Aletha Marie (Unrein) Denning—after nearly nine decades filled with life and love—left this world on September 12, 2021, due to a sudden onset of sepsis, surrounded in her final days by the comfort of her husband and six surviving children.
Aletha was born in Hays on November 29, 1931, the youngest of four siblings. She graduated from Hays High School in 1949, and a year later she married the love of her life, Alvin Denning. The two journeyed through life together for the next 71 years, following the Catholic faith. They raised their children on West 6th Street and then spent the last 38 years of their union living on their dream “farm” three miles west of Hays, where they grew vegetables for the farmer’s market, sold eggs, canned produce, and raised every bird from canaries to peacocks. Their farm quickly became, and remains today, the site for many gatherings of family and friends, including Sunday dinners, homemade ice cream on the patio, family reunions, and art workshops in the cabin.
Though she was a woman of many interests and talents, Aletha was above all a loving and devoted wife and mother. Aletha raised seven children with Al, along with scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Family meant everything to her, and she tirelessly encouraged her kids’ academic efforts and supported their extracurricular interests, whether in 4-H, scouting, music, sports, debate or art. Just last month, Aletha and Al hosted an outdoor reunion of nearly 70 family members on the farm, where she baked treats, played games with her grandkids, and finished third place in the nearly-all-night family poker tournament.
Aletha’s love of children extended beyond her own family. For the better part of two decades, she worked as the secretary at Washington Elementary School, where she loved all the kids as her own, doling out warm hugs and corrective glances as needed. Aletha found it especially rewarding to support underprivileged students, each of whom she believed deserved the same respect and opportunities as anyone else. Before working at Washington, and with her own young children at home, Aletha ran a day care out of her home for many years. She also took classes towards a degree in Elementary Education at Fort Hays State.
A natural teacher, Aletha shared her curiosity and love of learning with her children and pushed them to pursue opportunities she never had. She led by example, never being afraid to try something new. Aletha spent her retirement exploring new hobbies with a passion, including learning bridge, weaving beautiful rugs and placemats on her loom, sewing, sculpting, writing short stories, and practicing watercolor and pencil sketching. Even in her late 80s, Aletha embraced technology as a way to keep her family close, sending multiple e-mails each week summarizing the goings on at the farm. And all through the pandemic, she was a stalwart participant on the weekly family Zoom call, including hosting virtual cooking classes from her kitchen where she taught her grandchildren and great-grandchildren all around the country how to bake her famous schwarzberren kuchen, flaky pie crust and grebel.
Aletha is survived by her husband, Alvin, of Hays; her son Tom Denning (and wife, Deb) of Hays; her daughter Judy Evans (and husband, Bob) of Fishers, Indiana; her daughter Margie Hammerschmidt (and husband, Elden) of Hays; her son Dan Denning (and wife, Cheryl) of rural Delphos; her daughter Kathy Banks (and husband, Duane) of Russell; and her son Roger Denning (and wife, Michele) of San Diego, California. Aletha is also survived by 21 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren (and counting). She is reunited in death with her son Greg Denning—her middle child—who passed away in 2008, as well as her parents, Wendelin and Helen (Weber) Unrein, her sister Lorine Brungardt Bollig, and her brothers Alvin Unrein and Sylvester Unrein.
A funeral Mass will be held at 1pm Saturday, September 18, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hays. The Mass will be preceded by a memorial visitation from 12-12:30pm and a rosary service at 12:30pm, both at the church. Inurnment will follow in St. Joseph Cemetery.
Services will be Livestreamed on the Keithley Funeral Homes Facebook Page. To choose this option go to www.keithleyfuneralchapels.com and select the Facebook Live tab at the top of the page.
Memorial contributions are suggested to the Hays Arts Council. Contributions made payable to the organization may be sent in care of Brock’s-Keithley Funeral Chapel and Crematory, 2509 Vine, Hays, KS 67601. Condolences may be sent to the family on Aletha’s tribute page at www.keithleyfuneralchapels.com or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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