of the academy when Denver, a teenager, occasionally visited his grandparents. Sometimes, Denver came to the school on weekends to jam with students in the dorm, singing and playing his guitar. His name was still John Deutschendorf and he was still developing his musical skills.

According to Loyal Martin of Hillsboro, who also grew up at Corn, John and his guitar were almost inseparable. Martin’s father hired John to work on the family farm in summer along with Martin’s younger brother, Gordon. The two shared a bedroom at night.

Martin said John took his guitar along to the field and played it while plowing. He often played and sang with the family and friends in the evening.

Martin’s father drew the line when John wanted to operate the combine and take his guitar along. That would not work, he told him.

According to Gordon Martin, Denver had dropped the name “Henry” in junior high school because he was already writing songs and performing at high school proms and other events with makeshift bands and did not want to be known as Hank Jr.

Denver later dropped out of college and went to Los Angeles to pursue a musical career. He sang in the Chad Mitchell Trio for a year or two before it disbanded.

Uncle Dave

Denver’s youngest uncle was Dave Deutschendorf. He was a year and a half older than Denver.

Deutschendorf has historical ties to Marion County. He graduated from Tabor College and taught at Marion and Florence schools for several years in the 1960s, with a two-year stint in the military sandwiched between them.

Dave said his nephew did not have a great voice when he was young but he developed it over time. John served as a candle lighter in Dave’s wedding. He was known as Little Johnnie Deutschendorf.

“John was a neat guy,” he said. “He never got in trouble, and people loved him.”

Dave, a singer in his own right, was in California to hear the New Christy Minstrels when John performed for a while at Randy Sparks’ Ledbetter’s Club in Los Angeles.

It was while at the Ledbetter’s Club that John took on the last name Denver for record-label purposes — reflecting his love for the mile-high city — and launched his career as a popular singer.

However, John Denver never forgot his roots. Years later, he wrote in his autobiography, “Take Me Home,” (published in 1994) that he always sought to be true to himself as “Henry John Deutschendorf, Boy of the Open Plains.”

Gordon Martin said frequent visits by the singer to his grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma influenced his music and his beliefs. Denver acknowledged the same to Martin but publicly attributed his inspirations to other places to protect the privacy of the town of Corn and family members living there.

According to an online biography of the singer, his personal style and songs did not sit well with critics. His mop-top haircut and wire-rimmed “granny” glasses were “15 years behind the times.”

Critics called his music “sentimental or over-sweet,” but Denver defended it. He acknowledged that some of his songs were about the simple things in life, but they were meaningful to him. The popularity of his songs proved they were meaningful to millions of others, as well.

At the time of his death, Denver had produced 24 albums under the RCA label. Fourteen were certified gold, having sold 500,000 copies, and eight of those reached platinum status, with sales of a million or more.

Last modified Jan. 20, 2011

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