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The Last Kraus: One family, 10 HHS grads over 22 years

Meredith Kraus, right, shown at sister Judith's wedding, graduates from Hendersonville High School on June 9. Meredith Kraus, right, shown at sister Judith's wedding, graduates from Hendersonville High School on June 9.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late May, Meredith Kraus walks into Walt Cottingham’s human geography class in a corner room on the third floor of Hendersonville High School.

The students had taken the Advanced Placement test the week before so Mr. Cottingham has planned a different lesson for today, “Saving the Best for Last.” Students have to present funny profiles of their classmates. Harper Swing drew Meredith’s name. Her slide show opens with a photograph of Meredith as a baby, which sends her classmates into gales of laughter. It continues with Meredith’s head Photoshopped onto a dancer, Rosie the Riveter and a Wall Street executive.
The end of the year is near for the seniors. You can feel it in the hallways of the beloved building that will soon be replaced. Graduation is 17 days away.
On that Friday, June 9, Meredith Hope Kraus will cross the stage in the sweltering Jim Pardue Gymnasium to receive her diploma. She will shake hands with principal Bobby Wilkins and — in another of the many HHS senior traditions — hand him a small token, a trinket of some kind. She will step down from the the left side. High school will be over. She will be one senior among 138.
Meredith makes 10 Kraus children to graduate from Hendersonville High School. The end of an era.
She doesn’t remember it but Meredith was first in this building, on the ground floor in another corner room 18 years ago. She was an infant, a prop really.
Her oldest sister, Ellen, sang in chorus.
“I was a sophomore in high school when she was born,” Ellen said. “Leslie Zarnowski was our chorus teacher at the time and we did this song called ‘Jennie Rebecca.’ It’s about a baby.”
The chorus teacher told the students to think about a baby when they sang the lullaby. Ellen thought immediately of little Meredith, the youngest of her nine siblings.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, I have a baby.’ I mean, most people thought she was my baby. She looked like me. I held her all the time. I was 15 when she was born. They just automatically assumed she was mine. I loved showing her off to my friends.
“So my mom brought her in and we sang to her. I still remember that song. It’s so crazy. I forget what I ate for lunch yesterday but I can remember that. And now she’s way taller than me and graduating high school. Oh my gosh, my baby.”

Next Friday night, the Kraus family will congregate at Hendersonville High School graduation for the last time — at least for this generation. They plan to hoot and holler. Yet their story starts years before this final high school celebration. It begins with an unplanned pregnancy. It comes full circle with Meredith’s graduation day next Friday. In between, there’s noise, music, love, laughter and challenges.


Part 1: Kathleen Spratt: Independence Days

To illustrate the lack of supervision that characterized her upbringing, Kathleen Kraus described the day her 12-year-old brother nearly ran over her with the family car. She was 8 years old.

“I was sitting behind the car until the bumper hit me and I’m under the car and I see daylight and go out between the left front and rear tire,” she said. “So I’m crawling out, on my belly, getting scraped as the car is pushing down — I don’t understand how I didn’t get run over. He didn’t actually go over me but I got severely scraped by all the movement because it was a gravel driveway. And I’m screaming, trying to get out of this, as the tire is pushing against my back. I can feel it, and I’m horribly frightened and my mother, finally, yells at my brother, comes out and she pulls me out.”

Kathleen still vividly recalls her mother’s reaction.

“She didn’t even take me to the doctor,” Kathleen said. “She took me down to the bathroom and she’s checking me out. ‘Is anything broken?’ ‘No, I don’t think so.’ She took me down to the drugstore and we got bandages and I got a toy and I got to ride in the front seat in between mom and pop. That was the biggest event.”

Seeing her daughter narrowly escape death in the driveway didn’t improve the relationship between mother and daughter. Her mother’s special attention in that moment soon gave way to her usual pattern of parenting, which was characterized by emotional absenteeism.

“Both my parents were social drinkers,” Kathleen said. “They were functioning alcoholics. They went to work, came home and once they came home they would start drinking. Of course that was the only time I saw them because I was at school. I learned to be extremely independent.”

Kathleen’s parents, Florence Hill and Frank Spratt, met in Germany after World War II. Florence, born and raised in Scotland, issued the paperwork for journalists who were allowed into Germany after the war. Frank was a G.I. working in the press office. The two married and had a son, James, before moving to North Carolina in 1952.

“My mother left Scotland, left her country, left her people, moved to Saluda, to a summer home, in the middle of winter, with very little heat and no contact with anyone except my older brother,” Kathleen said. “My father went to work (at a supermarket) in Spartanburg and drove down the (Highway) 176 grade every day.”

The family soon moved to Mountain Home, where they opened Spratt’s Book Exchange next to their home on Asheville Highway near Prison Camp Road. They had another son, David, and then Kathleen. She was born on June 4, 1957.

“My mother said to me when I was little, ‘I didn’t name you Kathy. I named you Kathleen. Don’t let anybody call you anything but Kathleen.’
“‘Yes, Mama.’”

Kathleen took to heart her mother’s aversion to nicknames. Other maternal modeling, not so much.

“I was independent of authority because there was no authority,” she said. “Nobody told me what to do. If they did, it meant nothing because they didn’t have anything to back it up with. I took care of myself, which severely damaged me as an adult because I didn’t recognize anybody’s authority.”

Nothing in her raising taught her even the basics.

“I remember opening candy in the Winn Dixie and just eating it because it was there and I wanted it,” she said, “and I remember just being horrified that the manager would come over and take me to my mother and make her pay for it.”

Little Kathleen realized that if she needed something, she’d have to make it, not steal it. “I learned to make my own clothes” because her mother “checked out, through the alcohol. I don’t hold that against her. … I really managed to get beyond it, with a lot of inner healing, a lot of spiritual healing. I would say (it was) just a direct touch from God to get over some of the damage that was done, and to become a good parent. That was always my goal. I had that example with my upbringing, that I would not do.”

* * * * *

Searching for playmates her age, Kathleen found her way to Mountain Home Bible Church, an easy walk to from her house. She walked through a patch of woods, then crossed a neighbor’s yard to come out on Prison Camp Road (now Mountain Road) to reach the little brick church with the white steeple.

“I was always going with somebody to church,” she said. “To me it was more of a social thing because I like being with people. My whole entire life, my mother was very against it.”
She remembers sitting on her bed crying at age 12. She was thinking: “Why am I the only one in my family that goes to church? Why am I the only one that’s interested in this?”

When Kathleen was 21, her mother became ill and had to be hospitalized. She dried out at Pardee Hospital for four weeks and came home. Her mother’s sobriety would open a new chapter in their relationship, better in some ways but challenging just for being so different.

“She was a raw nerve,” Kathleen said. “All of a sudden she wants to know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I’m 21 years old. I’ve been going and doing the whole entire time up to that point — doing anything I wanted to do, wherever I wanted to go. I had my own car, I drove and now she wants to be a mom. It put a big strain on us. There’s a lot of codependency in alcohol so whenever someone breaks that mold it ripples out and affects everybody.”

* * * * *


ThankfulColumnKathleen's story of what she was thankful for won a Charlotte Observer Thanksgiving contesKathleen’s life would change forever on Jan. 14, 1980, when a public health nurse confirmed that she was pregnant. Unmarried and 22 years old, she was terrified.

“Three times I decided to have an abortion, trying to convince myself that it would be the best thing for everybody all the way around,” she said in an article for a Charlotte Observer contest that asked readers to describe what they were thankful for before Thanksgiving 1980. (One of three winners, Kathleen received $25.) “But somehow there was no peace in making the decision. There was nothing but emptiness in my heart — a void that could not be filled.

“I cried out to God and begged him to show me what to do,” she wrote. “In an instant He showed me how important this tiny life is to Him and how empty I would be if I terminated it.”

Her parents “were hurt and angry and I hurt because I knew I brought them disappointment.” When a commercial came on TV about baby products, she walked out of the room “to avoid any comments.” In department stores, she steered her mother away from the baby aisle.

The anxiety, pain and heartache melted away at 15 minutes before midnight on Sept. 10, when she held her baby.

“When I was allowed to hold him for the first time, I felt like I had been awarded one of the greatest privileges on earth,” she wrote. “I was so proud I thought I’d burst wide open! … God has given me so much joy with my little one that he is truly worth every tear and all the pain and obstacles I met while carrying him. I am so thankful that God wouldn’t let me abort him because He had something better in mind for me.”

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