Lowell J. Byler

Mennonite college music professor said to have abused students and children for decades

MAP has received multiple reports that Lowell Byler (1929–2018), former professor of music at Hesston College, sexually assaulted and abused children and young women over many years. The reported abuse spans six decades, beginning during his time at Hesston College in the late 1950s, when he reportedly began abusing an elementary-aged girl, and continuing through 2017, when at the age of 87 he reportedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

In 2017, MAP received a report from a family member of a woman, now deceased, who said that Byler had sexually abused the woman as a child. According to the woman’s family member, the woman first met Byler in Hesston, Kansas in the early 1950s when Byler gave her voice lessons as an elementary school student, and it was during that time that he reportedly began sexually abusing her. Then in the late 1950s, when she was a teenager, she attended a local evangelistic meeting led by Myron Augsburger and went forward to confess that she had sinned with Byler. The woman told her family member that she was then called to the office of the Hesston College president, Roy Roth, where he, Myron Augsburger, and a third man questioned her.

MAP found reference to only one series of evangelistic meetings led by Myron Augsburger in Kansas in the 1950s, from March 27 to April 12, 1959, in Hutchinson.

Byler then left Hesston College after the 1958–1959 school year and moved to Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi, where his brother Leland Byler had joined the music department that same year. Lowell Byler taught at Millsaps from 1959 to 1963 and then returned to Hesston College under President Tilman Smith, again teaching music there from 1963 to 1973. Multiple documents show a plan for Lowell and his wife Miriam Byler to take a sabbatical for the 1973–74 school year, reportedly in DallasTexas. But the 1973 school year instead saw the Bylers moving to Eastern Mennonite College, where Myron Augsburger was then president.

Eastern Mennonite College reported in 1974 that Byler would not be returning, and Hesston College documentation shows that they were expecting Byler to return for the 1975–76 school year. Instead, Byler continued at Eastern Mennonite for two more years before resigning amid some controversy apparently related to the process by which he was brought into his department.

Byler went on to teach briefly at three more colleges — Sterling College (Sterling, Kansas), 1979–1982; Livingston University (Livingston, Alabama), 1985–1986; and Tougaloo College (Jackson, Mississippi), 1986–1987 — before apparently working as a used car salesman at the age of 60.

In 2012, under President Howard Keim, Hesston College planned a homecoming event to honor Byler and other past music faculty members. The family member of the woman who said Byler abused her reportedly spoke to college leaders about Byler’s history of sexual abuse, and the college subsequently uninvited Byler.

President Keim drafted an internal guide for college representatives responding to questions about the college’s decision to uninvite Byler. The first talking point, drafted in July 2012, instructed representatives to explain that “plans have changed,” with the option of adding, “due to concerns raised by members of our constituency and the health of the Bylers.” Two weeks later, a second document drafted by President Keim included two additional talking points, noting that college representatives should “choose response based on the level of the question.” The scripted responses included statements such as, “We recently became aware of concerns that have been expressed,” “Listen to the story, learn what took place, express regret,” and “Report any such conversations to the President.”

In 2017, at the age of 87, Byler reportedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl, and he was subsequently required to sign a limited access agreement in order to continue attending Harrisonburg Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Church leaders told MAP that per church policy, the limited access agreement that was signed by Byler had been shredded after Byler’s death in 2018, but they provided MAP with an unsigned copy of the agreement for publication.

Byler died in 2018.

Church-related positions

  • Professor of music, Hesston College, Hesston, Kansas, 1951–1959 and 1963–1973
  • Assistant professor of music, Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi, 1959–1963
  • Professor of music, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1973–1977
  • Professor of music, Sterling College, Sterling, Kansas, 1979–1982
  • Professor of music, Livingston University, Livingston, Alabama, 1985–1986
  • Professor of music, Tougaloo College, Jackson, Mississippi, 1986–1987
  • Director of music ministries, Harrisonburg Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1990–?
  • Member, Harrisonburg Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Documentation

 

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