Long-time teacher Keith Jones says he has one mission when he teaches a history class.
“Make it real. Make connections,” he said from his home in Minneapolis.
Jones, who taught at Moorhead High School for 14 years and now teaches at Benilde-St. Margarets in St. Louis Park, Minn., said before the recent pandemic, his class was learning about polio and other health crises throughout history.
“But this one blows all of those out of the water,” he said.
How would Jones make the COVID-19 pandemic real and connect it to the lives of 11th and 12th graders? By bringing up how the last great pandemic changed his family forever.
On February 3, 1919, Jones' great-grandfather Carl Nelson and great-aunt Harriet Nelson died from the Spanish Flu within 30 minutes of each other.
Between 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Flu infected 500 million people — a third of the world's population. It killed an estimated 50 million people. The virus did not originate in Spain, but because Spain was neutral during World War I, news of the illness was more widely disseminated there, unlike nations at war, which censored flu reports to keep morale high.
Before it was over, more than 675,000 people in the United States had died. The official death toll in Minnesota was more than 10,000 and more than 1,700 in North Dakota, although experts agree the death toll was probably higher.
“It came in like a house a’fire,” Mark Peihl, archivist at the Clay County Cultural and Historical Society told Forum reporter Patrick Springer in a story from March 22. “The hospitals were very quickly overwhelmed.”
While the pandemic started in 1918, Minnesota and North Dakota saw the worst of it in the winter and early spring of 1919.
Keith’s mother, Linda Jones of Moorhead, said her grandfather Carl worked for the railroad in Duluth, but she doesn’t know how he contracted the illness.
“He was 37 years old when he died,” she says. “My grandmother would talk about him occasionally, but not very often. It wasn’t a very pleasant thing for her to talk about.”
That is probably an understatement. Not only did Clara Nelson lose her young husband, but just a half-hour later, her 3-year-old daughter took her last breath.
“I think she (Clara) was in a state of shock,” said Linda.
Linda says Carl’s sister married a man who ran a funeral home so "they just took over," staging an elaborate funeral for the father and daughter to help ease the family’s grief.
“She (Clara) had some things from that funeral. She wore a black mourning veil. Only a couple of times, I remember her opening her cedar chest and taking that out. And the bows from the bouquet that had ‘Brother, Friend,’ and some other things on it,” Linda said.
Keith also has memories of what the family left behind.
“I was pretty young, but there were some small toys of Harriet’s that my mother had,” he said. “So those would come out once in a while. She would say ‘Here’s this little tea set.’ We’d talk about her, we’d talk about them and go to the grave site in Duluth.”
Following the funeral, Clara was left to raise Linda’s father, 6-year-old Wallace, alone. Because Clara spent most of her childhood in Twin Valley, Minn. and had only lived in Duluth for a short time with her husband, she didn’t have a lot of family around to ease the loss.
“She was widowed at 30 years old. She lost her husband and daughter. This was pre-Social Security, pre-unemployment. She had absolutely no safety net,” Keith said.
It’s something Linda thought about when she lost her own husband years ago.
“Okay, she got through this, and I had family here and income. She was a mother and a wife, and I’m sure she was wonderful at it. But then all of the sudden there was nothing. There was no future for her or my dad,” she said.
So Clara and Wallace moved back to Twin Valley and eventually to Moorhead. Clara never remarried but instead shared a house near Concordia College in south Moorhead with her sister.
“They never drove, they walked everywhere. They lived in a tiny, tiny house,” Keith said. “They walked across the footbridge to St. John’s (hospital) in Fargo, where they both worked in the laundry there...low wage jobs, trying to survive, and they made it.”
Wallace ended up working as a mechanic at W.W. Wallwork in Moorhead, living just a couple of blocks away from his mother.
“I’d see my grandmother a lot growing up,” Linda said.
Clara died in 1981 and Wallace in 2002, never forgetting the family trauma the pandemic caused.
“I think about what life could have been like for them,” Keith said. “My great-grandmother always talked about ‘going back to Duluth.’ That would be her final resting place.”
Keith says he’s thought a lot lately about these two ancestors he never met, and it probably changed the way he’s acting and reacting now. He wrote about his great-grandfather and great-aunt in a recent Facebook post.
“I thought their story was one for the ages. Well, here we are again. My ancestors were both young and healthy and were taken by a deadly virus.
We have a similar deadly virus in our midst. Anyone of us, at any time, will be affected (directly or peripherally) by this virus.
I will do my part to be safe regarding this virus. I will assist with my resources where I am able. I hope for a society and government that will rise up to assist those who are adversely affected during these tumultuous times.
I am thankful. I am anxious. I am perplexed.
I will do my part.”
Keith says ‘doing his part’ means wearing masks, socially isolating and only going out when necessary. He does it to protect his family now and honor his ancestors who have passed.
“I know there are a lot of naysayers. I know there is a ton of pain with the disease and with the economy, but I’d rather be on the safe side of history.”