A well-known Modesto piano teacher died Sunday after a two-month battle with West Nile illness.
Her death was the fourth fatality from West Nile in California this year and the third in Stanislaus County since the virus first was detected in the county in 2004.
Mary Cunningham Jones, 85, taught piano for 55 years in Modesto and still was teaching in her home studio before the start of her illness in late August.
Her husband remembered the date and time of the mosquito bite. It was about 4:30 p.m. Aug. 27 as they left their home near Modesto Junior College to go shopping.
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"She slapped her right shoulder and said, 'Oh, a mosquito bit me,' " said James Jones, a drama teacher. The bite swelled to larger than normal size and she started feeling sick the next day, he said.
She took fever reducers to treat the symptoms but was very weak and ill by Sept. 2. She was taken to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto and was in the hospital for six weeks, including four weeks in intensive care.
The hospital placed her in isolation for the first two weeks because doctors suspected H1N1 influenza, but a test came back positive for West Nile on Sept. 17, her husband said. She was released from the hospital last week to honor her wishes to spend her last days at home.
A dozen cases of West Nile illness have been reported in Stanislaus County this year, including nine people with a debilitating form that attacks the nervous system, causing symptoms such as fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, tremors and paralysis.
Child makes progress
A 7-year-old Modesto girl recently stricken with West Nile virus has improved. The girl was in a coma for three weeks but has opened her eyes for the past couple of weeks, said Autumn Naylor, her stepmother. The girl has been moved from intensive care to the fourth floor of Children's Hospital Oakland, where she receives 90 minutes of physical therapy each day.
Cunningham Jones taught hundreds of piano students over the years, including some who became piano teachers in Modesto and others who went on to careers in music.
Janice Trimble was her student for several years and went on to teach piano to novices, including a student who became a teacher.
"She was always proud of that," Trimble said. "She was sensitive to each student, reinforcing the positive. She was fully devoted to her students."
Cunningham Jones also taught David Dow starting at age 8. He became an electronic music instructor at Modesto Junior College.
"I think her contribution was training folks like me," said Dow, recalling that she would give her students small statues of composers to mark their progress.
Cunningham Jones, a native of Greenville, S.C., studied piano at Asbury College in Kentucky and took graduate coursework at the University of Kentucky.
She taught music in North Dakota, Washington and Oregon before moving to Modesto in 1950. She taught at Sutter Elementary School in Modesto and Ripon Christian School and was a private teacher from 1954 until her death.
"She was a very encouraging teacher," James Jones said. "Once a student said he always felt like he left the studio feeling he could do what she asked him to do."
Cunningham Jones was the founding chairwoman of the Modesto Center of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, a past president of the Music Teachers' Association of California, Stanislaus County Branch, and received the Professional Alumna of the Year Award from the Asbury College Alumni Association in 1971.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.