After 73 years apart, deceased Roanoke woman rejoins man she considered the love of her life

Roanoke residents Burton and Elsie Wygant display a copy of the plaque they had affixed to the headstone of Philip Koontz at Glenwood Cemetery after the cremains of Burton’s aunt, Mary Ellen Wygant, were buried with the fiancé she lost in World War II.
Roanoke residents Burton and Elsie Wygant display a copy of the plaque they had affixed to the headstone of Philip Koontz at Glenwood Cemetery after the cremains of Burton’s aunt, Mary Ellen Wygant, were buried with the fiancé she lost in World War II. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Nov. 27, 2017.

After 73 years apart, Mary Ellen Wygant has finally rejoined the man she considered the love of her life.

The two were reunited after death through the efforts of her nephew, Burton Wygant, who still lives in the same small community of Roanoke where Mary Ellen and Frank Phillip Koontz had grown up together.

They had mapped out their lives. After high school, she went into nurse’s training and he joined the United States Army.

“The plan was, after nurse’s training and after the military, they’d get married,” Burton says.

Then, war intervened.

Phillip, as he was known, was killed in action on June 25, 1944, while serving with an infantry division in France.

Mary Ellen was left with his memory — and a letter he had penned the day before his death.

“She never married,” her nephew says. “She dated a couple of guys, but when it came time to get serious, she didn’t want any part of it … That was the love of her life and she didn’t care about anybody else but him.”

She wanted to stay true to Phil’s memory, even in death, Burton says.

“Mary Ellen had asked me several times to see if she could be buried with Phil,” he says.

When Mary Ellen died last June in Michigan, Burton started to put that plan in motion. His search for any living relatives of Phil, an only child, was unsuccessful.

Phil had been buried in a section of Roanoke’s Glenwood Cemetery that is now closed to new burials, but Burton worked to receive special permission to place Mary Ellen’s cremains near Phil’s grave.

He accomplished his mission some six weeks ago, completing a romance interrupted by war.

That romance, Burton says, had its beginnings in Roanoke. Both Mary Ellen and Philip had attended Roanoke High School — Mary Ellen with the Class of 1939 and Philip, who Burton says was held back a couple of years for poor health, with the Class of 1943.

According to military records, Philip was drafted into the Army on May 4, 1943. He was just 19 years old.

A machine gunner, he was assigned to his outfit on June 17, 1944; he died during an attack against Cherbourg just eight days later.

After Philip’s death, Mary Ellen received a letter from Philip dated June 23, 1944.

“Dear Mary Ellen,

“This is the first time in about a week that I have had a chance to write. I am all right and feel fine.

“I am in France as you have probably guessed by now. This paper and envelope is German that we got this morning out of a house they had left.

“I am sitting in a fox hole writing this letter. I have not had a chance to wash or shower for about 10 days, but I think I will get a chance today.

“Well, I guess that is all for now.

“Write as often as you can.

“Love and kisses,

Phil”

Mary Ellen kept that letter, reading it often through the years. After her death, the letter ended up in Burton’s hands.

“It was tissue thin,” he says. “It had been folded again and again as she read it over and over again.”

The letter has been archivally framed and is now on display at the Roanoke Area Heritage Center.

Burton saw his aunt frequently over the years and says she had a full life.

She worked as a registered nurse in Sturgis, MI, and then as a company nurse at General Motors, in Indianapolis. After her retirement, she returned to Sturgis.

“We’d go up and take her for lunch, and she’d come down for Christmas,” Burton says.

While she was living in Indianapolis, Burton and his wife Elsie would stay with her while their kids showed pigs at the Indiana State Fair.

“She always had a nice car — and a lead foot,” he says, remembering the T-bird she had when he and Elsie were dating.

“She was very social, active in her church, very political, very opinionated.”

“She was very pretty, very attractive,” Elsie says, and still in love with Phil. “She just kept his memory alive all the time.”

A small plaque has been added to Phil’s headstone to signify Mary Ellen’s presence — “Mary Ellen Wygant, 1921-2017, fiancée of Philip Koontz.”