Another Teacher in the Family

Ethel Koons
Ethel Margaret Koons, c. 1912

Finding another teacher in the family always makes my day; it’s been my dream to become a teacher myself for years now, and I often feel more connected to the stories of my schoolteacher ancestors than to those long-ago ancestors whose daily lives are more difficult to imagine. Elmer Nelson Horey of Fredonia, New York was the first schoolteacher I discovered in my family tree, and his experiences as a German Prisoner of War during World War II are all parts harrowing, heartbreaking and uplifting. Ethel Koons of Webster, Kansas is now the second schoolteacher in the family, and like Elmer, her story is both inspiring and, in the end, devastating.

Ethel Margaret Koons was born on July 10, 1894 in Bow Creek Township, Kansas to Joseph Price Koons and Della Caroline Baker. She was the oldest of eight children–Harry Jay (b. 1896), Everett Standard (b. 1897), Myrtle Fae (b. 1898), Alta Melvina (b. 1901), Andrew Luther (b. 1905), Wilma Ruby (b. 1909) and Florence Irene (b. 1911)–and from a young age, she wanted to be a teacher. As the oldest, Ethel grew up taking care of her younger siblings–something I identify with as the oldest of four children–and working with students seemed like the perfect path.

Twin Mound School House
Thursday, May 19, 1904 // The Clay Center Dispatch

Ethel studied in a one-room schoolhouse in Twin Mound, Kansas before attending White Star School in nearby Alcona Township where her aunt, Solora Maude (Baker) Riffe, was teaching. White Star set Ethel up to pass her entrance exams with flying colors, and she was accepted into the Teacher’s Institute at Kansas State Normal School in Hays to begin her training. She proved to be a compassionate, dedicated and creative teacher, and within a few years, Ethel had acquired her teaching license and was working in and around her hometown of Bow Creek.

An opportunity to open a new school in a recently-established township took Ethel west to Hill City, Idaho in 1920. While Ethel loved teaching in Hill City, she missed her parents and younger siblings terribly, so she decided to take a quick trip home to visit everyone over break. Ethel’s younger sister, Myrtle, was engaged to Albert Felderman at the time of her visit, and the pair decided to get married while Ethel was still in town. Ethel was Myrtle’s maid of honor, and their brother, Harry, was Albert’s best man. A party was planned back at the house to celebrate the newlyweds, but the drive home from the courthouse changed the course of Ethel’s story forever.

Ethel Koons Visit
Thursday, August 18, 1921 // The Stockton Review

The headline in the The Stockton Review on the morning of Thursday, August 18, 1921 read, “TERRIBLE ACCIDENT: Last evening about 8:30 occurred one of the worst auto accidents ever had in this vicinity. Albert Felderman and his bride of a few hours, accompanied by her brother and sister, Harry and Ethel Koons, were driving north from Webster when about one and three-fourths miles out they met a tourist car from Westmoreland. Felderman drove to one side of the road to let it pass but in so doing he struck a ditch in the weeds which forced the steering wheel from his hands and the car turned completely over twice.

Ethel Koons3
Ethel Margaret Koons, c. 1917

Miss Ethel Koons suffered an injury to the spine causing the blood to become clotted in the spinal column just below the neck and paralyzing the entire body below the third rib. Her recovery is very doubtful. Mr. Felderman was severely cut about the head, requiring several stitches in the scalp. The bride and her brother escaped with only minor injuries. The tourists picked them up and drove back to Stockton with them where medical aid was summoned and everything is being done for the injured that skill can do.”

Ethel briefly regained some movement and feeling in her legs before passing away on September 9, 1921 at the age of 27. Her obituary reports that she “lived 22 days with a broken neck” and that “practically her whole body had been paralyzed and she was a constant sufferer since the accident.” Ethel’s family, friends and students adored her, and dozens made the long trek across the country to attend her funeral. The young woman’s impact on the lives of others is best summed up, though, in a statement published by her colleagues in the local newspaper a few weeks later: “Ethel Koons recently passed to the Great Beyond, leaving a vacancy in our circle that can never be filled.”

Finding another teacher in the family always makes my day, but discovering the conclusion of Ethel’s story has left me almost frozen. It’s a heart-wrenching story: Ethel viewed the ability to teach and to work with students as a gift, and to have that ability taken away in an instant is unimaginable–especially on the happiest of days, your younger sister’s wedding day. It really puts everything into perspective: even on the days when I’m bone-tired and have harped on my students all class, I’ll try to remember my dreams of becoming a teacher. I’ll try to remember that the ability to teach is a gift–one that truly can be taken away in an instant.Signature2

18 thoughts on “Another Teacher in the Family

    1. Thank you! She’s one of my maternal ancestor’s nieces, a few generations back on the Nelson/Baker side of my family tree. I usually try to stick to direct ancestors for my stories, but when I found out that Ethel was a teacher, I had to know more.

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    1. Absolutely, and I don’t remember and appreciate that gift that enough. I’m trying to keep this in mind now–working with students helps put everything in life into perspective for me, weirdly enough.

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    1. Thank you! And you’re absolutely right–I’m always drawn to the stories of my ancestors who lived to be 80 or 90 years old, and it’s easy to overlook the stories of the lives cut too short. You just know there will be a sad story there; sometimes the story is equal parts uplifting, though. I’m proud to be related to Ethel.

      And you’re lucky! Most of my ancestors were farmers, miners or nurses (or they worked for the railroad). Finding another teacher in my tree always makes my day–it doesn’t happen often! Thank you for teaching, as well–I’m finding it’s a tough (but rewarding!) field.

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  1. I just shuttered reading this story. It sounds like it was a blessing she passed as her life forward own would have been a nightmare. But the flip side to this tragedy about Ethel is she has now been remembered not been forgotten and her story is told. Your family, our family can remember her beautiful life – beautifully wriiten! Sharon

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    1. So did I, when I first read it in the newspapers. I wish she had lived long enough to tell her story herself, but it’s on honor to share it with everyone. I’m glad I started this blog–now there’s so many more people who will remember her for years to come.

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  2. A quick check shows I have several teachers in one branch of my ancestry as well. Jan Jerphaas Wesselo, my great-uncle who I am extensively researching right now, his niece (for a brief period of time), his grandfather, his uncle (by marriage), his half-uncle and the son in law of this uncle, and two sons in law of another uncle. What I love most about teachers is that they usually left a fair amount of records about their occupation behind and in the Netherlands a lot of times the hiring or leaving of a teacher was reported in the newspaper. So you can find a lot about teachers here.
    From your post (with such a heart-wrenching ending!) it looks like teachers left plenty of records behind in the US as well.

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    1. Teaching runs in the family then! It’s rare that I find a teacher in my family–most of my ancestors were nurses, miners or worked for the railroad. I’ve found a number of newspaper articles detailing when Ethel was hired in a new district, as well as when the staff would have parties or gatherings. It’s interesting that the Netherlands is so similar! Thank you for sharing–I haven’t had cause to search in the Netherlands yet, but maybe I’ll find a connection one day!

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