Finding Father

A devoted teacher, Ernest Hiebert died trying to save two of his drowning students during a swimming outing 72 years ago this week.People who lived through the trauma of those times have called it ?the saddest day in Hillsboro history.?
During an otherwise routine school outing at a popular swimming hole near Marion, a beloved Hillsboro teacher and principal died as he tried unsuccessfully to save two of his eighth-grade students from drowning.
The teacher?s name was Ernest Hiebert, who was just 30 days past his 36th birthday when he and two students, Elvin Enns and Merrill Loewen, perished in the waters of the Cotton?wood River.
It was Sept. 9, 1942.
One of the witnesses to the tragedy was James ?Jim? Hiebert, the 3-year-old son of an educator many students remembered as their favorite teacher.
But the son grew up with no memory of the incident, nor of his father, for that matter. He was too young when it happened, and his mother grieved too deeply to talk about the incident or even the man.
?I think she tried to put it behind her,? Jim Hiebert said of his mother?s stoic response. ?It was such a shocking, painful event for her. Consequently, she never really did talk to me about my dad.?
It wasn?t until Hiebert was attending Hillsboro?s centennial celebration in 1984 that he sensed a desire to fill the void in childhood story.
?It was sort of chance meeting with Jim Peters, who I knew was some kind of relative of mine but was never quite sure what it was,? Hiebert said.
?For whatever reasons, I got talking to Jim about my dad and he knew so much about him. That?s when it struck me that there were other people who did also, and I needed to seek them out and just hear them talk.?
Over the ensuing years, Hiebert made almost annual trips to Hillsboro and corresponded with people who knew his father personally.
?I don?t think at the time I was thinking about writing a book as much as I was just wanting to gather a bit more information so I would have it, and I could tell my kids about it,? he said.
?Of course, in that process I started to write things down. Eventually, the idea of a book came about?even then, it was quite a while before I felt like I had enough information to start the writing.?
But Hiebert?s effort to chronicle the story culminated earlier this year in the release of a book titled, ?In Memory of Ernest Waldo Hiebert: The Story of His Short Life as Told By His Son James Ernest Hiebert.?
?I do know this?for all the time I spent on it, it was an enjoyable time,? he said of the process. ?It was well worth every hour, whatever those hours were for me?and hopefully for my family.?
*?*?*
Ernest Waldo Hiebert was born Aug. 10, 1906, the second child among seven. His father, P.A. Hiebert, was a banker when Ernest was born and served as mayor of Hillsboro from 1911-13. When Ernest was 10, the family moved to a farm south of Durham.
Ernest attended Hillsboro Academy and graduated from Hillsboro High School in 1924. He attended Bethel College for a semester before beginning his teaching career at Bruderthal Country School in 1929.
Ernest married Letha Faye Rittigers in 1934, and the couple had their first child, Jetta, 14 months later.
After earning a ?Life Certificate? for teaching from Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, Ernest signed his first teaching contract in May 1939 for $115 per month.
Later that month, James was born.
In addition to teaching, Ernest was a Boy Scout leader in the community and an active participant in First Mennonite Church.
James was too young to remember his father, but sister Jetta, his senior by four years, remembered him as ?a kind, loving, affectionate, fun Dad. And I adored him,? she wrote. ?He used to sing, ?I Don?t Want to Set the World on Fire,? in a very loud voice, making funny faces.?
*?*?*
Sept. 9, 1942, was a hot Kansas day. Ernest had taken students swimming in the past, planned a swimming party after school with nine of the boys?with the permission of their parents.
He asked a fellow teacher to help him drive the group of boys to the swimming hole located about eight miles east of Hillsboro and two miles from Marion.
The Oracle school newspaper, published the next day, described the events that followed, based on the accounts of eyewitnesses:
?All nine boys and Mr. Hiebert donned their bathing trunks and went into the water. Some of the boys were wading around seeing how deep the water was and Elvin Enns and Merrill Loewen ventured out farther than the rest, evidently stepped off a sand bar and went down in the deep water, struggling while they went down.
?Seeing they did not come up, at once Mr. Hiebert organized a hand-to-hand chain and he went in to save the boys, but the water was so deep they gave up the effort and Mr. Hiebert dived in alone. He came up shortly afterward and then went down again not to rise again.?
The account goes on to describe how several of the boys took Hiebert?s car and started for Marion in a desperate search for help.
On the way, they stopped at two nearby farmyards, but found no one at home. The boys drove to the fire station and sounded the alarm, called for doctors and then found the teacher who had driven the other car.
In this 2006 photo taken by Jim Hiebert, Hillsboro resident Vernon Friesen stands by the swimming hole along the Cottonwood River where Ernest Hiebert and two eighth-grade boys, Elvin Enns and Merrill Loewen, died during a swimming expedition in 1942. The sand bar looks much like it did that day, according to Friesen, who died earlier this year. Friesen witnessed the tragedy as a participant in the outing, along with class?mates Lewis Lang, Charles Hiebert, Dean Eilerts, Franklin Friesen, Kenneth Klassen and Harold Pankratz.The men who arrived on the scene quickly made a drag out of rope and chain. Ernest?s body was located first, but efforts to revive him failed; his body had been in the water at least an hour.
Eventually, divers located the bodies of the two boys in a narrow ditch at the bottom of the river about 14 feet deep. The Goertz Funeral Home ambulance was on the scene, and returned the bodies to Hills?boro about 8 p.m.
Hillsboro schools closed the day after the incident, and the funeral for Ernest the following Saturday filled First Mennonite Church to overflowing.
A tribute in the same issue of the Oracle noted, ?His passing has left a deep scar in our school. His willingness to help, his sincerity, cooperation and ever-smiling friendliness will never be forgotten….
?The loss of this faculty member brings life before us to review, a teacher?s life so richly lived that it challenges his co-workers to ?Go ye, and do likewise.? Mr. Hiebert is gone but his works live on, deeds which many boys and girls will adopt as examples to follow.?
*?*?*
In 2006, Jim Hiebert returned to Hillsboro for an all-school reunion. He met Vernon Friesen, who had been student of his father and was one of the nine boys who were part of the outing that fateful day.
Friesen, who died earlier this year, shared his memories of that day and of his teacher, Ernest. The next morning, Friesen called Jim at the motel.
?He told me he had been thinking about our discussion all night, and it was the first time he had thought about that event for years and years,? Jim wrote about the conversation.
Friesen then asked Jim if he would like to go with him to visit the site where the tragedy occurred.
?For some reason, I had never sought out this place to see it firsthand,? Jim said. ?I gave it a short amount of thought and said, yes, I would like to go.
?After I hung up I almost called him back (to say) I had changed my mind. But I didn?t make that call.?
The visit is still vivid in Hiebert?s memory.
?It was emotional,? he said in a recent interview. ?In a way, I was more comfortable almost not knowing where it was. But I?m very glad I did it. Vernon, who is gone now, we were both emotional about it. It was tough on Vernon, too. I don?t think he?s been back there (since the incident).?
As for his thoughts as he looked over the river where his father died, Jim said, ?It was mostly trying to put myself in that situation years ago. I know I was there and remember that I had been.?
After graduating from Hillsboro High, Jim Hiebert earned a degree in mathematics from what is known now as Emporia State Uni?versity, and followed his father?s footsteps into the classroom.
He taught math at Wichita East High School for 31?2 years before accepting a position in Boeing?s computer division.
?I was getting really interested in computers at the time and the school system just wasn?t ready to introduce anything with computers yet,? he said.
Hiebert?s career with Boeing spanned 31 years and took him from Wichita, to Washington, D.C., to Seattle, Wash. He retired in 1995 and moved in 1996 with his wife to St. Augustine to be close to their daughter?s family. The Hieberts also have a son in the Los Angeles area who has a wife and child.
Hiebert said the process of gathering information about his father has been well worth the effort. He said he finally feels connected with a man he never really knew. He thinks of him now as a wonderful father.
?I?m sure it would have been good for me to be able to spend a lot more time with him,? he said. ?I think of him as a very good family man. He took a lot of time away from his family to do things for other people, but I think he involved his family in those things.
?He just seems like a good guy.?

Copies of Jim Hiebert?s book are available for viewing at the First Mennonite Church library in Hillsboro and the Center for Menno?nite Brethren Studies on the Tabor College campus. Hiebert said he would welcome email contact from people who may have memories of his father and family. The address is jimhiebert@hotmail.com.

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