“Chilling out” with the Kohls

When one approaches the underground home of Gary and MaryAnn Kohl, just outside Lexington, Va. in Rockbridge County, the building doesn’t look unusual.  In fact, in appearance, it’s not unlike a regular Adobe house you might see on either side of the Mexican/American border or in the desert.  There, houses were constructed of clay and mortar and Adobe bricks for insulation from the oppressive heat. The Kohl’s house accomplishes that and more. The house looks as though someone dug a huge hole in the mountain and slid the house into it.  I had no idea I was walking into a cave.  The front of the house is open and covered with windows, but the rest of it is  buried in dirt.  When I told the Kohls I wanted to visit their new home, I had no idea they were building an “Earth Shelter Home”.  I noticed that the ceilings were unusually high, 13 feet, and contained two very large circular skylights.  They and the front, South-facing, windows provide plenty of light in the combined kitchen/dining room area.  Most of the rooms are equipped with solar tubes so there is little need for electric lighting.

On one Sunday when I visited and shared a meal with the Kohls and their son, Spencer’s family, the temperature was close to 90 degrees outdoors, and comfortably cool indoors.  There is no central heat or air conditioning, just a few ceiling fans. The couple managed to survive one unusually cold winter in rural Virginia with a few space heaters and seem confident that they made the correct decision when they decided to build an underground house. People who visit the home have lots of questions for the Kohls, and it’s a common thing for local residents to ask newcomers why they happened to move to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  A few years ago the Kohls visited their son, Spencer and his wife, Elizabeth,  who were attending Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista and decided this was where they wanted to retire.  They moved here from Rhode Island in 2012 and immediately began building their house across the road from a small farm run by their son and daughter-in-law.  The younger couple cared for a large goatherd and sold their unique  Chevre’ Cheese at the local farmer’s markets.   The goats were nibbling grass on the roof of the Kohl’s underground house when I, a freelance writer, visited, although Gary Kohl is quick to point out they are not supposed to be doing that. The problem was eventually solved.  (I lost one of my hearing aids and assumed the goats ate it since the Kohls  didn’t find it.)






Fraternity Fall Leaves O.U. Student in Critical Condition

Ohio University. March 11, 1989: (Phi Gamma Delta Housemother)

One of those crises situations one hopes will never happen occurred at 2 a.m. March 10, 1989.  I had stayed up late and was finally dozing in my apartment when Chris Brady, the President came to my door and said, “Mom, there’s a problem.”  Someone has fallen from the roof and the emergency squad is here.”   (I asked who it was and he said Tedd Sisunik.) I slipped into a heavy bathrobe and as I walked through the House I observed small clusters of young male and female students crying and talking.  I walked out the front door and around to the driveway and saw Tedd lying in a large pool of blood on the concrete sidewalk.  I have always thought that a person would die instantly if he fell from a roof like ours, and I assumed he must be dead since he was lying quietly at the moment.  But then he began to talk and try to move and I was shocked by his terrible condition.  His face was a bloody pulp  and his cries of pain were…………………(I scratched out the words I originally wrote and wrote, “terrible to hear,” so I guess I had trouble describing them.)  I went toward him since I wanted to hold him or try to comfort him, but the emergency worker told me I would have to get back as they were bringing some equipment.  I stayed there a few minutes, but each time they moved him, tried to brace his neck or otherwise stabilize him, he screamed or cried in such pain that I finally walked into the House. As I entered the foyer I found Mike McClain, who had seen Tedd fall past the TV room window and jumped out the window to try to help him, as he told me later.  Mike was crouched over in a heap on the stairs leading to the second floor sobbing.  I went up and sat next to him and gathered him into my arms as he continued to sob.  He was covered with Tedd’s blood and after a few minutes he became concerned that he would get blood on my robe but I told him it was okay  and he fell back into my arms and cried for several more minutes.  After he settled down we talked for a few minutes and that’s when he told me what had happened

After I left Mike I walked through the House and there were persons needing reassurance and comfort.  Some had been drinking uptown since there had been no party at the House that night and the bars had closed at 2 a.m. Some were so drunk that it did require most of my patience to stand quietly by and listen to them while Tedd’s screams still pierced the air.  But I didn’t want his cries to end because it meant he was still alive.  They were even louder as I walked into my apartment to call the House Corporation President. I also wanted to get away from Ted’s screams because I couldn’t comfort him and they weren’t giving him anything for the pain. (I’m sure they couldn’t under the circumstances,) I didn’t want to hear him crying like that.  Had he been one of the boys I knew well I believe I would have had much harder time emotionally.  As it was, I barely knew Tedd and it was only my training as a newspaper reporter that kept me as calm as I was. David Slater’s line was busy.  I suspect someone had already called him. I really needed to speak to some of the leadership so at 3 a.m. I called Tom Beckerman, a member of the board.  Sometime between 2:00 a.m. and 3 a.m. we called Tedd’s parents after we were sure that the police or hospital had notified them.  I phoned them and had the Chapter President, Chris Brady, speak to Tedd’s father when he answered the phone.  I know that was hard for Chris, but I also knew things were going to get a lot harder in the days to come and that we couldn’t hide from the press or University officials. Tedd was taken to our local hospital and later flown by helicopter to Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.   I called the administrator of the Athens hospital, Rick Castrop, at his home around 3 a.m. I knew Rick because I worked for the Athens newspaper and he was very helpful and said he would get me a medical report.  He later called me back and said Tedd had severe internal injuries, two broken wrists and severe skull fractures.His liver was damaged causing internal bleeding, his lungs had collapsed and there were many other injuries they would discover later, but the first issue was saving his life. When I called the Athens emergency room to respond to a policeman’s questions I could still hear Tedd screaming in the background.  I kept wondering how much longer he could handle that and I pray to God he never remembers it.  About 4 a.m. he was flown to Columbus which was not far away and a few of the Fraternity members immediately left for Columbus. Tedd would eventually undergo some six hours of surgery and when that was over he was in a coma with multiple, severe skull fractures.  Most of the other injuries had been repaired during his life-saving surgery including a massive tear to his liver.  He had lost a good deal of blood but he was still alive. The hardest thing, in the days that followed, was the lack of information.  For various legal reasons, we were told not to discuss the incident with anyone and the Columbus Hospital would not take my phone calls.  After a few months, I gave up trying to get information about Tedd and decided to leave a town and a job I really had loved. It also meant dropping out of OU without that Journalism degree I coveted.  When I arrived in Lexington, Va. to start my new job at the Sigma Chi Fraternity House in 1994, one of the first things I did was have the name of our House posted in English as well as Greek words.  I was always fearful that an accident could occur and the ambulance would have trouble finding the Houses.  Later I worked with Washington and Lee Maintenance to see that house numbers were clearly placed on all the buildings as required by city ordinance. I never really got over the trauma of Tedd’s fall, and often blamed myself for the fact that Tedd or anyone else had access to the roof. The young man who was House Manager for the Chapter felt the same guilt. (Only a 2015 update will make me feel any better about the tragic events of what had started out as a peaceful Spring term in Athens, Ohio.)


My Word

A short clip from a House Mother’s Advice Column: I wrote this when I was attending Ohio University on  January 25, 1990 and working as a Fraternity House Mother.

Did you, dear House Mom, awaken at 6:30 a.m. this morning, to open the kitchen for breakfast, only to discover that all the doorknobs were covered with Crisco Shortening, and most of the furniture in the Television Room was turned upside down?  Did you walk, slipper clad, on crunchy floors and carpets that were covered with wood chips, emptied from a pathetic-looking potted plant that had previously decorated the foyer of the Fraternity House?  Did you happen to discover there were no Coffee cups or glasses in the kitchen as you groped your way to the Orange Juice and Coffee dispensers, and that a small pig was wandering around the second floor bathroom. Did your phone ring just as you returned to your apartment to fetch a coffee cup, and the cook inform you he was ill and would not be able to work for several weeks just as Rush was beginning?

Welcome to the world of the College Fraternity House Mother. As I’m sure most of you already know, a House Mother’s days are spent rushing from crises to crises.  Some of them consist of small, everyday pranks, such as water balloon fights, during which there is the ever-present possibility that the House Mother will become an inviting target.  Others can be more serious and include life-threatening accidents, appliance failures, plumbing disasters, budget problems, and emotional exhaustion, probably the “House Manager’s,” and yours, of course. The House Manager is an elective position held by one of the students.  He can be a House Mother’s right arm when you’re compatible or your worst enemy if you’re not.

What should now be clear is that a keen sense of humor, extreme tolerance, a strong stomach, and an even temperament are prime necessities if you plan to be the perfect House Mother.  Since very few of us can claim anything near perfection, we strive to develop at least two or three of these traits.  I have a weak stomach and have been known to lose my temper and raise my voice occasionally, but that’s okay.  Males seem to understand hot tempered women and prefer that to tears.  If you possess none of the good traits, consider another job, perhaps as a Sorority House Mother since the sororities appear to be more civilized, albeit quite dull at times.

Good health is vital for a House Mother, but since most of us are older women, it is unlikely that any of us possess the health of a 21-year-old college student.  There is probably no better way to ruin your health and your attitude than losing sleep.  College students are able to stay awake nearly all night and sleep at odd hours.  It is likely they will awaken you from time to time.  Insist that the Fraternity house corporation provide you with the quietest quarters possible since you will be required to live in the House full time when the students are present. When applying for a job, ask to see the House Mother’s apartment and check the construction and location.  An apartment with its own kitchen is a bonus.  My apartment at the O.U. FIJI House was located next to the TV room so I had an extra heavy door installed on my apartment and it did cushion the sound.  There is no need to worry that you will not be awakened in an emergency.  Your charges are able to wake the dead when they want to.

Students do have a tendency to be inconsiderate at night, and are less likely to awaken you for a peanut butter sandwich if you take some precautions.  Although the students are not likely to awaken you for frivolous  reasons, a peanut butter sandwich or any kind of food is not in that category. Fraternity boys have been known to scale roofs and walls, pick locks, and commit almost any other kind of mayhem to get food from a locked kitchen at 2:00 a.m.  Each time a kitchen break-in occurs, I call a locksmith (preferably the most costly one in town) and have all the locks changed.  Then I send the bill to the Chapter.  Since this can get quite expensive, break-ins usually stop when the bills reach several hundred dollars.

With the kitchen secure you can now work on ways to deal with the young men who will knock on your door begging for food in the middle of the night, a sight no decent “Mom” can ignore.  Firstly, take the precaution of leaving your apartment door open from the moment you are dressed in the morning until you retire at night.  That way, a closed door signifies that you are either sleeping or gone.  If students grow accustomed to knocking on your closed door throughout  the day, they will consider it normal to do so at night, even at 4 a.m. College students often lose track of time.  (They also consider someone who retires at 10:00 p.m. a bit odd.)

A second form of insurance is a small auxiliary kitchen which most sororities, but few fraternities have.  If no such facility is available, consider setting one up in a small, underused portion of the dining room or other underused space. My Chapter and I cooperated in seeing that a coffee pot, soda dispenser, ice machine, small refrigerator, microwave oven and cabinets to hold paper cups and plates, or inexpensive crockery were available.  We also asked a vending firm to place snack and soft drink machines in the basement.  We kept a small refrigerator filled with leftovers from our regular menu, along with bread, milk, peanut butter, and a few snack foods.  The cupboards can hold coffee and milk packets as well as sugar and jelly.  (In 2015 coffee, hot chocolate and apple cider pods and Keurig-style cups will be a good idea if you can afford to use a Keurig type machine.)  During finals study time, my cook stocked the kitchenette with whatever snack foods his budget allowed, and the students were so grateful that they seldom trashed the food area.  After taking all these small steps and precautions, I was assured a good night’s sleep on most nights.

Here’s wishing all of you a wonderful Summer break.  I’m sure you’ve earned it.


The Hoffer Collection

All of us are familiar with the missionary work performed by numerous churches.  Sharing the gospel (or good news) with others is an essential part of Christ’s teaching.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a Missionary Church.  However, their work doesn’t end when people die since their salvation efforts extend beyond the grave.  It’s not unusual for faithful men and women to pray for the dead.  However, Mormons take that one step further.  They take the words of the Apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 15:29 literally.  His question is an interesting one.  He asks why we should perform baptisms for the dead if they are not going to live again.  This is precisely why The Church has spent many years and untold hours supporting volunteers who catalogue, collect and index genealogical records from every corner of the world.

The work of gathering and protecting records applies to members and non-members alike.  In 1993, the small town of Conyers, Georgia, three members of the community came together and formed The Rockdale County Genealogical Society.  Thirty-one people gathered at the Nancy Guinn Library for that first meeting.  Chris Zawadzki, a member of the local L.D.S. Church, later became president of the Society and invited the group to use Church facilities for their meetings when the Library began a major renovation project.  Members of the Society began using the Family History room at the local congregation’s church.

In 2010 The Society was contacted by resident, Cliff Hoffer.  Hoffer told members that his late Mother, Elwanda Hoffer, a long-time member of the Georgia State Archives, had left a vast collection of genealogical material.  She had personally told her son that she wanted the collection to be preserved intact.  She was concerned that, because of its size and diversity, it might be divided among recipients.  Cliff Hoffer agreed and was anxious to fulfill his promise to his Mother.

Hoffer first offered the collection to the Georgia Archives says Zawadzki, current President of the Society.  The Archives were only interested in the oldest material.  He next offered it to the Conyers Public Library, but they were only interested in the newer material.  Finally, Hoffer approached Zawadzki who was serving as both the L.D.S. Family History Director and the President of the Society at that time. Without hesitation, the Society accepted the entire collection even though they had no idea what they would find or where they would be able to store it. “We immediately accepted the entire collection, not knowing what we would find,” says Zawadzki.. The RCGS Board approved the offer and Zawadzki suggested they display it in the L.D.S. Family History Center located on Flat Shoals Road in Conyers.

What began as a small suggestion blossomed into a major project and a bit of a nightmare.  Mrs. Hoffer had dedicated one entire room of her sprawling house to research plus, “As we discovered,” Zawadzki says, “an upstair’s room with additional information.”  That’s an understatement.  RCGS members traveled to the spacious home and removed about 1500 papers, pictures, books, booklets, binders, manuscripts, journals and maps.  “Also we removed surname folders that eventually would fill eight drawers in two filing cabinets,”  Zawadzki adds. Members of the Mormon Ward spent hundreds of hours building floor to ceiling shelves and expanding the small Family History Center, adding cabinets and meeting space as well.

Finally, with the collection in hand and safely stored the Society members began the tedious task of reviewing and examining every single document.  Their goal was to reduce the size of the massive collection without damaging any important material.  By April 2011, about 6 months later, the members completed the first step by indexing the collection, Zawadzki says, and as a follow up, “We labeled Mrs. Hoffer’s collection, entered her family history into Family Tree Maker and undertook the task of cleaning up the surname folders.  That work is still underway in 2015.

Over 700 hours of service, both by The Church and the Society Members have provided the community with a rare and valuable resource.  Cliff Hoffer was able to see his Mother’s hard work pay big dividends and many in the community reap its benefits before he died in 2014. He can rest in peace knowing that his Family’s vast collection is safe, cherished, and now open to the public as “The Hoffer Collection” in the Family History wing of The Church of Jesus Christ of latter Day Saints.