Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Miss Thomas

Virginia Thomas Funkhouser

by David Parmer and Philip Thomas

After I completed my trying third grade experience at Burnsville Grade School in 1951, I thought that the rest of elementary school would be a piece of cake. Miss Georgia Haymond, my venerable third grade teacher, would brook no nonsense or senseless chatter from the roomful of testy students, and had a thick maple paddle to back up her short stature. I came to know the business-end of that well-worn paddle on quite a few occasions, as did most of the boys in her class, and a few of the girls as well.

Needless to say, I was glad to move on to the fourth grade.

I was hoping to be able to sit in the same fourth grade chair that Sue Knight, a cute blonde haired girl on whom I had a secret crush, had sat in. The only problem was- I didn’t know what chair she had sat in. But, being only a fourth grader, a school-boy crush only lasted until the next cute girl passed by. So, in the fall of 1951, I moved on to the fourth grade, only one year to go before I could enter the fifth grade and move to the second floor of the Burnsville school building. What an accomplishment that would be! But first, I had the fourth grade to contend with.

Left: the author David Parmer
Right: Virginia (Thomas) Funkhouser

An Astonishing Sight
She stood military erect beside the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, quietly observing the hordes of bare-footed boys and an equal number of girls who were trying their best to ignore the “smelly” boys. Her hair was coal-black, her lips a bright red, and a lighter shade of red adorned her high cheek bones, a contrast to her olive toned complexion. She wore a dress of a type I had never seen before which must have come from New York or some far-off place. Made of a black silky material, the dress displayed colorful swirls of flowers, almost hypnotic to a fourth grade boy. A wide red leather belt matched her bright red high-heeled shoes. Truly, this fourth grader had never seen a truly chic person, which was of course a word I had never heard of before. The other students appeared to be equally mesmerized by the colorful apparition standing beside the desk in the front of the room. This was my memorable introduction to Miss Thomas, my fourth grade teacher.

The fourth grade room at Burnsville Grade School was a large room, filled with stationary desks, securely fastened to the floor. A large gas burning stove stood in the middle of the room, entirely adequate to heat the room beyond need during the months of winter. Approximately 42 desks surrounded the stove and most all of the desks were filled with urchins, still rambunctious from summer vacation. It took all of about sixty seconds for this wild bunch to be broken, tamed, and put securely in their place, never again to act the rogue, or to test the patience of Miss Thomas. Only once did this writer test her resolve to be the absolute ruler of her domain. A math test containing fifty division problems involving dollars and cents was distributed during the first weeks of class. Since I was a fair math student, I finished the assignment quickly and with the utmost confidence that I had gotten all fifty of the questions correctly answered. I strode to the teacher’s desk, the first to finish the test, and handed it to the unblinking, unimpressed and stoic Miss Thomas. Smugness, you might say, quickly changed to doom when Miss Thomas just as confidently strode to my desk and handed me my test, marked with a big red “O.” No, that was not for “Outstanding” but rather because out of fifty questions, I had gotten zero correct. Her admonition was that if I were dividing dollars and cents, the quotient must include a dollar sign, and, in forgetting this important detail, all of my answers were incorrect. I quickly learned that when Miss Thomas acted, there was to be no reaction other than to express remorse in a silent, non-demonstrative way. I forget just exactly what my ill-timed response was, but I do remember that it was followed by a quick trip to the cloak room and a painful introduction to the fourth grade paddle. After school that day, I sullenly made my way home, thinking about the story I was going to tell my mother about my unjust punishment. After relating to her my tale of woe, much to my surprise, I received another paddling because I had received a paddling at school. Thus, I learned the moral of the story. If you get a paddling at school, don’t say a thing about it at home, because there is always more of that where that came from.

The Rest of the School Year
It’s always good to learn an early lesson, and even better not to repeat the same mistake twice. The expression, “once burned, twice shy” is probably apropos and the remainder of my fourth grade year was uneventful, at least in the sense that I encountered no further tragedies of discipline. I remained enamored of her coal black hair, red lips and red rouged cheeks, and particularly of her dazzling dresses. At the end of that school year, Miss Thomas left Burnsville to teach in northern Virginia. I am sure that when school opened the next school year, the students at her Virginia school were as dazzled as I had been the year before.

A Sequel
A couple of years ago, I called Miss Thomas (now Mrs. Funkhouser) about a story I had been researching about the Henline family of Orlando. She was very pleasant. Her memory was vivid and her recollection of me as her student was very surprising, particularly since her memory of my scholarship was flattering. She never mentioned the math test, or its tragic aftermath. I never raised the subject either. The conversation ended with me having a renewed sense of my worth, particularly since Miss Thomas said it.

Right: Marshal and Virginia (Thomas) Funkhouser at their home in Florida.

Sadly, I was informed a few days ago that Virginia (Thomas) Funkhouser had passed away. Not only had she
been my favorite fourth grade teacher, but she was also my wife’s cousin, so my fealty is owed. Often this writer writes “tongue-in-cheek” and actually as my fourth grade experience evolved from a rocky beginning as the school year ended I was sorry that she would not be my teacher when I climbed the long stairs to the fifth grade classroom to be the student of another icon of Burnsville school history – Mr. Harry Wiant.

A Tribute to Miss Thomas
Philip Thomas, a nephew of Miss Thomas and a former Orlando student who moved to Belington to finish school, forwarded the following biographical tribute to Virginia Thomas Funkhouser which was distributed at her funeral in Alexandria, Virginia.

Virginia Funkhouser was born Virginia Katrine Thomas on March 17, 1917 in Orlando, Braxton County, West Virginia, daughter of Mike and Estelle (Henline) Thomas. Virginia was the youngest of 8 siblings: Harry Gofrey, Sofia Jarvis, Tom

Thomas, Bill Thomas, Owen Thomas, Marie Thomas, and Arden Thomas (all deceased). She had 20 nieces and nephews.

Left: Mike Thomas
Right: Estie Thomas, Margaret Nixon (sisters) and Marie Thomas, Virginia (Thomas) Funkhouser and Sophia Jarvis (daughters of Estie Thomas

Virginia’s father, Mike Thomas, emigrated to the United States from Turkey in 1904. He and his brothers settled in the bus
tling railroad town of Orlando, West Virginia where Mike started out as a pack peddler and later worked in a restaurant. In 1905 he married Estelle Henline, a widow with 2 children. Together they had 6 more children, of which Virginia was the youngest. As a young child, she was known as Kate, short for her middle name, Katrine. During their time in Orlando, her mother was introduced to and joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The family later moved to Alton, Upshur County, West Virginia, where Mike opened a pool hall. Mike Thomas died at age 52 in 1925 when Virginia was only 7 years old. During her childhood years, Virginia and her brother, Arden, operated a paper route together. She also had her own AVON route by age 11. The Thomas family moved again to Copen, Braxton County, West Virginia. In her early school years, she walked 4 miles each way along a railroad track from Copen to her school and back. From the first day she went to school and set foot in a classroom, she knew immediately that she wanted to become a school teacher. So at an early age, she set her sights on getting a formal education in order to reach that goal. She graduated from Burnsville High School. Her brothers spent many years working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At age 16, Virginia was given some fabric by her uncle Lewis Thomas and sewed dresses for herself and for her sister, Marie, both made without a printed pattern.

Since her family was unable to meet college expenses, Virginia found a way to borrow $100 to start her freshman year at Glenville State College in nearby Glenville, WV. She earned enough education credits in her first year to receive an interim teaching certificate. In 1941, she used that certificate to land her first teaching job at Squires School, a one room schoolhouse in Gem, WV where she taught 16 students at multiple grade levels. She taught during the school year and studied at college over several summers to complete her Bachelor of Science degree at Glenville State College, Glenville, WV in 1946. While at college, she also waited tables at a boarding house in exchange for meals. After teaching one year at Squires School, 1941-42, she went on to 2 years at Hutchinson School in Gem, WV (1942-43-44), then 7 years at Burnsville, WV Graded School from 1944 to 1951.

In Copen, she used a horse to carry children across a creek to get to school. She talked to local officials about the need for a bridge across that creek, and was so convincing that crews were there the very next day making plans for the bridge. A bridge soon was built to accommodate both children and adults.

She met her future husband, Marshall Funkhouser, from south central Virginia. They were secretly married on December 28, 1950 at the home of Marshall’s aunt Seville in Fairfax County, VA without her mother’s knowledge. At first, her mother didn’t care for Mr. Funkhouser; however, that changed as he frequently took her out for ice cream and on other errands. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Funkhouser owned several horses which were stabled and groomed as racing horses near the Charles Town, West Virginia Race Track. Virginia went back to her hometown of Orlando, WV where she was baptized and became a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Shortly thereafter, following a professor’s recommendation, she and Marshall moved in 1951 to northern Virginia and resided in southern Fairfax County, VA. They later moved to Alexandria, where in September 1951 she started her 31 year career as an educator with the City of Alexandria school system while her husband continued his career with the Virginia Electric Power Company. They were each other’s constant companions in over 45 years of marriage beforeMr. Funkh ouser passed away in 1996 in Naples, Florida at their second home where they enjoyed the area and spending time with friends.

She was an avid walker, and upon her retirement, she enjoyed walking in her Alexandria neighborhood every day as the weather and her health would allow. She was well known in her neighborhood by those walks and by chatting with passersby as she tended to her property. She loved to garden, and was known to grow some of the best tomatoes and green peppers on Russell Road in Alexandria.

From 1951, Mrs. Funkhouser was an active member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ. She was a member of this church in Washington, DC and instrumental in founding a new mission and congregation in Springfield, VA. She wanted the best for the children, and saw to it through her benevolent financing that new carpeting and curtains were installed in all the children’s church school classrooms, and that a wonderful playground was provided for the children to have a safe and fun place to play. She was a strong supporter of a children’s Peace Pavilion, initiated by her church denomination at its International Headquarters in Independence, Missouri.

Virginia was a leader and promoter of a nationwide children’s reading program called Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), for many years headed up by Lynda Johnson Robb, who frequently visited schools in the Alexandria school system. In 1991, Mrs. Funkhouser was awarded the Distinguished National Service Award by the RIF Foundation. In 1981, as principal of the James K. Polk Elementary School, she played a part in the production of a National RIF movie. She served as co-President of RIF for Northern Virginia in 1986-87, and remained active as the chairperson for the Alexandria area RIF program for many more years. Virginia even traveled to the White House to represent the interests of that group/foundation before the President of the United States. The nonprofit RIF program helps more than 13 million children across the nation to read with the assistance of more than 120,000 volunteers. Mrs. Funkhouser was passionate in her desire that all children learn to read. It was her gift to them, one that remains with each person throughout his/her life.

Mrs. Funkhouser always stressed the value of getting a good education. Through the years she became quite fond of her church-sponsored college, Graceland University, located in Lamoni, Iowa, between Kansas City and Des Moines. She and Marshall generously supported Graceland, to the point of establishing a scholarship fund in both her and Marshall’s name, a scholarship which continues even today.

Mrs. Funkhouser’s career as an educator in the City of Alexandria began in 1951 as elementary teacher at Mt. Vernon Elementary School, under the leadership of Principal Beatrice Franklin, a pillar among her elementary school peers. Knowing the value of an advanced degree, while teaching during the school year, she used her summers to complete a Master’s Degree at the George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1955. After four years at Mt. Vernon as a teacher, upon receiving her Master’s, she was promoted to Assistant Principal. The superintendent of the Alexandria Schools, Mr. T.C. Williams, soon recognized Mrs. Funkhouser’s talents and skills, and made the most of her expertise by shifting her to other schools where a strong, energetic leader was needed.

In 1956, Mrs. Funkhouser became Assistant Principal at MacArthur Elementary School. She moved to Minnie Howard Elementary School as Assistant Principal in 1957-58. She then transferred to Prince Street Elementary School as Principal (1958-Feb 60). From Feb. 1960 to 1967, she was Principal at Robert E. Lee Elementary School on Washington Street, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. From there, she went to Charles Barrett Elementary School as Principal for 6 years (1968-1973). And in 1973, she transferred to James K. Polk Elementary School where she was Principal for 9 years from 1973 to 1982. Several of her teachers from the earlier schools transferred to Polk to continue their professional association with Virginia. Each time she moved to a new school, it was at the request of Mr. T.C. Williams because he had such faith and trust in Virginia’s leadership and management skills to get the best results, from both teachers and students. She was noted for being able to “straighten out” some of the problems being experienced at schools around the Alexandria school system. While she was principal she led the school through the period of desegregating schools and bussing. She was always known as a dedicated, hard worker, revered by her staff. She would regularly get to school quite early, and stay late most days. She established an excellent reputation by demonstrating her leadership in elementary education, both in teaching and in principal positions at several schools in Alexandria. She was a hard taskmaster, but she inspired teachers and students alike, gaining recognition as a superior educator for the Alexandria community.

Mrs. Funkhouser was invited to join Delta Kappa Gamma, an international professional honor society of women educators with over 150,000 members that promotes professional and personal growth of its members and excellence in education. She enjoyed participating in, and supporting, its several functions for many years.

She was truly admired by all who knew her. Well after her retirement from Polk Elementary School and the Alexandria school system in 1982 she continued to be in the forefront of organizations promoting excellence in education, and maintained her contact and close friendships with many of her teachers, secretaries, other principals, and even superintendents in the school system. She often invited her friends to visit at her home where she enjoyed preparing lunch for them. Perhaps her most favorite dish was crab cakes, for which she was always a popular cook. She was also known for being a “sharp” dresser. For many years after retiring, she maintained her membership in and attended the meetings of the Alexandria Retired Teachers Association.

Virginia was such a lover of good books. She especially enjoyed good children’s books, and she considered herself quite privileged to be a close personal friend to Cheryl Barnes, another Alexandria resident who is an accomplished author of children’s books, many of which are in Virginia’s home library. Virginia thoroughly enjoyed Cheryl’s books and would often give them as gifts to young children who were very special to her.

Virginia was an avid Washington Redskins Football Team fan, and together with Marshall, for many years they would attend all of the Redskins home games. They took pride in having a pair of those “hard to come by” Season Tickets, which offered an excellent view of the field at the 45 yard line on the home team’s side. They’ve held that pair of tickets for over 50 years! She even became good friends with Joe Theismann, the once-star quarterback for the Redskins, who accepted her invitation to come visit her and her students at Polk Elementary School on more than one occasion. She always cherished the “number 7” autographed jersey which Joe personally gave to her, proudly displaying it on the wall of the family room in her Alexandria home.

Her leadership and support of education gained her many friendships with persons in leadership positions at the city, state, and national levels. Often she received invitations to attend special banquets in both Washington, DC and northern Virginia. For many years she received Christmas cards and letters from U.S. Senators as well as the President of the United States.

Though she claimed to be shy, others would recount that she was never bashful, never hesitating to make her views well known. There was no doubt where she stood on just about any issue that you might want to discuss with her. She had a keen sense of humor. Professionally and personally, she was an inspiration to all. She will long be remembered as a highly respected leader in the Alexandria school system.

Mrs. Funkhouser left a legacy of high principles, and stressed the need for studying hard and doing well in school in order to succeed in life. She was admired, respected, and loved by so many people whose lives she touched along her own pathway of life. Many people have had success and been enriched in their own lives by being touched somewhere along the way by Virginia Funkhouser.


  1. Thank you for a very nice and interesting story on the lady I knew as "Aunt Ginny" or Aunt Virginia". She was my great Aunt, my mother was Sophie Jarvis's daughter Rose.

  2. Estie seemed to have a history of 'not caring for' her daughters' beaus. As you say here Virginia had to marry secretly. My Mammaw (Sophie, the older half sister) told of how her mother had never liked her choice either, my Grandfather Jesse Jarvis. As you notice, the middle daughter, Marie, never married at all.

  3. Dear Mr. Parmer,

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your history of Irish immigrants in Lewis County. I notice that the Morans were in Maryland before moving to Lewis County. For more than two years, I have documented the thousands of Irish who lived and labored in Albemarle, Nelson, and Augusta County, Virginia to build the Blue Ridge Tunnel between 1850-1860. Many of them worked for the B&O before moving to Virginia.

    Morans and Griffins are on my list of documented names, so there is a good chance that some of your ancestors helped build the Virginia Blue Ridge Tunnel and Railroad before moving to Lewis County.

    I noticed that you mentioned Quinns as being on the 1870 census for Lewis County. One of them was John Quinn, a mason employed at the Blue Ridge Tunnel. He moved his family to Lewis County around the time the tunnel was finished. He and his wife left behind two deceased children whose grave I am trying to protect from damage. It is located in Albemarle County, Virginia. The task would be much easier if I could find Quinn descendants.

    I hope one day--maybe soon!--to visit St. Bridget's Cemetery in Lewis County. I think this is where John Quinn and his wife must be buried. I know it's where their granddaughter, who lived only 1 1/2 hours, is buried. She was the child of John Quinn, Jr., and Mary Kaden Quinn.

    If you'd like to read more about the Virginia Blue Ridge Tunnel and the Quinn Cemetery, please visit my blog. It's called Clann Mhór Rising.

    Thank you!

  4. Monique SheafferWednesday, July 17, 2013

    Mrs. Funkhouser was my elementary school principal at Charles Barrett Elementary and I remember her well! My love of reading though already well ingrained from Maury Elementary and days there with Mrs. Beach as principal, was enhanced by many levels thanks to Mrs. Funkhouser. My love of learning and education are very much thanks to her!