By Anne Gregory
The late Dr. John Hamer and Esther Rinehart Hamer made a lasting mark in medicine during their time with the Church of the Brethren ministry in Nigeria. Now the Manchester alumni are creating their largest and perhaps most enduring legacy at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., with a $1.5 million estate gift to establish the John L. and Esther L. Rinehart Hamer Professorship in Music.
“Even in this era, while science and medicine remain important, John and I hoped that Manchester would continue to have a strong music program,” said Esther Hamer, who graduated from Manchester in 1950 with degrees in biology and music (piano performance) and earned her nursing degree from Case Western Reserve University.
“Music has given balance to my life,” she said.
The Hamers are best known in medical circles for their role in identifying Lassa fever, also known as Lassa hemorrhagic fever, while working as medical missionaries in Nigeria. Physician John Hamer, who was a member of the Manchester class of 1948, and Esther served in Nigeria from 1953 to 1969. They did most of their work at Lassa Hospital, named for the remote village where they cared for people suffering from leprosy, malaria, dysentery, dehydration, parasites, and more.
Laura Wine, an American nurse, was working with the Hamers at the hospital in 1969 when she contracted a critical illness and died. The Hamers insisted that her body be flown to a larger hospital where blood could be drawn for bacterial and viral cultures and that an autopsy be performed. That critical evidence provided information that researchers needed to identify what is now known as Lassa fever, an infectious, contagious disease that causes massive internal bleeding and is often fatal.
Shortly after, the Hamers returned to the United States and settled in Fort Wayne, Ind., where John practiced family medicine for many years. They retired to Timbercrest Senior Living Community in North Manchester, where John died in 2019 at age 95.
Esther still lives at Timbercrest, a short distance from the Manchester campus where both Hamers enjoyed the college music program as undergraduates. John sang in the Chapel Choir, while Esther sang in A Cappella Choir and played violin in the Manchester Symphony and Strings Orchestra. Their daughters also took part in the music program.
Esther said the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened her appreciation for music in worship. “We want to maintain singing and instrumental music as we return to worship in our sanctuaries. I hope the Music Department will also enhance worship experiences.”
The Hamers’ gift is designed to help future Manchester students find balance and enjoyment through music. It also reflects their commitment to the liberal arts. “We value a liberal arts education because it supports a mentality that many things in the world are important and we shouldn’t narrow our thinking and our lives to one specific area,” Esther said.
That is precisely why the Church of the Brethren founded Manchester, along with its other colleges. “They wanted students exposed to comprehensive ideas while at the same time thinking about how faith impacted these ideas,” she said.
“The Hamer family has a rich history of philanthropy that spans many years at Manchester,” said Melanie Harmon, vice president of Advancement. “Their generous bequest will have a lasting impact on our outstanding music program and enrich the lives of current and future students for generations.”
Because it is an endowed fund, the principal will remain invested, with the earnings intended to secure the professorship in perpetuity.
“This endowed professorship will help keep our liberal arts foundation strong,” said president Dave McFadden. “We are overwhelmed by their generosity.”
— Anne Gregory is assistant director of the Office of Strategic Communications at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind. Find out more about the history of Lassa fever at www.brethren.org/global/nigeria/history4. Find out more about the music program at Manchester University at www.manchester.edu/academics/colleges/college-of-arts-humanities/academic-programs/music.
Find more Church of the Brethren news: