One survivor’s story
Boardman woman, 103, weathered flu pandemic, Great Depression, COVID-19
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or metro editor Marly Kosinski at email@example.com.
BOARDMAN — Genevieve Coontz is a survivor.
She was 1 year old when the Spanish flu pandemic hit in 1918. The disease killed her mother. Coontz — the youngest of 14 children — was mostly raised by older siblings while her father worked.
She was 12 when the Great Depression struck in 1929.
She raised five children on her own after her husband died in 1975 at 57.
She survived a bout with pneumonia at the age of 98, which landed her at her new home, Shepherd of the Valley in Boardman. And in April, at 103, she survived COVID-19.
Coontz, who will be 104 in March, is the oldest resident at the West Boulevard facility, according to staff members. And while her memory may be fuzzy on certain aspects of her life, the feisty woman still speaks her mind.
Her parents were John and Regina Staud and she grew up in Elkins, W.Va. After John’s first wife died — leaving him with four young children — he married the family’s housekeeper and they had 10 more children before she died of the Spanish flu.
Coontz said her father was a German-born tailor and he would walk up the mountains in West Virginia to measure the loggers for suits and show them fabric samples.
“I remember my dad sitting at the table making those suits,” Coontz said. “The men wore them out on the town when they had time off.”
She learned how to sew from watching her dad and she became a hobby seamstress, making her children’s clothes as they grew up, including her daughters’ prom gowns. She also baked bread daily for her family to eat and grew and canned all their food.
During the Great Depression, Coontz said her large family had nothing, so she learned to be resourceful.
“We were lucky to have shoes on our feet,” she said.
She met Wesley Edward Coontz at a wedding when his cousin married her brother. They dated two years before getting married.
Their daughter, Maggie Garwood of Canfield, said her father was a “bit of a rascal” and since her mom was a “good Catholic girl,” the parish priest wouldn’t marry them, so they got married in Newark.
Wesley Coontz worked as a signal man on a railroad caboose and once when he peeked out to wave to the train engineer, he hit his head on a pole and was unconscious for two weeks. He and Genevieve used the $13,000 settlement from the railroad to buy their first house in Newark.
“He dug out the basement himself,” Coontz said of her husband.
Wesley then worked on the pipeline and they relocated to Lisbon for his job. The couple lived in a trailer and would follow the pipeline as it was being built.
“My mom took a taxi to the hospital to have me,” Garwood said. “My dad didn’t see me until I was 3 months old and I slept in a clothes basket on the couch because I didn’t have a crib.”
The couple had five children, Michael, Thomas, Robert, Maggie and Mary. Tom died in 1992 and Bob died in 1994. Both had a brain aneurism and died 18 months apart.
“That was a very hard time for our family,” said Garwood, who is the second-youngest.
All five of the Coontz children graduated from Lisbon schools.
After Coontz’s husband died, she went to work as a cook in the Lisbon High School cafeteria, retiring after 15 years.
“My mom would bring us home leftovers from the cafeteria even though she wasn’t supposed to,” Garwood recalled. “We were pretty poor. She had a hard life.”
Coontz said the thing she hated most while working in the cafeteria was picking turkey off the bones.
“It was greasy, and I just hated it,” she said.
Coontz’s daughter Mary now lives in Columbus and her son Mike lives in Arizona, while Maggie lives in Canfield. She has 13 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. Her grandchildren, who range in age from 38 to 50, always called her “Momo” and would visit faithfully every time they were in town until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought visits to a halt. Her great-great-grandchildren range in age from 1 to 10.
“The no contact thing has been very hard on her,” Garwood said of her mother. During a visit on Wednesday, the women talked to each other through a plastic partition in the lobby. However, Coontz is hard of hearing and the conversation had to be “translated” by Jim Evener, who is the facility’s maintenance director.
“He has taken my mom under his wing and has been so great to her,” Garwood said.
Several times during the visit, Coontz used her favorite saying: “I love you little, I love you big, I love you like a little pig.” Garwood said she is not sure how the rhyme got started, but Coontz uses it often with her and other family members.
One of the staff members told Garwood that Coontz recently asked to go outside because she didn’t have much time left. When her daughter asked her what she meant, Coontz replied, “I am 103. The odds are not in my favor.”