Editorial: Compassion was his M.O.

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 14, 2017

The headline on a story about Social Services Director Edwin Koontz when he retired in 1995 said simply, “Mr. Compassion.” That was his modus operandi.

Koontz, who died Tuesday at the age of 86, touched thousands of lives in his career, though most probably had no idea who he was or what he did for them.

Koontz went to work at the Rowan County Department Social Services in 1954 and retired 41 years later. In a profession known for high turnover, he was a steadying force.

He was also a guiding force. At Koontz’ memorial service Saturday, the Rev. Mark Conforti said that when he announced to his Morganton church family that he would be moving to First United Methodist in Salisbury, a man shared a story. The man had studied at seminary to be a pastor, but he found the role did not suit him. So he went to work as a social worker and landed in Rowan County, working for Koontz. The man described to Conforti a life-changing conversation in which Koontz helped him shed his feelings of failure and envision a new role —serving the Lord through social work.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” the Gospel of Matthew says, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

For effective social work, a soft heart has to be coupled with a sharp mind, and Koontz had that in abundance. Looking out for the community’s most vulnerable citizens was a tremendous responsibility that required vigilance and thoroughness. Koontz did not believe in letting cases fall through the cracks. Employees knew him to be caring but stern.   

Koontz was also known for being patient, kind and creative. The creative side showed when he worked out new ways to deal with people’s needs. Decades ago, for example,  Koontz pioneered the use of home-care workers to help aging seniors avoid the expense of nursing homes. Now we call that “aging in place.”

Advocating for welfare reform in 1995 — and sounding now like a prophet — Koontz said there were far more dysfunctional families than anyone wanted to admit. He put his finger on a troubling shift in aid for families: “No longer is it a needs program, but a right to receive program,” Koontz said. “We must look at what the purpose of public assistance is and deal first with the parents taking responsibilities for their children.”

We still need to do that.

There was more to Ed Koontz than his career. He was a loving brother, husband and father. He served decades as a choir director. He may not have been wealthy but, as Conforti said, if appreciation were expressed in dollars, Ed Koontz would have been the richest man in Rowan County.