Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Tragic End with Barely a Beginning

by David Parmer

Sam Marchio drove slowly along the Goosepen Road, gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands, oblivious of the tranquil farm scenes which presented themselves around each curve in the road. The hardworking farmers of southern Lewis County kept their farms in tip-top condition but Mr. Marchio, a Physical Education teacher of Weston High School, wasn’t thinking about the haying which was going on, the cattle grazing along the hillsides, or the corn growing in the bottom-land. He did not notice the farmers standing in their fields looking at the strange car coming down their road. A sad duty was in store for him this September day in 1952. It was a duty he dreaded to fulfill. Just how do you tell a mother that her only child, a beautiful, seemingly healthy daughter, who left for school that morning without a care in the world, died suddenly at his school? The eighteen miles to Goosepen were the longest miles Mr. Marchio had ever driven, but the hardest part of the journey would not be begin until he reached the Clarence and Hetty (Nye) Finster home on Goosepen where Carolyn Sue and her mother, Mary Poffenbarger, made their home.

Mary (Beall) Poffenbarger

Mary (Beall) Poffenbarger was the daughter of Newton "N. H." Beall and Clara (McCullough) Beall of Route 1, Orlando. For many years, Newton and Clara operated a country store and post office at Aspinall, a pick-up point on the Orlando mail route. Newton’s father, Charles Henderson Beall, had operated this store and a grist mill for many years before turning the business over to his son Newton.

Born in 1915, Mary was the only child of Newton and Clara Beall to survive to adulthood. She was quite familiar with tragic untimely deaths because her mother Clara died of tuberculosis in 1918 when Mary was just three years of age and her father Newton died four years later in 1924 when she was just seven. Orphaned at an early age in 1924, Mary was fortunate to have been a student of Edna Wiant, the teacher of the Ben’s Run School.

Edna Wiant
When Mary Beall’s widowed father died in 1924, Edna Wiant was an unmarried school teacher, living with her foster parents, John and Mary Blake on Ben’s Run. Edna, who was also orphaned at a very young age, was noted for forming fond attachments with her students. Recognizing the need for a child to have a nurturing parent, Edna took the orphaned Mary into her home and became her de facto mother. The Blake home on Bens Run was a large, commodious two story farm house with plenty of room for the Blakes, their foster daughter Edna, and this new foster daughter, Mary Beall. Consequently, until adulthood, Mary Beall lived with her foster mother, Edna Wiant, on Ben’s Run.

In 1937, when Mary was 22 years of age, she met and married Wade Poffenbarger of Tucker County. Unfortunately for Mary, her marriage was a brief because Mr. Poffenbarger was not the settling-down type and he soon flew the coop, never to be heard of again, when he was informed that Mary was with child. Mary, who had been orphaned at a young age, with a child on the way, now was abandoned by a faithless husband almost before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate. Edna Wiant welcomed her foster daughter back to her home to await the birth of her child. A daughter, Carolyn Sue Poffenbarger was born on August 6, 1938.

Edna, with her strong maternal instinct, took a shine to Carolyn and treated her as if she were a child of her own, as she had done with Carolyn’s mother. A child can never have enough love so the love of two mothers served Carolyn well in her formative years. Some recall that Carolyn was fortunate to have had not one but two mothers. When Carolyn was born, Mrs. Blake, Edna’s foster mother, was still living, and between Mrs. Blake, Edna Wiant, and her mother Mary Poffenbarger, she felt well-loved and was a smiling and happy child.

The Years Following
Velma Heath, a neighbor on Ben’s Run, recalls Carolyn Sue as a “good, pretty little girl, mindful and happy.” A good student at the Ben’s Run School, Carolyn Sue, who would be known primarily as “Sue,” to her peers, undoubtedly brightened the one room school, and was a girl of promise to her teachers.

Mr. and Mrs. Blake passed away and in 1946, Edna Wiant married Frank McPherson and moved to Burnsville. Carolyn Sue’s mother Mary found a position in the home of Clarence and Hetty Finster on Goosepen caring for the children of Mr. and Mrs. Finster. Mary and Carolyn Sue were not forgotten however by their dear friend, Edna (Wiant) McPherson, and their familial relationship continued with frequent visits and shopping trips. Mary and Carolyn Sue had moved into the Finster home and were living there when Carolyn Sue started to school at Weston High School. During the second week of school in September 1952, Carolyn happily boarded the yellow school bus for the long trip to Weston High School and her freshman classes.

The day was hot. The early days of September probably always seemed hot to students of un-air-conditioned schools in central West Virginia. Many students were still thinking of their summer’s vacation, as the warm air wafted into the open windows of their classrooms, making sleepy students sleepier. On this September 10th, Carolyn was in a physical education class on the football field when she started feeling ill. Since it was a hot, muggy day, it was common for a student to be affected by the heat, so no one was alarmed. Allowed to sit on the bleachers while the class participated in physical activities, Carolyn began to feel worse and complained of a headache to her Phys Ed teacher, Sam Marchio. Thinking that a headache indicated the need of an aspirin, Carolyn was given aspirin, but soon was in greater distress. At 2:50 p.m. on September 10th, 1952, Carolyn Sue Poffenbarger collapsed and died.

Stunned by the tragic news carried to her by Mr. Marchio, and aware that she would never again see the smiling face of her daughter Carolyn Sue again, Mary took the loss of her daughter in a stoical manner. She had suffered the loss of her own parents at an early age, had been abandoned by her husband and the father of her child, and now fate had given her another cruel blow.

Mary Poffenbarger died in 1989, thirty seven years after the death of her only child and the searing visit by Mr. Marchio. Those who knew Mary well say that she never talked about her daughter Carolyn Sue but they all say her stoic silence about the loss of her only child masked an inner pain that lesser souls could not bear. Since Mary never mentioned her loss, others never broached the subject, and future condolences were never uttered. Some pain is best left in silence and best handled that way and that is the course Mary Poffenbarger followed with respect to her loss. When Carolyn Sue was laid to rest in the Pumphrey Cemetery, the matter was closed.

The Mystery Remains
Doctor T. M. Snyder, a Weston physician, pronounced the cause of death of Carolyn as “undetermined.” That four-syllable word was carefully written on the death certificate by Orlando funeral director Mike Moran in 1952 and remains the official verdict of death to this day.
Given the great advances in medicine in recent years, the cause of death of Carolyn Sue Poffenbarger could probably now be made, but at best, it would be conjecture, and it now seems pointless to hypothesize. In the early 1950’s many death certificates were unclear regarding the cause of death of a decedent and this was just another of the many such cases. Her caring neighbors decided that Carolyn Sue must have succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Whatever the cause, the mystery remains. The shining girl of promise was buried in the Pumphrey Cemetery, to be joined later by her dear friend, Edna Wiant McPherson in 1967 and her mother, Mary Poffenbarger in 1989.

To enlarge the above death certificate, please click on it.

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Comment 1 Carolyn Sue and her mother lived north of the Oil Creek watershed but on Orlando's RFD Route 1 at both the Blake/Wiant home on Ben's Run and the Fenster home on Indian Run. School kids who lived north of Orlando, on Oil Creek, Three Lick, Grass Run, Indian Fork, etc. went to school in Weston.

Comment 2 by Bob Pumphrey

This story was great and brought back lots of memories. It is my recollection that Mary and Carolyn Sue Poffenbarger were living on Ben's Run when Carolyn Sue died. Her mother Mary was babysitting during the day for Clarence and Hettie Finster. Clarence was the school bus driver and drove the bus from the Ben's Run area up Goosepen into Weston. When Clarence got home in the evening, he would pick Mary Poffenbarger up at his house and continue to drive the bus to Ben's Run and then let Carolyn Sue and her mother off the bus. A few days after Carolyn Sue was buried, Clarence and Hettie asked Mary to live with them and continue babysitting. From that time Mary Poffenbarger lived with the Finsters.

I further recall that Clarence Finster told me that the morning Carolyn Sue died. she mentioned to Clarence when she got on the bus that she had a headache. Clarence offered to take her back home but Carlyn Sue declined the offer.

Carolyn Sue's wake was held at the house on Ben's Run and Mike Moran, the Orlando undertaker, was in charge. Many people were there.

Comment 3 by June Nixon Henry
I just finished reading the story of Sue Poffenbarger and tears are running down my face. It brought back the memory of that day that my Mom called me and asked me to go over to City Hospital to see Edna and Mary. There was no way I could describe the grief of those two. What comfort could I give them only just to be there? So glad you told their story. When Mary went to live with the Finsters she certainly channeled her grief into caring for their mentally disabled daughter. Thanks for telling the story.

1 comment:

  1. What a sad did a beautiful job writing it. The loss must have been worse with not knowing the cause. Really sad.