Phyllis Elaine Christ Hesser loved her family, her country, Pine Grove, and St. John’s Lutheran Church. She died on Jan. 4, 2021 in Pennsylvania from Covid-related pneumonia.
She was born on June 28, 1928 to Bruce L. Christ, a teacher and business owner, and Ruth Welsh Christ, a longtime teacher in the Pine Grove Area School District.
Phyllis was an honor student, and was in the Junior American Legion Auxiliary and the Girl Scouts. The Christs were active in St. John’s, and their only daughter was, too, attending Sunday School and joining Luther League as a youngster.
A hard worker who could rarely be dissuaded once she set her mind on something, one of Phyllis’ first jobs was scooping ice cream in a restaurant. She was 13, earned $1 a shift for working from 6 p.m. to midnight, and saved all her money to buy a pair of roller skates. She loved gliding around the floor at the roller rink or across the ice on the Union Canal. She also enjoyed swimming, and did a mean sidestroke.
Phyllis wanted to study science – not easy for a woman back then. After graduating from high school in 1946, she enrolled at the local Penn State campus, then transferred to Gettysburg College, where her father had earned his bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry.
In 1951, Phyllis was the only woman in her class to earn a bachelor’s in chemistry. She minored in education, math, physics, English and German, although she wasn’t a fan of languages and her spelling ability (or lack thereof) was a constant source of amusement to her crossword-puzzle-loving family.
Phyllis took a job in the Navy’s shipyard laboratories in Philadelphia, where, among other things, she worked on metallurgy for ships’ anchors. In 1953, she returned to Pine Grove and put her culinary skills to work as proprietor of the popular Cricket restaurant on Tulpehocken Street until 1957, when she sold it. She was a great cook; her pie crusts, pepper cabbage and potato stuffing were all excellent.
Back at St. John’s, she became a Luther League advisor and Sunday School teacher, and was a member, with her mother, of the Mahantango chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 1959, Phyllis got her first teaching job at Blue Mountain and married Clyde H. Hesser. They were together until he died Dec. 5, 2009, a week before their golden wedding anniversary. When her daughters came along, she tried – valiantly but unsuccessfully – to stay home. She continued to substitute-teach and joined the PTA, which elected her president.
A frugal woman, Phyllis became an exceptionally talented seamstress. When she lived in Philadelphia, she window-shopped at department stores, then recreated the fashions at home. Her sewing machine was a familiar sound to her children, who often wore beautiful homemade coats and dresses.
Phyllis’ journey to politics began in 1962. Armed with a petition signed by many of her neighbors, she showed up at borough council to complain (not for the last time) about noisy motorcycles and traffic. Impassioned letters to the editor – always signed with her real name – flowed from her pen for years to come. A failed run for mayor in 1965, in which she lost the primary by 28 votes, didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the town and its residents.
Life wasn’t all work. Phyllis also found time for annual family vacations at the Jersey shore, where she unwound to the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt air. She had grown to love Atlantic City when she spent summers waiting tables there during college.
Back home, the family gathered most Friday nights at the Mansion House, where Ruth Christ held court. Saturday nights, Phyllis and Clyde went dancing at the American Legion, and nearly every Sunday morning found the whole family at St. John’s.
In 1974, Phyllis began planning Pine Grove’s part in the nation’s bicentennial celebration. With her mother (an authority on American history), and hundreds of volunteers, she organized a week of activities including a colonial-themed Olympics (with hoop-rolling and apple-paring), fireworks and a grand pageant.
The money raised more than covered the festivities; the surplus became the basis of the park along the old Union canal, now punctuated on one end by a community swimming pool Phyllis helped to raise money for and build.
Phyllis taught science and math in several local school districts and at the VoTech. She also taught GED and adult education, but was perhaps proudest of the work she did with many of the 20,000 Vietnamese refugees who passed through Fort Indiantown Gap in 1975. She started out as a volunteer with 200 other teachers, but eventually was responsible for writing curriculum and visiting 26 classrooms daily to assist other instructors. Her students gave her a hand-lettered placard that called her a “Friend of Refugees.” Phyllis continued to teach school well into the 1980s, when the borough began taking up more of her time.
In 1977, when her brother-in-law, Fred Hesser, left borough council, Phyllis took his seat. She was re-elected, and in January 1989, she became council president. She ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state legislature in 1982. In 2007, she lost the Republican primary for her borough council seat, won a write-in campaign on the Democratic ticket, and lost in the general election by just four votes. A lifelong Republican, she must have thought it strange to see the (D) after her name on the ballot. She volunteered with the county Republican party for decades, calling and registering voters, knocking on doors and campaigning for the GOP.
During the three decades Phyllis was on council, she took on everything from water shortages to sewage disposal and landfills – issues her science background prepared her to address. In the face of sometimes brutal criticism (and once, a rock hurled through a dining room window), she strove to resolve conflicts civilly and fairly.
Phyllis remained dedicated to her church, spending years voluntarily managing its 200-year-old cemetery with its nearly 5,000 graves. She took the job seriously, likely because her father was the cemetery’s superintendent for 25 years. She taught adult Sunday School in the same parlor where her father led classes, and was on church council. Residents at Schoolyard Square and other elder-care facilities saw her when she completed some lay ministry training and began visiting to offer them communion on Sunday afternoons.
She was honored at dinners, with testimonials, plaques and certificates, but she never felt she’d done enough. There was always one more thing she could imagine doing to leave the world a better place.
Phyllis is survived by generations of her students, townspeople who owe her a debt of gratitude for her tireless service, two daughters, Elaine and Kathy, a son-in-law, Robert and three grandchildren, Peter, Mary and Charlie.
Her family would like to express their gratitude to those who helped her as she aged, who fixed the plumbing and kept the old coal heater running, those who shoveled snow and mowed the lawn. It was a great gift to her, a spark of hope that all that was good in people in the town and nation she believed in would ultimately shine through.
There will be a viewing on Saturday, January 16, 2021 from 11:00 A.M. until Noon at the H. L. Snyder Funeral Home, Inc., Pine Grove. Graveside Services and interment will be held on Saturday, January 16, 2021 at 12:30 P.M., at St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery, Pine Grove with Pastor Jay Unzaga officiating.
In lieu of flowers, the family would prefer contributions be made to either St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital Memorial Giving, 501 St. Jude Place Memphis, TN 38105, St. John’s Lutheran Church, 222 S. Tulpehocken St. Pine Grove, PA 17963, or Ruth Steinert Memorial SPCA, 18 Wertz Dr.Pine Grove, PA 17963 in her memory.
You may send condolences online at www.hlsnyderfuneralhome.com