June 9, 2011 in Washington Voices

Woman believes deceased Cheney educator is her mother

The Spokesman-Review
 
Lisa Leinberger photo

Helen Boley visits the grave of Florrie Christine Elrod last week in Cheney. Boley, who was adopted in 1937, believes Elrod may be her birth mother.
(Full-size photo)

It was a reunion that came about 40 years too late. Helen Boley, 74, of Madison, Wis., was given up for adoption in 1937. She knows her birth mother was named Christine Elrod from Oklahoma and that Boley was born in Chicago before her adoptive parents took her home.

Her adoptive parents visited the adoption agency expecting to adopt a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl they named Louise. While they were there, Boley was crying in her crib.

“Mom turned to Dad and asked, ‘Can we take her, too?’ ” Boley said. The couple went home with two babies that day.

She traveled all over the world with her family that also included a brother. She eventually married and had five children of her own.

But she always wondered about the woman who gave her up so many years ago.

Florrie Christine Elrod was a teacher at Eastern Washington State College and the Robert Reid Lab School in Cheney.

Helen Boots, the historian of the Cheney Cemetery Association and a longtime Cheney resident, remembers the children’s plays Elrod used to produce and the costumes she used.

“I don’t think I ever heard anybody say anything about Miss Elrod that wasn’t positive,” Boots said.

Jack Martin was the principal at Reid starting in 1969. Although Elrod retired a couple of years before, he remembered that she spent many hours in the school library with her students.

“She taught more children to love books than anybody else,” Martin said. The school, which has since been closed, named the library after Elrod.

Elrod died in 1972. She wasn’t one for being the center of attention, so she requested no service be held for her. Boots and Martin remembered that some friends of Elrod’s didn’t agree, so they had a memorial service for her anyway.

But something went wrong about that time. About two years ago, the Cheney Cemetery Association was contacted by Ball and Dodd Funeral Home. Several urns of remains had been found sitting on a shelf in an old funeral home – some had been there for more than 70 years. The association worked to reunite family members with their loved ones but there were four people who remained unclaimed. Elrod was one of them.

The organization found a plot in Fairview Cemetery which had been donated to the cemetery association. They held a special service for Elrod and the others in September 2009. Boots said that several of Elrod’s former students pooled their money to buy her a headstone.

Many miles away, Boley’s daughter-in-law found a newspaper story online about the four Cheney residents finally coming to rest and contacted John Boots, the Cheney Cemetery Association sexton and Helen Boots’ son.

“Johnny was so taken aback by it,” Helen Boots said. She added that Elrod was one of his grade school teachers.

Boley had been planning a trip to Sandpoint to visit family friends before she and her longtime companion, James Fields went fishing in Montana. She decided to swing by Cheney with Fields and family friend, Loraine Lassen, to see what she could learn.

The cemetery association gathered as much information as they could about Elrod. They contacted Charles Mutschler, archivist at Eastern Washington University who collected pictures of Elrod, notes she had written and even her transcripts. The transcripts showed that Elrod attended college in Oklahoma.

“This is amazing,” Boley said while she looked through the photos, looking closely at Elrod’s features, trying to find bits of herself. “I feel wobbly.”

She looked through the transcripts, hoping to see her own interests in Elrod’s as well.

“I feel that the things I enjoy are very connected to what she did,” Boley said. She wanted to be a teacher at one time, attended Sarah Lawrence College and Oberlin College, but never finished.

“I’m glad she (Elrod) doesn’t know that,” she said. Instead, Boley married and had children.

Boley has the court papers from her adoption in 1937 which show Elrod released custody of Baby Girl Elrod. She has applied with the State of Illinois for the sealed and signed papers of the adoption. She hopes to see if the handwriting matches that on the notes Elrod had written in Cheney.

Boley thought back to the time when she was born, a time when female teachers were not allowed to marry, much less become unwed mothers.

“It would have been a big scandal,” Boley said.

During Boley’s visit to Cheney, association members took her on a tour of Cheney, visiting the house where Elrod lived and the cemetery where she was eventually buried.

Boley quietly touched Elrod’s headstone, running her fingers over the name engraved in the stone, alone in her thoughts.

The association gathered people who knew Elrod at Cheney’s American Legion Hall during Boley’s visit – Martin, his wife, Phyllis, Mutschler, Chuck Kriege, president of the cemetery association, Helen Boots and Eloise Goodwin, the secretary at Reid. They shared their memories of her over lunch.

It is still unclear whether Elrod is Boley’s birth mother. Boley said she found one other Christine Elrod in her search, but that was a dead end. She does remain optimistic about Cheney’s Christine Elrod.

“I think it’s just about 99 percent or 100 percent her,” she said.

Elrod never married and devoted her life to the children of Cheney. Martin said she probably spent 70 hours a week working. Helen Boots said Elrod would produce the plays for the children and after the production, she once approached Boots’s niece with a dress she said didn’t fit anyone. Boots and her niece suspected Elrod found the dress especially for her, since her family didn’t have much money.

“I’m just glad she had a nice life,” Boley said. “It makes me very proud to be the daughter of a woman who was so accomplished.”


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