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Longtime Ganado teacher turns 100

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
March 6, 2010 at 9:03 p.m.
Updated March 5, 2010 at 9:06 p.m.

Centenarian Johnie Koonce holds up a photograph of herself as a young infant. This is one of very few photographs Koonce has of yourself as a child or young adult.

GANADO - Johnie Koonce still gets around faster than some of her nieces and nephews.

She speaks slowly and often pauses to collect her thoughts, but in her mind is a vivid Rolodex of memories.

Koonce turns 100 Monday.

Her family planned a church celebration for Sunday, but she wasn't entirely thrilled about the attention.

"I'll be glad when the celebration's over with and I can go back to being lazy and sitting in a chair watching the little birds," she said.

But Koonce's life hasn't been too lazy. She walks without a cane and cooks from time to time, although she admits some things are becoming difficult.

"It takes me forever to do anything now," she said, pressing together her gnarled hands.

After graduating from Ganado High School in 1928, Koonce took classes at the former Texas A&I University in Kingsville for a year to become a teacher during an age in which most women her age were busy planning their weddings.

She has fond memories of teaching elementary school in Ganado and Lolita, where she taught many first-generation Mexican and Czech children how to speak English.

"It almost took a year to teach them English because English is rather complicated when you get to it," she said. "I didn't think about it at the time, but now they do tell me that things happened that I remembered. I didn't think it amounted to anything, but it has been a big influence in their life."

In 1963, she married Carlos Lee Koonce, the son of a local businessman. But her love of teaching didn't end with marriage.

"It was almost compulsory that when they got married they gave up their school teaching," she said. "They didn't hire married people."

After a few more years of teaching, Koonce had her only son, Arthur, and settled down, but returned to teaching as soon as she could.

"I loved it, and loved teaching and doing things like that," she said.

Her teaching career lasted 30 years.

Her passion inspired two of her nieces to become teachers.

"She was so intelligent," said Bobbie Jean Anderson, Koonce's niece and 19-year elementary school teacher. "When she would give gifts, she would give books. It was just her demeanor. She was so pleasant to be around. She was someone I looked up to."

Much has changed since Koonce's years as a teacher, she'll tell you. The Internet has replaced face-to-face communication, and computers have replaced pencils.

"When we started school we had cedar pencils," she said. "I don't know whether they even have pencils now, whether they still use them."

But one of the biggest changes is the progress of equality between men and women.

"It doesn't make any difference now whether you're a woman or a man. Just whether you're qualified," she said. "It did then. There were jobs that men did and there were jobs that women did and they didn't do each others' work."

On the verge of 100, just about everything she does is fun, she'll tell you, and she's proud to say she's reached it.

"It's wonderful," she said.

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