Celebrating Alumni Stories: John ’66 and Kathryn Stoltzfus ’66 Fairfield
This article is part of our annual Homecoming Weekend focus on on celebrating alumni stories. Read about past award winners and alumni stories here.
Much has changed at Eastern Mennonite School in the 55 years since John Fairfield and Kathryn Stoltzfus Fairfield earned their high school diplomas, along with 75 classmates, in 1966. But some core elements remain steady, the couple — now married nearly 52 years — observes. EMS remains true to its Anabaptist roots, they say, and continues to challenge students to wrestle with what it means to be followers of Jesus, committed to peace and nonviolence.
The two met during their junior year at the school, getting to know each other while working on the Ember yearbook, volunteering with the Young People’s Christian Association, and singing in Touring Choir.
They remember teachers and administrators like Harold Miller, John Krall, Harvey Yoder, and Jesse Byler who influenced their development during an era of massive cultural upheaval. “It was a stellar faculty,” John contends, “in a stellar community of people.”
John’s family moved to the Shenandoah Valley from Ontario, Canada, so his father, James Fairfield, could pursue studies at Eastern Mennonite College. It was in time for John to complete his high school sophomore year at Turner Ashby, and his last two years of high school at EMHS. The family’s roots were not in the peace church tradition, but it was something his parents sought out, explains John.
Kathryn, on the other hand, came from a family involved in Mennonite education, including at the college level, for generations. Not counting cousins, aunts, and uncles, the family legacy EMS alumni include Kathryn’s parents, Grant and Ruth Brunk ‘34 Stoltzfus, and her siblings: Eugene ‘64, Allen ‘61, Ruth ‘67 and Helen ‘74. (Read about Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ pioneering work in radio broadcasting and as a female pastor in this article.)
All four of John and Kathryn’s sons are alumni: Joshua ‘92 (married to Christine Glick ‘93); Nathaniel ‘97 (married to Miriam Stauffer ‘97), Peter ‘98 (married to Bethany Versluis); and Andrew ‘03 (married to Molly Buckwatler ‘03). The EMS family story continues with several grandchildren either currently enrolled, or recently graduated from EMS.
“I was ‘first generation Mennonite,’” says John. “But I feel just as much part of the EMS story as anyone.” His advice to people who may be new to the community and feel they don’t belong? “Put time and energy into the community,” he says. “Soon you will feel you belong.”
After graduating from Eastern Mennonite College (now University), the young couple spent a year in Belgium where they learned French and John delved into artificial intelligence at the Belgian National Library. They then spent two years at a high school in a remote area of eastern Congo where they taught chemistry, biology and English (Kathryn), and math, physics and economics (John), all in French.
Relocating to the United States, John pursued a doctorate at Duke in the new field of computer science, while Kathryn pursued her law degree, and gave birth to two boys.
Returning to the Valley, they raised their growing family from a home along the river in Bridgewater. John taught computer science at James Madison University for 20 years, where he is now professor emeritus. In 1992, he joined his energy and talents with brothers-in-law Allen and Eugene Stoltzfus, and graduate student Greg Keim, to launch the worldwide language learning software Rosetta Stone. The resulting company had several names along the way: Fairfield and Sons, Ltd., Fairfield Language Technologies, and finally as of 2006, Rosetta Stone.
It was a family business with long-term impact on downtown Harrisonburg, according to a June 2021 Daily News-Record feature that noted the company employed 1,950 people worldwide in the 2021, including 517 in Harrisonburg. Kathryn and her sister staffed the company’s legal department. John and several local talents wrote the computer code that made the product work, including several innovations that were years ahead of their time.
And, notes brother Eugene, “Kathie, along with our sister Ruth, was on the Rosetta Stone team that developed the language learning program and then was half of the formidable in-house legal team for years, until the sale of the company.”
In 2006, John retired from the company and focused much energy on the Center for Interfaith Engagement at EMU. He is also on the steering committee of EMU’s Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society. He is the author of The Healer Messiah: Turning Enemies Into Trustworthy Opponents (April 2014, available at theHealerMessiah.com).
Kathryn’s engagements in addition to practicing law have included responsibilities at their home church, Park View Mennonite, and other community organizations, including Bridge of Hope, which finds housing for single women and their children. She was also a founding board member in 1982 of the Fairfield Center, formerly known as Community Mediation Center, using her expertise in law and commitment to peacemaking to normalize the process of mediation to solve legal disputes.
Reflecting on their time together at EMHS, John laughs. “The smell of hairspray always puts me right back on the Touring Choir bus. As soon as we’d pull into a church parking lot, out would come the hairspray to keep all those ‘60s hairdos just the way they wanted.” It’s a lighthearted reminder of changes that were happening at the school during that era as clothing and hair styles — and head coverings — evolved with the times, even as core commitments to Kingdom living remained strong.