In 1933 a penniless teenage girl from the Midwest named Vonis Wagner was awarded a trip to Washington for writing a winning essay on what it means to be a U.S. citizen.
“It was a thrilling experience for a girl who’d never been out of Iowa,” said her younger sister, Rita Hayes of Knoxville, Iowa. “She got to visit the White House, watch Congress in session, and see the memorials to Lincoln and others.”
Sixty years later, her son began a longer stay in Washington. His name was Paul Coverdell, and he had just won election as a U.S. senator from Georgia.
Vonis Wagner Coverdell, 97, died Tuesday of complications from breast cancer at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Patricia and Terry Trogstad of Marietta. Her funeral will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at A.S. Turner & Sons Funeral Home, Decatur.
Vonis (pronounced VAH-nis) was the fifth-born of eight children known fondly in their hometown as “the Wagner kids.” A 1987 Des Moines Register feature article about them said they were much admired because they stuck together and fended for themselves through hard times. That included the death in 1926 of their mother, abandonment by their father months afterward, and then the depths of the Depression.
The siblings didn’t simply survive; they shone. Six of them, Vonis included, were honor students. Moreover, according to family lore, her essay so impressed the owner of the Des Moines bank that sponsored the essay contest that he had his wife buy new clothes for Vonis to wear in Washington.
Vonis couldn’t afford to go to college. Instead she clerked at several Knoxville stores until she met Eldon Coverdell at a local dance. He was a salesman, and after they were wed his jobs took them across America. They resided in nine states before settling in Georgia. Here, he focused on selling insurance and she on bookkeeping and maintaining order in their office in addition to caring for their children.
Through the 1970s and ’80s their son Paul made a name for himself as a Georgia state senator. In 1989, after President George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend, appointed Coverdell to be director of the Peace Corps, Vonis Coverdell made her first return trip to Washington to see her son’s swearing-in ceremony, a journey she repeated four years later when he took the oath as a U.S. senator.
Most of the political events she attended, though, were in the Atlanta area. A former chief of staff for the senator, Molly Dye Franklin of Atlanta, said although his mother was proud of her son’s achievements, she stayed in the background. “Vonis never got overly excited during a campaign,” she said, “but I could sense she had butterflies in her stomach on election night.”
While she maintained a keen interest in political news, she also kept up with the fortunes of the Atlanta Braves, attending their games into her 90s. One of her prized possessions was a Braves program autographed by former centerfielder Andruw Jones.
The frugal mindset she developed during the Depression stayed with her through the rest of her life. Terry Trogstad said she thought daughter Patricia’s habit of sending notes to friends was extravagant, considering the cost of greeting cards and postage. “Vonis also thought we bought enough groceries to feed an army and wished food companies would sell more products in single-item packages so as to minimize waste,” he added.
Her husband of 57 years died in 1994, and her son Paul died in 2000. Surviving besides her daughter and her sister are a brother, Kenneth Wagner of Carwith, Iowa; four grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.