Koontz was early advocate for special ed kids

Before laws required schools to open classrooms to those with special needs, S. Kermit Koontz was lobbying for the children.

He was instrumental in starting the first special-education programs in Fresno County, including one that was held in a church in Biola.

Mr. Koontz, 94, died in his Fresno home Saturday after having a heart attack and a stroke last month.

His son, Dan Koontz of Clovis, said one of the happiest days of his dad's life was in November, when Kermit Koontz Educational Complex opened on Mariposa Street. "He had more joy watching those kids who were there," Dan Koontz said. "It was the completion of his career."

Mr. Koontz was hired at the Fresno County Office of Education 60 years ago to be health coordinator. He was appointed special education director in 1963 and named administrator of special education in Central California in 1968.

When Mr. Koontz started, special education was "one of those things in the back closet," said Charlene Samuelian, who retired in February as the county's administrator for special education. Mr. Koontz was her boss from 1972 to 1977. "He was dedicated to that profession," she said. "And he was as passionate a month ago as he was when he started."

His father's passion for special needs children was personal as well as professional, Dan Koontz said. Mr. Koontz's daughter, Kathy, was paralyzed after birth and had developmental delays. She died at age 47.

Mr. Koontz began his teaching career as a coach. A 1932 Fresno High School graduate, Mr. Koontz played sports there and at Fresno State College, where he earned all-conference honors in 1935. After graduate school at Stanford University, he took a coaching job at Corcoran High School. He later coached at Clovis High School.

World War II interrupted his coaching career. On his way to Corcoran, Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next day, Dec. 8, 1941, Mr. Koontz got a call from the varsity basketball coach at Stanford. The coach had been called by the U.S. Naval Academy and asked to pick five coaches he held in esteem who could train midshipmen. In one week, Mr. Koontz was heading to Annapolis, Md., to the academy. He would earn a naval officer's commission, attend flight school and serve on the aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal as a deck officer.

Back from the war, Mr. Koontz resumed high school coaching until he joined the Fresno County Office of Education in 1949.

Later in life, his athletic focus was on the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, of which he was a founding board member. And he was proud of his role as commissioner for the Central Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, a position he held for 23 years.