Miss Stellfox remembered fondly 10 years after tragic death
MOUNT CARMEL - In death as in life, Miss Jean Louise Stellfox is not forgotten.
Eugene Boughner remembers the respect she commanded inside the classroom. John Taby remembers her as the teacher who taught him the value of reading.
Mary Ann Gray remembers her dry wit, her thoughtfulness and her keen sense of direction during road trips. Noreen Schwalm remembers her nightly telephone chats with the woman who would become a close friend.
Mount Carmel Police haven't forgotten Miss Stellfox, either, and officers haven't forgotten that the person responsible for her death has not been held accountable.
Six o'clock will come and go tonight. Shortly after will mark 10 years since a hit-and-run driver struck the 64-year-old retired teacher while she crossed Maple Street at Third Street.
The driver didn't stop; never pulled over or turned around. Miss Stellfox was left lying on Maple Street, a few witnesses coming to her aid while a light rain fell and nighttime set in. She died of a head injury shortly after midnight at Geisinger Medical Center, Danville.
At her side was Gray, her cousin.
A loving cousin
Gray is 10 years older than Stellfox. That's her maiden name, too. She and her cousin didn't grow up together. Gray lived in Catawissa as a youth and didn't make it to the coal region all that often. But as adults, Stellfox would visit Gray's home and her large family on holidays. They would often travel together to Philadelphia or Lancaster or some other place to go shopping. Gray was the driver, Stellfox the navigator.
"She knew her directions. As long as somebody told me where to go, I was fine. She knew. She'd map it out. She would be giving me directions and I would drive," said Gray.
Stellfox had fine taste. She was prim and proper, after all. She got that from her mother, Gray said.
Like Stellfox, Gray considered a career in education. An uncle tried pushing her in that direction. The Stellfox family members were educators. But Gray had a passion for nursing, and she followed that.
Gray long ago retired as a nurse at Geisinger; however, she knew the doctors caring for Stellfox. But the beloved teacher was unresponsive when she arrived at the emergency room.
Gray didn't hold much hope.
"I sat by her all night. I knew that she wasn't going to make it. I didn't leave because I didn't want her to die alone," she said.
A professional teacher
Eugene Boughner had a similar feeling 10 years earlier inside the emergency room of what is now known as Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital, Coal Township.
Stellfox was a devoted daughter of Harold and Ethel Stellfox, and in that moment Boughner was made aware that she was about to say goodbye to her father. She was alone.
Boughner graduated college in 1964 and went to work at Shamokin High School. Stellfox was already a veteran teacher in her own right. They were friendly and remained so after he eventually ascended to become school principal.
Stellfox taught English composition, among the more challenging offerings at the high school. Many students jockeyed to get a seat in her classroom. Surely a few looked to avoid it.
She was a professional, the stereotype of a classroom's silent, stalwart commandant. When she spoke, it was in measured tones, sometimes whimsical and always purposeful. Passion for subject matter, be it Shakespeare or mythology, was never lacking.
In the event a classroom became unruly, students were brought in line with only a long stare and her own decisive silence - a silence markedly louder than the misbehaving pupils.
"She was the type of person who never had to raise her voice. That mostly came from respect students had for her," Boughner said.
On that day in 1993 when Boughner met Stellfox inside the hospital by chance, he looked on as doctors came to tell her that her father had passed away. She was unsettled, distraught. Boughner reassured her that if she wanted, he would accompany her to her father's bedside.
"I held her hand and we went in and saw him together," he said.
They talked about life, about the memories she had of her father. She was grateful, he said, that someone was by her side.
"It was such a touching moment for me because we were such good friends. It seemed like I was meant to be there," Boughner said.
Stellfox's mother would pass away several months later, according to online records.
A good friend
Schwalm was by Stellfox's side a great many years, and vice versa. When she met Jean Louise it was as a high school junior in 1965. She was her student. That experience would inspire Schwalm to become a teacher herself. They would become colleagues, both working in the English department.
"She became kind of a mentor to me. I always thought of myself as the little sister she didn't have," Schwalm said.
Miss Stellfox was a teacher, always. Even as an adult, even as a teacher herself, Schwalm said she learned from her friend. She watched as others did, too. In a way, Schwalm's son, Nathan, had learned from her.
At 3 years old, Nathan was already reading recipes. Spelling words like "cat" and "dog" hardly posed a problem by the time he reached the first grade. Stellfox had bought him his first dictionary.
"We always laugh because in it, this one had different alphabets," Schwalm said.
That included the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Nathan used it to write sentences. His first-grade teacher didn't mind. It amused his mother's friend, too.
"Jean got a big kick out of it," Schwalm said.
Stellfox was very private but also very humorous. She loved to read, to learn, to travel. She had an interest in genealogy. She and Schwalm grew so close that they would talk on the telephone near nightly. During their last conversation, the night before the accident, Stellfox spoke of perhaps moving from Mount Carmel to the Lancaster area.
Stellfox herself had many books, mainly American literature. Books about Maine and the New England area. Books about presidents. Edith Wharton was a favorite. She wrote a college thesis on Wharton, Schwalm said.
When Stellfox was killed, the books became Schwalm's, as did many of her personal belongings. One was a bookcase crafted in the high school wood shop as a gift to Stellfox from Boughner's son, Eric.
A desk was left behind for Nathan, who studied on it at Yale.
Schwalm was surprised by an inheritance Stellfox left behind for her and her family. She was just as surprised by the $1.5 million the unassuming teacher left to her alma mater, Dickinson College.
The donation established the college's Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, allowing the tiny Cumberland County school to bring in some of literature's most acclaimed writers for residency, during which they hold seminars, host readings, sit in on classes and even have lunch with students.
Schwalm and her husband, Daniel, and Stellfox's cousin, Gray, attend a reading each year.
A treasured teacher
Schwalm flipped through a photo album that held senior portraits of the 2000 graduating class of Shamokin Area, the last seniors Stellfox taught before retirement.
It's a reminder that no one who knew Miss Stellfox was in need - that she cared a great deal about her students.
She attended students' recitals. She followed them in their careers from afar. Many were in touch by mail or by unexpected visits to the school.
John Taby was a student of Stellfox's many years ago. He admits he was an unfocused student before stepping foot in her classroom. That all changed.
"I often say she taught me how to read. ... She showed me I could be focused," he said.
Count Taby among the students who adored the English teacher. He'd make a point of saying "hello" or chatting her up when they'd bump into one another. He once went to the school himself to thank her personally; this was in his 30s long after he had graduated.
Cormac McCarthy is a favorite author of his. He says the man has a talent for writing the perfect sentence at the perfect moment of a novel.
"Anytime I'd read a good book and I'd get it, I'd go, 'Man, I wish I could talk to her about that,'" Taby said.
Stellfox's inspiration was not lost on Taby's daughter, either, who like her father holds the woman in high regard. It wasn't lost on Debbie (Johnson) Noonan and Cindy (Sarge) Poboy, who together with Taby led an effort to establish the Jean Stellfox Memorial Award in 2012.
The $1,000 award was given to the valedictorian of each of the past two graduating classes. There's enough in the bank for an award this year but funds are running low. Taby hopes the scholarship isn't lost and that people will be inspired themselves to donate to it: Union Bank & Trust Co., 450 W. Shamokin St., Trevorton, 17881.
Hope for justice
Mount Carmel Police revisited the case in August 2012 and have treated it as if it had just occurred. Assistance was sought from the state police major case squad. They all started from the ground up reviewing reports and video surveillance footage. Some witnesses were interviewed again. Others were interviewed for the first time.
Boughner, Taby, Gray and Schwalm were all glad to read that police had shown renewed interest in the case of Stellfox's death. They're all hopeful that the responsible party will be brought to justice.
Still, Schwalm cried when she read last week's headline that police were still investigating. Stellfox was cautious. She wouldn't walk out in front of a car, and police believe she didn't, that the hit-and-run driver drove through a stop sign while turning at Third and Maple streets and hitting her.
"It triggers it all over again and I remember how horrendous it was. It was devastating to many people," she said.
Personal accountability was important to Stellfox.
"For someone to have done this and not take responsibility makes it twice as difficult to deal with," she said.
Gray believes some people think Stellfox was alone, left behind with no one who cared about her. She has family, she has friends.
"They'll get their due for doing it, and leaving, that's the worst part," Gray said. "I'm just grateful that somebody's checking into things."