A family tree grows in Norton

Many families have long legacies at Wheaton, with graduates from across the generations. For the Knight and Sirois family, however, their unique family history at Wheaton extends farther than most. Their ancestry of graduates goes all the way back to the earliest days of the college, and most amazingly, continues on today.

Last fall, Elizabeth Sirois ’18, and her mother, Deborah Grant Sirois, paid a visit to the archives in the Madeleine Clark Wallace Library to comb through photos and documents and discover some of their family history at the college.

Their Wheaton family tree has many branches, nine Wheaton students in all, so stick with us: Elizabeth’s great-grandmother, Mary Knight Grant, was in the Class of 1925. Mary’s sister, Helen Knight Atwood, attended Wheaton at the same time, graduating a few years earlier, in 1922. Mary and Helen’s brother, George Knight, married another alumna, Margaret Hale Knight ’24. Margaret and George had two daughters who attended Wheaton, Joan “Bobbie” Knight Thomsen ’52 and Martha “Marti” Knight Koehler ’59. At the same time, Helen had a daughter who was at Wheaton, Betsy Atwood Nelson ’59. The most recent generation of the family has two Wheaties, Helen’s great-granddaughter Hayley Bright ’14 and Elizabeth in the Class of 2018.

May Day, 1957. The May Queen that year was Martha Knight Koehler ’59. It was her niece, Deborah Sirois, who came to campus to research her eight Wheaton alumnae relatives. (Marion B. Gebbe Archives and Special Collections)

For Elizabeth and Deborah, the voyage through their ancestry has been enlightening, and has reinforced their connection to the college. Deborah explains, “I always knew there was a family connection but it wasn’t until Elizabeth was going through the application process that we learned the extent of the family history at Wheaton.” When they learned about the family history, they reached out to College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zephorene Stickney to see what documents and materials the library may have from their family being at Wheaton.

The piles of photographs, stacks of notes and even transcripts that the archivist uncovered for their visit were truly remarkable. Their faces lit up seeing photographs from the 1920s of family members in their youth.

Seeing and holding in her hands a tangible record of her family had a real impact on Elizabeth, especially from her perspective as a current student. “When I saw the pictures of my different relatives, I felt even more connected to Wheaton after getting a visual of my relatives in the actual setting of Wheaton’s campus.”

For Deborah, the photographs had a different resonance, revealing for her a past she never knew. “I was thrilled to see my grandmother (Mary Knight Grant ’25) as a young woman. I almost didn’t recognize her. She passed away when I was ten years old, so my memories of her are somewhat limited. It was great to see her class picture and her involvement with the YWCA as president. I really enjoyed looking at her report card, showing the classes she took and her grades.”

The Sirois/Knight family may well have the most graduates from Wheaton in their family tree, according to Zephorene Stickney. And the connection to Wheaton may yet be growing. “I just recently learned that my third cousin is interested in Wheaton, which is ironic due to the fact that I met her two summers ago at my summer camp by chance,” Elizabeth says.

Theirs is truly a Wheaton family


We got our royalty mixed up. In the spring issue of the Quarterly Martha Knight Koehler ’59 was identified as the May Queen in a 1957 May Day photo. However, the queen that year in the photo was her classmate—and cousin—Betsy Atwood Nelson ’59.