Little boy lost
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Kathy Coonon Umberger of Lebanon stands at a parking lot near her home Sunday evening and displays a copy of the missing person poster issued by Tamaqua town council in 1937. Her brother, Jerome Coonon, mysteriously disappeared and was never seen again despite search attempts by state and local police and the FBI.
For the Coonon family, the answers never came.
Every tunnel was searched, every mine hole was scoured.
Every house, sewer, and swimming hole was scrutinized.
But local police, firemen and search teams couldn't find the missing Tamaqua boy.
State police were summoned. They couldn't find him, either. The FBI came to town. They, too, didn't find a clue.
Everyone came up empty - and there's probably a good reason why.
Family members felt all along that little Jerome Coonon never fell into a hole, as was suspected. Instead, they firmly believed the small tyke was kidnapped, and they had reasons for thinking so. Jerome always stayed put, they claim. He didn't travel outside of his comfort range and was an exceptionally bright child for just two years and three months old. He smiled and was lovable - the kind of child any family would want.
Sister verifies details
"My mother said Jerome never wandered away," says Kathy Coonon Umberger, 59. Umberger is Jerome's sister and lone remaining family member.
"He was a friendly child. Everyone liked him. He was smart. He already knew his ABCs," she says.
Jerome knew how to entertain himself and could be trusted not to wander. Umberger says the toddler usually sat in the backyard and hammered nails into small empty tobacco tins given to him by his grandfather.
Umberger, of Lebanon County, contacted this paper immediately after reading a retrospective and investigative story appearing in the July 22 edition of the TIMES NEWS and online at www.tnonline.com.
The story recounts the mysterious disappearance of the toddler, who vanished from his grandparents' backyard at 223 Brown Street in Tamaqua on April 29, 1937, and was never seen again. Many say he fell into a bootleg coal hole, even though repeated searches found nothing. But others believe he was kidnapped by a childless couple, a theory that persists.
At the time, the toddler was in the care of grandparents Mr. and Mrs. James Berry. Mrs. Berry was preparing supper when Jerome vanished while playing in the rear yard.
The case launched the largest search ever mounted in the history of the town. The Coonon drama was broadcast nationwide by WJZ Radio, New York, capturing the country's attention for months.
Tamaqua town council, prompted by a request from Police Chief Nelson Hughes, offered a $100 reward for the boy, as announced at the borough council meeting of May 11 of that year. The Schuylkill County Commissioners followed suit and offered a $600 reward, an unprecedented move by the county board.
Jerome's father sought help from all pertinent government agencies, even the governor's office, in an effort to locate his son.
If the child had been kidnapped, there were no clues left behind. And therefore, no answers.
"It would still be an open case," acknowledges Police Chief Dave Mattson.
Some have pointed out that Tamaqua, at the time, was host to "gypsy activity."
The Coonon saga remains Tamaqua's biggest single mystery in the town's 212 years.
Details of family clarified
Near her Lebanon home on Sunday, Umberger produced files of photos, posters, and information about Jerome and provided clarification of various details. For instance, contrary to all early published stories, family members spell their name Coonon, not the more typical spelling, Coonan.
"My father, his name was Jerome, too, always used 'Coonon with an o-n,'" she says. (Interestingly, even the Missing Person posters misspelled the name.)
Umberger, 59, is the youngest of five siblings, three of whom were born after Jerome's disappearance.
At the time Jerome went missing, he had an older sister Phyllis, age 4. Phyllis was born and raised in Tamaqua and became the wife of Robert Zeird. She passed away in January, 2008, at the age of 75.
Another sister, Joan, also is deceased.
The Coonons also had one other son, Daniel, a U. S. Marine who tragically lost his life at age 25 during combat in Vietnam. Capt. Coonon was killed in October, 1968, when his F-4B Phantom jet exploded as it crashed during a rocket run.
"My parents had no luck with boys," says Umberger.
She says her father worked in local coal mines and her mother, Beatrice, was a factory worker.
Family coped with loss
After Jerome Jr. went missing, the months of searching and eventual frustration took a toll on the couple. A few years later, the family moved 50 miles away to Lebanon where Jerome took a job in an ore mine in the nearby town of Cornwall.
All of the children grew up in a household that featured a portrait of little Jerome proudly setting on a bureau in their parents' bedroom. The photo served as a constant reminder of a lost loved one and a family who longed for his return.
"My mother never gave up hope," says Umberger. "She felt that someone took Jerome who wanted him as their own. She prayed every night that they'd have a conscience and would bring him back."
Where was Jerome? Was he OK? Would they see him again?
The uncertainty was a haunting reality loaded with emotions which family members dealt with daily.
"We learned to cope with life and do what we had to do," says Umberger.
One day, while both parents were watching the TV game show Jeopardy, a contestant appearing on television identified himself as Jerome Coonon. The shocked parents immediately jumped to the phone and called the production studio to find out if the man was their son. But it turned out to be a false alarm.
The loss of Jerome impacted each member of the family. For instance, it was reflected in Umberger's behavior when she had children of her own - two girls and a boy. She was very protective. "I didn't let them out of my sight when they were little," she admits.
In addition, Umberger developed a deep capacity for caring and compassion. She entered the medical field to help others, becoming an RN. She now works as an assistant director of nursing at a geriatric center.
She says her family continued to pray for answers as the years went by.
In particular, Umberger says she and her siblings wanted to see justice and closure for their parents.
"We always hoped my mom would find out what happened so that she could have peace going to her grave," says Umberger.
But the answers never came. Beatrice Coonon passed away at the age of 81. Her husband already was gone, passing away at age 72.
Today, Umberger alone carries the torch for a family that never received the answer for which they yearned. Umberger is left to shoulder a burden few could ever imagine.
Most of all, she wants to know if her older brother is alive. But the problem is that Jerome Coonon likely would have no clue as to his real identity. He'd be a Caucasian male, age 76, and probably living under a different name. He'd likely have no memory of his first few years, and therefore be unaware of who he really is.
Ironically, a determination based on genetics is possible if someone believing he is Jerome were to step forward. Today's DNA technology can all but eliminate the guesswork.
Is Jerome Coonon out there? Is he still alive?
Kathy Umberger wants to know. For her sake, and the sake of her beloved parents and siblings, she longs to meet the brother she never knew.