When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
Isaiah 43:2 (KJV)
My mother’s aunt Hertha was very fond of this verse from the Bible. You might say she lived and died by it.
Hertha Ella Neumann was born on March 1, 1915. She was the ninth child of Theo and Mary Neumann. She was two years younger than Granny (Lillie). She married Max Schoenst on January 4, 1938, and gave birth to her only child, Wilton, in 1943. Hertha was described by some of the family as having a mouth “as loud as Texas” in both pitch and intensity. My mother Jeanette tells the story of a visit to Hertha and Max’s home in Shelby one evening in the mid 1950s. Jeanette and her brothers Larry, Jerry, and Lanis had come over with their parents. Uncle Marvin was a carpenter and he, Uncle Max, and some other church members were building an addition to the Shelby Lutheran Church and were on one side of the room discussing their progress. Aunt Hertha and Aunt Tutty (Estella) were sitting on the other side of the room and as soon as the subject of the church came up, Hertha was up in the air shouting out her two cents. If a husband and wife could be described as still waters and a babbling brook, Hertha was definitely the latter.
Hertha enjoyed having visitors and always made sure her guests had something to eat. If she saw someone coming, she would make sandwiches and bring out a cake. Despite her occasionally brusque nature, she never sent anyone away hungry. As time went on though, she began to withdraw from others. On one occasion, her nephew Gilbert Bartles and his wife Viola went to visit Hertha and noticed that she did not offer them anything to eat. She sat in the chair and did not even get up to greet them. At her nephew Idie and his wife Linda’s 25th anniversary party in Brenham, Hertha looked up at her sisters and shook their hands but otherwise did not interact with the family.
On the afternoon of Saturday, June 28, 1975, Hertha was preparing afternoon dinner. Max had returned from the field and Hertha asked him to go to the store in Shelby to pick up a few things. When Max returned, Hertha was gone. Eggs, flour, and meat tenderizer were on the counter along with cooking implements, and it was as though in the hour he was gone, his wife had vanished. Sheriff Jim Flournoy and several deputies were called out. They found Hertha’s apron and glasses on the banks of a stock tank on the family farm. Recalling Hertha’s favorite Bible verse, Max had the pond drained and found Hertha’s body in the middle of the tank.
Her funeral was held on the following Monday at the Shelby Lutheran Church, with Rev. Don D. Vlasek officiating. My mother recalls very little of the funeral except that Wilton was outside the funeral home crying and Uncle Max kept repeating, “I don’t know what got in her head. I just don’t know.” Hertha’s sisters said later that a copy of Isaiah 43:2 was found tucked into Hertha’s apron pocket. For years they speculated that Hertha chose this manner of death based on her interpretation of the verse.
The verse, which speaks of the presence of God in times of trouble, brought comfort to her. Nearly fifty years after her death, there is no way to know what was really going through her mind that day, but perhaps she was seeking that comfort.
Hertha is buried next to her husband in the Richter Cemetery in La Grange, Texas.
Sisters Stella, Emmie, Hertha, and Lillie Neumann, circa 1930