Obituary – Erma Dunham
Erma (Knight) Dunham, 93, of Kansas City MO died April 1, 2013. She was the widow of Albert B. Dunham, Jr. They raised and educated four children together, farming about 600 acres of Macon County land until his death in 1997. Erma also taught English, French, drama and publications for 25 years at area schools – New Cambria, Macon, Marceline and Moberly -- until her retirement in 1978.
Erma was born October 22, 1919, and raised on “Justamere Farm,”near Milan MO, the daughter of Herbert and Edna Knight and the sixth of eight siblings who remained close friends for life. Only the youngest sibling survives (Ruth Knight Parkinson of Durango CO, the mother of Judge Paul Parkinson of Macon).
Erma started first grade at the one-room Walnut Grove school before her 5th birthday, was twice promoted ahead of her age group, graduated at 16, and received her bachelor’s degree from Kirksville State Teachers College (now Truman State University) at 19. Her first job after college was teaching all grades, back home at Walnut Grove, where she was both younger and much smaller than a few male students.
Perhaps that is why she invited her fiancé Albert, brother of her college roommate (the late Mary Ann Noble), to come down from Callao for the school’s annual “pie supper,” a traditional fund-raiser for which available girls baked and fancily boxed their best pies, which were then auctioned, supposedly anonymously, to the eligible young men in attendance.
When the bidding for Erma’s pie began, the tall stranger was the first to bid, soeveryone guessed who had baked it. The local boys quickly joined the bidding, knowing that the stranger from Callao would not lethimself to be outbid. By the time the gavel sounded, that one pie had raised a lot of funds for the betterment of the school.
Erma married Albert (known as “Si” to close friends and family) in Macon on June 20, 1940 and moved into his family home on the Chariton River bottom between New Cambria and Callao, there to stay for some 30 years before building a new house west of New Cambria. There were lean times and challenging times, but always good times. In the late 1950’s the family was selected to represent Macon County at the state fair as a “Typical Farm Family,” and that they were.
A constant flow of correspondence from former students validated Erma’s belief that the opportunity to teach teenagers gave back for a lifetime. As if teaching school full-time while raising four children (separated by just 5 years, oldest to youngest) was not enough, Erma was involved, often in a leadership role, in innumerable organizations and events, always with the goal of bringing people together.
Page 2 of 3 - Finding too few activities for farm kids, she founded the Good Luck 4-H Club in New Cambria in the early 1950s. For farm wives with too few opportunities for affiliation, she started the “CNC” Extension Club where common interests and issues could be shared by farm women around Callao and New Cambria.
Throughout the more than 60 years that she lived in Macon County, Erma was active in the Callao Christian Church, serving, at various times, as a Sunday school teacher, director of vacation Bible school, secretary of the board, editor of the monthly newsletter, and president of Women’s Outreach and the Women’s Council.
Erma’s other affiliations in Macon County include New Cambria’s Chamber of Commerce, Housing Agency (with a term as president), Fall Festival committee (chair of the program committee), Centennial committee and 125-year committee. She chaired the Macon County Bicentennial committee (agricultural interest), was a founding member of the Samaritan Memorial Foundation board and its long-time secretary, president of the Macon County unit of the AAUW, president of Chapter AQ of the PEO, president of the Order of the Eastern Star. She belonged to the Macon County retired teachers association, serving in several capacities, and was district membership chair for the Kiwanis Club.
Erma also presented various programs for PTA’s in Callao, Bucklin and New Cambria, for the Anti-Rust club in Macon, Lutheran Women, Macon Rotary, Kiwanis, Area Retired Teachers, “vo-tech”classes, Extension Council, Achievement Day, Church Women’s council and Mother’s Day Tea. Even after the death of Albert, when Erma sold the farm and moved to Macon, she added one more affiliation, serving as secretary of the neighborhood council. When she moved from Macon to Kansas City two years later (to be closer to her children), she was active in 12 different organizations.
Erma was also known throughout her life as a student of language, a lover of words and anall-purpose writer. She wrote poems for all occasions, both public and private. She wrote daily secret diary entries, frequent letters to siblings and former students, public programs and skits, and pieces for newspapers in Marceline, Kirksville, Kansas Cityand Macon. In the early 1980s she wrote a weekly column on grammar and usage forthe Macon Chronicle-Herald called “Well Said.” She was a crossword puzzle lover who, even in her nineties, always had a crossword nearby. (And pity any who had the temerity to challenge her at Scrabble! She rarely lost and took no prisoners.)
She was a proponent and practitioner of life-long learning. After starting her family and career, she continued to take college courses in summers until she had earned a Master’s Degree. In 1965 she spent a summer studying French at Rheims University in France. She took classes in rapid-reading; took, then taught, the Great Books course; took many workshops related to her profession, and some – such as quilt-making – not so much.
Page 3 of 3 - But, after retirement from teaching, she took up quilt making as a hobby and made at least one quilt for each of her children and grandchildren, plus one of her three great-grandchilden, before running out of time. But even those last two, who called Erma G.G., for Great-Grandmother, have the benefit of the “healing quilt,” one of Erma’s that is brought out whenever one of the kids is not feeling well. It is said that the love embodied within gives it healing magic.
Erma Dunham is survived by daughter Carol Rothwell and her husband Roger Pierard of Kansas City; son Jim Dunham of Kansas City; son Bob Dunham and his wife Suma Kumar Dunham of Apex, North Carolina; plus daughter Susan Schmelzer and husband Charles “Chip” Schmelzer of Kansas City. She is also survived by eight grandchildren Dan Rothwell (Audrey and daughter Sienna), of Perth, Australia, Julie Rothwell (Dr. David Rudman and their daughters Zoe and Grace, and son Max), Marcus Dunham, and Brooks Dunham of the Kansas City area; Jonathan Schmelzer of Washington DC; and Adrienne, Grant and Meredith Dunham and their mother Mary Ann Dunhamof Kansas City.
Erma is also survived by her aforementioned sister, Ruth Parkinson, a cousin, Marie Collum of LaPlata, 23 nieces and nephews, 47 grandnieces and nephews, and a handful of great grandnieces and nephews.
A memorial service celebrating the life and love of Erma Dunham will be held at the Callao Christian Church on May 18, 2013. Erma faced life and death with cheerful equanimity and would want us to do the same. Weeks before the end, adaughter, near tears, sat with her and asked quietly “Are you in pain?” Erma responded, “No, but it lookslike you are.”
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions to the Samaritan Memorial Foundation in Macon or the Callao Christian Church would be a fitting tribute. Remembrances and condolences may be expressed at www.stineandmcclure.com.