Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Janet Knohr Evans, 1931-2020

My mother Janet Knohr was considered an older mother by many of the kids I grew up with in Alabama in the 1970s.  She had married in 1958 at the age of 26, but I wasn't born until my mother was nearly 34, seven years into her marriage to John Evans, then a graduate student in economics at the University of Wisconsin.  Even 26 was old for first marriage to a lot of my contemporaries, however, their parents having wed when they were not long out of high school.  Contrastingly  my mother had had a career before marriage, something somewhat unusual in the 1950s, when women were being urged, after rosily riveting during the Second World War, back into domesticity, by keeping house and bearing children.

Janet Knohr Evans
with her grandmother,
Mary Maurer Lehr
Like her four brothers, my mother became a schoolteacher.  She was born in the small Pennsylvania Dutch town of Gratz in 1931, to Daniel Milton Knohr and his wife of two decades, Jennie Lehr.  Some of her earliest memories were of her maternal grandmother, Mary Maurer, who saw Lincoln's funeral train in Harrisburg in 1865, when she was just shy of sixteen years old. 

Widowed at a young age (her husband Daniel Lehr had died in 1888 from Bright's Disease), Mary Maurer owned the house in which Daniel and her daughter Jennie lived all their married life together.  One half of the first floor of the house served as Mary's bed-sit, where Janet, the youngest of the eight children of Daniel and Jennie, on occasion would be invited by her elderly grandmother to partake of hard candy from a coffee canister.  Janet remembered her grandmother Mary, who died at the age of 88 two days after Janet's sixth birthday, on one occasion giving her ears a playful tweak.

Janet's earliest years were lived during the Great Depression.  Her four brothers eventually became schoolteachers, but her bright eldest sister, Mary, who served as rather a mother figure to her, was never sent to college, though in school she had proved an adept student, with a penchant for Latin. 

Janet herself graduated from high school in 1949, six years after her father's death during World War Two.  (Two of his sons then were fighting in Africa and Europe and the stress over this helped kill him.)  Thereupon Janet enrolled at Shippensburg State Teachers College (today Shippensburg University).  She graduated four years later and began teaching twelfth grade English at Hershey High School in the famed "chocolate town" of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

my mother directed drama at Hershey High School,
Hershey Pennsylvania, 1954-56
(pictured lower left in top pic and left in center pic)
Janet taught at Hershey for two years, during which time she became the faculty adviser to the drama club and directed the annual school plays, One Foot in Heaven and Father of the Bride

In 1955-56 she taught twelfth grade English at Tri-Valley High School in the small town of Hegins, Pennsylvania, where she herself had graduated from high school a half-dozen years earlier.  Again she directed the annual school play, this time Ayn Rand's popular Thirties courtroom mystery, The Night of January 16th.*

*(I'll have more on this play and my Mom's staging of it in my next blog post.)

After a year at Tri-Valley Janet left with her good teacher friend Ethel Long to enroll in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  There she met, and in 1958 married, John Evans, a strapping Texas native.  She later taught sixth grade English at Jolley Elementary school in Vermilion, South Dakota, home of the state university, where John was teaching.  The conservative and highly upright woman principal at Jolley praised Mom for being "a lady," which always amused her.  She got called a lady a lot over the years.

In 1968 Janet and John ventured south from Madison, Wisconsin to Alabama, where John had accepted a teaching position at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. This move Janet initially greeted with considerable skepticism, given events in the South at that time,  but Janet and John would live in Alabama for over three decades, there raising their two children, Jennifer and Curtis.  Not happy with the teaching positions being offered her in Alabama, Janet in the late Seventies and early Eighties successively managed the Brooks Fashion Stories at McFarland and University malls in Tuscaloosa.  In her leisure time, which came to her finally in her fifties, she enjoyed reading, films, music, games (particularly word games, at which she was fantastically adept) and travel.

Among Janet's favorite reading were mysteries.  In 1974, when the Evans family was living in Mexico City, where John taught international finance at the National University, Janet, with her itchy eight year-old-son Curtis in tow, for eight pesos apiece fatefully bought four Agatha Christie Pocket paperback mysteries (And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders, Funerals Are Fatal/After the Funereal and Murder Is East/Easy to Kill),  Sitting curled up in the family's love seat that summer in their Mexico City apartment, Curtis devoured them all and was hooked on tales of detection forever more.  (I also vividly recall reading some shocking twist tale called "The Machete Murderer" in, believe, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) 

me with my mother at the cancer clinic
on the first day of her treatment for
metastatic breast cancer, three years ago
Thus I owe my love of mysteries to my mystery loving mother, who, like so many of her sisters in the Fifties, gave up an academic career in the Fifties for marriage and children.  I hope that whatever success she saw her son enjoy in intellectual work may have been one of the things that helped reconcile her to that decision. 

Not only her sister Mary had encouraged her to follow an intellectual course in her life, but also her favorite teacher at Shippensburg, labor historian James Bernard Hogg, the first chair of Shippensburg History and Philosophy Department.  They knew she had great promise.  I know I owe my late mother more than I could ever have hoped to repay, has she lived to be 100, as she might well have but for her metastatic stage one breast cancer.

She died from that cancer today, April 15, at age 88 and is terribly missed by her husband, children and grandchildren.  Memorial contributions can be made to the Center for Creative Education and Metavivor, promoting metastatic breast cancer awareness and research.  Please give, both for those of youthful promise and for those who, though older, may still have much left to offer the world.  Creative life at any age should never be cut short.


  1. Oh God Curtis! I, a stranger, felt emotionally wretched after reading this, what must you be passing through. Your mother seems a wonderful person. My prayers are with you and your family.

  2. Curt, what a lovely and fitting tribute to your beautiful, wonderful mother.

  3. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful creative resilient woman. I would have liked to have known her.

  4. I'm so sorry for your loss, but at least it sounds like she lived a very full, satisfying, loving and loved life.

  5. I know it's been a rough time for you of late. I've been there as you know, my friend. My deepest sympathies. Great tribute to someone who must've been a lovely woman.

  6. This is a lovely tribute from a loving son, Curt.

  7. Well said my friend. So sorry for your loss. Ed Robbins let me know of your mom's passing. As always, if there is anything you need we are here for you.

  8. This is Howard East. I guess I am "Unknown" to your blog. I'll try to change that.

  9. Thanks you everyone for the comments. She was a great lady.

  10. Curt, this is a loving tribute to your and I can feel your love and the loss you have experienced. You were lucky to have such a wonderful mother. I was in school at the University of Alabama from 1967 - 1971 (grew up in Birmingham) and that experience was the first I had of a less racist environment in the South. I am glad you shared this with us.

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I remember years ago you said you were a UA grad like me. I was there in the 1980s. We came down in 1968, so 68-69 was my Dad's first year there. That would have been your sophomore year then. Myself, I don't remember it all cause I was only two!