Metro-East Living

Woman defies odds to develop college chemistry program

Belleville couple has chemistry

Marie Knobeloch developed the first chemistry program for Belleville Junior College 70 years ago. That's where she met her husband Delwin Edwards.
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Marie Knobeloch developed the first chemistry program for Belleville Junior College 70 years ago. That's where she met her husband Delwin Edwards.

Both kinds of chemistry brought Marie and Delwin Edwards together.

The former Marie Knobeloch impressed Delwin with her master’s degree in chemistry, an uncommon feat for women in the 1940s.

Then there was her position as founder and head of the chemistry program at Belleville Junior College, later Belleville Area College and now Southwestern Illinois College.

“Girls didn’t take chemistry at that time,” said Delwin, 93, who shares an assisted-living apartment with his wife at St. Paul’s Senior Community in Belleville. “They couldn’t get a job if they did. That was man’s work.”

The junior college was established in 1946 as part of Belleville Township High School, largely to educate veterans returning from World War II.

Marie worked at the college for two years before Delwin was hired as a faculty member in chemistry. He earned $1,800 a year.

The couple taught in the same classrooms and laboratories and ate together in the cafeteria before they started dating.

“We’d go to hamburger stands for an evening meal, or we’d go to the movies, and she’d take me home in her car,” Delwin said, grinning.

I didn’t want to take cooking or sewing because they seemed easy to me. I wanted to learn something.

Marie Edwards on her love of science

The fact that Marie had a car and Delwin didn’t is a running joke in the Edwards family, which now includes four grown children and eight grandchildren.

The children are proud of their parents. Growing up, they enjoyed running into former students.

“They were so complimentary on how Mom affected their lives,” said son Ethan. “Often, they were guys who were on the G.I. Bill, and they had come back from fighting in the war. She had a big impact on their success.”

Ethan, 54, of rural Belleville, is an instructional designer and president of Belleville Philharmonic Society.

Ethan sat his parents down to talk about their accomplishments recently, but the only thing Marie would brag about was her graduate work at University of Illinois.

“I’m so proud of that,” she said. “That was a great chemistry school.”

Turns out, she was a very, very fine teacher. They were glad they hired her, and I was, too.

Delwin Edwards on his wife’s career

Marie, 93, also emphasized that her four children —Ethan, John, Ida and Andrew — graduated from U of I. The Edwardses had a son, George, who got hit by a car and died at 11.

Marie grew up on a farm in rural Belleville, where Ethan still lives. The area was settled by their German ancestors in 1832.

Marie and her two sisters milked cows, fed chickens, pulled weeds and did other chores, but her father was a firm believer in education.

“It seems like I was always going to go to college,” she said.

Dad John Knobeloch served as a board member for her two-room brick school and allowed its East St. Louis-based teacher to stay at their house during the week.

His daughter developed a love of science at Mascoutah High School, where she graduated in 1940 as class valedictorian.

“I always wanted to take something that was challenging,” Marie said. “I didn’t want to take cooking or sewing because they seemed easy to me. I wanted to learn something.”

She went on to earn a bachelor’s in chemistry at Southern Illinois State Normal University in Carbondale. It was the best school at the lowest cost ($17 a quarter) close to home.

Marie couldn’t afford to live in a dorm, so she rented a room in a boarding house. She earned 15 cents a day for dusting and 50 cents a weekend for washing and waxing the kitchen floor and cleaning the bathroom.

Marie also served as a science lab assistant at school, where she was the only female student in chemistry classes.

“I didn’t think about boys,” she said. “I was thinking about getting my degree so I could get a job and make some money.”

Marie attended U of I on a scholarship. She got her master’s in one year and headed back to the metro-east. She ended up working as a chemist for Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals in St. Louis, but only briefly.

“It worried me because we were working with silicone dioxide,” she said. “Every time you unscrewed the lid, smoke would come out. It was dangerous if you got it in your lungs. We had to wear masks.”

Marie taught science at O’Fallon High School before being recruited to start the chemistry program at Belleville Junior College in 1946. She sought help from her old U of I professors and worked all summer, developing a curriculum, buying textbooks and supplies and setting up a stockroom and laboratories.

Some 169 students enrolled at the junior college that fall semester, according to a SWIC history. More than 60 percent were World War II veterans.

“Turns out, (Marie) was a very, very fine teacher,” her husband said. “They were glad they hired her, and I was, too.”

Delwin was the third faculty member, besides Marie, to join the chemistry program.

The Monica native had attended Blackburn College before serving in the Navy and completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western Illinois University.

Delwin proposed to Marie on her back porch in the spring of 1951. She told him to ask her mother.

“He went away to school that summer, and I was home with Mom, and I made my wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses,” she said. “I really worked. I had to buy the material and I listened to the clerks telling me about satin.”

The Edwardses got married on Aug. 19, 1951, and honeymooned in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

They later rented a Belleville home and started a family. Marie quit work in 1953 to become a stay-at-home mom.

Sometimes, the children hung out with Delwin in the college’s chemistry lab, getting ideas for home experiments. They got used to Marie’s amazingly precise cooking measurements.

“We were raised with chemical explanations for everything,” Ethan said.

“I remember one time, I had a blood stain on my shirt, and we were putting ice on it. Mom explained that it was slowing down the oxidation of the iron in the blood. She was very scientific.”

Delwin completed his doctorate at St. Louis University in 1968, retired from SWIC after 36 years and taught night classes for another 10 years.

The family also ran a pick-your-own strawberry business for four decades. Marie taught the children to play piano, and eventually they took up cello and other instruments.

“I never thought of not going to college,” Ethan said. “It was just part of who we were growing up. Mom’s success in school was very much what she expected of us. She raised us with the same values she had been raised with.”