Influenza pandemic wiped out one family with local ties

Published 8:59 am Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Guest columnist

From 1918 to 1920, the world endured a flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people.

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More than 14,000 Kentuckians died of influenza during this period, including several Danville residents.  

One such family — that of noted educator William K. Argo — was wiped out by the dreaded “Spanish flu.”  

Argo was born near Paint Lick in Garrard County on Oct. 8, 1857. Both of his parents were deaf, having lost their hearing from scarlet fever when they were children. His father was a saddler and his mother, who died when William was five years old, attended the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD) in Danville for a time.

Called “a young man of high character and intellect,” Argo graduated from Centre College in 1879, where he was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Upon graduation, Argo took a job teaching at KSD. This began his long, distinguished career teaching deaf students.

Argo remained at KSD for nearly fifteen years, where he served as superintendent from 1884 to 1894. He remembered his time there fondly, writing that, “One fine thing I found at the school was a disposition on the part of everyone to help me.” He was also a beloved teacher, with one of his former colleagues noting, “Dr. Argo’s hold on his pupils was never broken.”

In October 1886, Argo married Isabella Chenault in a ceremony in Danville. Known as “Belle,” she was the daughter of Judge William Chenault, a noted attorney and law professor. Belle also taught at KSD for a time. According to one friend, “in the full bloom of youthful charm, she brought to the Kentucky School an atmosphere that had long been lacking. Fond of society, vivacious, cultured, she rounded out her husband’s work as chief executive, by adding to the social activities of the household of the school.”

William and Belle had two sons, Robert G. Argo, born at Paint Lick in 1887, and William Chenault Argo, born in Danville in 1892.

Their father’s poor health, however, pushed the family westward. William suffered from tuberculosis, and, in 1894, he moved to Colorado to seek relief in a different climate and altitude. William became head teacher of the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. After five years, he became superintendent. Belle also worked as the school’s bookkeeper.

Argo was instrumental in fundraising, constructing buildings and growing the size of the school. It was said that “the Colorado School under Dr. Argo’s quickening guidance has become a by-word for efficiency in every respect.”

In 1918, however, tragedy struck. The movement of a massive numbers of soldiers and people during the First World War hastened the spread of influenza around the globe. The Argo family soon experienced the dangers of this disease.

William Chenault Argo, the younger son of William and Belle, attended Harvard medical school. While living in Boston he contracted influenza while helping sick soldiers and sailors. He died on Sept. 22, 1918, and was buried in Colorado Springs.

Sadly, William Chenault’s brother also fell victim to the disease. Robert graduated from Colorado College, attended Harvard law school and practiced law in Kansas City. He had previously battled heart problems, but the illness did not curtail his desire to travel. After World War I, Robert visited Cuba, France and England. While in London, he contracted influenza and pneumonia.

These illnesses, coupled with his heart condition, proved to be too much for his health. Robert passed away in July 1920, and was also buried in Colorado Springs.

Despite the tragedy of losing both sons to influenza, William and Belle dedicated their lives to the Colorado school. While William remained superintendent, Belle became matron of the institution, and, in 1920, was named assistant superintendent.

Shortly after the death of his sons, William’s health broke down. His tuberculosis worsened, and, after an illness of several months, he died on April 14, 1921. At the time of his death, he was heralded as one of the foremost educators of the deaf in the United States.

A family friend wrote that with the deaths of her children and husband, Belle was “Dazed by the successive hammer-blows of bereavement.”

Upon William’s death, the board of the Colorado school named Belle superintendent. Tragedy, however, continued to wind its way through the family. After holding the new position for only a few months, Belle also became stricken with influenza. Although she appeared to recover, pneumonia set in and she died on March 9, 1922.

In her will, Belle left money to several colleges, including Centre. Her donation there established the William K. Argo scholarship, named in honor of her husband. According to Centre’s website, this scholarship is “awarded to a young man with financial need who has completed at least one year at Centre.”

The entire Argo family passed away between 1918 and 1922, with three of them dying from influenza or related complications. They all lie buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. Their lives bear testament to the dangers of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Stuart W. Sanders is the author of three books, including “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle” and “The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.”