“In the early days my ideas were few, …Now they come on wings, …This power is not of one’s own making… This creativity is a Higher Power working through us …The use of our gifts become not of selfish pleasure, but the holding of a sacred trust.” Thus Lois believed and humbly lived.
Lois Lenski Covey began her adult years pursuing an art career. The change from artist to author was gradual. In the 1920s, she illustrated several children’s books and began exhibiting her watercolors in New York and Chicago. A publisher encouraged Lois to write and illustrate a children’s book. Skipping Village was published in 1927.
Lois’s father and paternal grandparents came to America from Prussia. Her father, Richard, attended Capital University for his undergraduate degree and the Lutheran Seminary, where he was ordained. While at Capital, he met Marietta Young (who was from Franklin County, Ohio) when she visited her brother, also a student. Richard and Marietta married in 1888.
By the time Lois was born (1893), the family had a daughter, Esther, and two sons, Gerhard and Oscar. Another sister, Miriam, became the fifth and final sibling.
Lois spent her first six years in Springfield, Ohio at the Zion Lutheran Church Parsonage. The Reverend Lenski was a man of many hobbies – such as photography and pencil sketching.
When Lois was three years old, she had membranous croup (now diagnosed as a viral infection of the larynx.) At the same time, her brother Oscar had scarlet fever. As a result, there were two quarantine signs on the parsonage front door warning people of a potentially deadly illness in the home. At age eight, Lois had pneumonia and was bed-fast for a lengthy period. These childhood illnesses coupled with influenza (1918) and diphtheria (1919) left her with a lifelong battle for good health.
In 1899, Pastor Lenski accepted a call to Anna, Ohio. Lois looked upon this town as a perfect place for a child; hearing the whistle of a train, the clop-clop of horses on dirt streets, and the ringing of church bells. The town played a part in several of her books.
The year Lois graduated from high school (1911), her father returned to Capital University as professor of classical languages and theology and later Dean of the Theological Seminary. The move to Columbus opened the door for Lois to attend college. Capital was not co-educational so Lois entered Ohio State University.
The family’s home was on the Cap campus so the trolley ride from the Village of Bexley to Ohio State was lengthy which provided her time to study. She always felt the move to Columbus was the place of her beginnings: her mother was born there, her grandmother’s home was there, and her father and uncles were educated there. Columbus epitomized Ohio to Lois.
Lois entered the College of Education but took all the art courses she could as electives. She was chosen Art Editor for the 1915 Makio, the O.S.U. yearbook. She resisted taking a teaching job and went to New York City to study at the Art Students’ League. Lois took advantage of the opportunities to develop her talent through classes and she also worked at part-time jobs. Her illustration teacher, Arthur Covey, hired her as an assistant for many of the murals he was commissioned to do.
In 1916, Lois returned home to Bexley for the summer. Her father, interested in horticulture, planted an especially large flower garden. Lois helped in the garden, contacted florists on High Street, took orders and delivered flowers by streetcar. In the evenings, she and her sister Miriam often played tennis on the campus courts with Alma and Martha Stellhorn whose father was also a professor at Cap. After tennis, the group went to Stukey’s Drugstore at Friend Street (Main) and Magnolia (Drexel) for a fountain treat, to see some of the college boys, and then back to the front porch for singing and talking. Her comment, “I never had more fun in my life.”
In 1920, Lois went to London, England to study, work and illustrate books for publisher John Lane. Upon returning from Europe (1921), Lois and her former teacher, Arthur Covey, now a widower, were married. She became stepmother to Margaret, 12, and Laird, 4. The family moved to Pelham Manor, N.Y. This large gay ’90s house required a lot of elbow grease. A family friend remarked, “…it’s a shame that when Mrs. Covey’s cook leaves, Lois Lenski has to stop painting.”
In February, 1929, Stephen Covey was born. That same year the family moved to Harwinton, Connecticut to the home they named Greenacres. Again, lots of elbow grease was required at this home which initially had no running water or electricity.
Ms. Lenski’s Mr. Small series, inspired by her son, were started in the 1930s as were her imaginative stories and historical fiction books which took intensive research. The Covey’s grandson, David Chisholm, was Lois’ inspiration for the Davy Books. Ms. Lenski’s health and the Connecticut winters led her and Arthur to the South in the 1940s. They built a home in Florida dividing their time between there and Connecticut. Arthur Covey died in 1960 and Lois eventually sold their Connecticut home. She died in Florida in 1974 at 80 years of age.
Lois received the Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl, published in 1945. Other awards: Children’s Book Award and the Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Medal. She received an honorary doctorate in literature from Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa; an honorary doctor of humane letters from University of North Carolina; and an honorary doctor of literature from Capital University. Of the many lessons Lois learned as a child, one served to guide her all her life: “Stand aside-look and listen.”
Research and text by Edie Mae Herrel and Nancy Beck
Photos from the Edie Mae Herrel collection
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