Helen Hooven Santmyer was a lady. That is the description that is given by those who knew her. She brought a great deal of attention to her home town when her book “… And Ladies of the Club” received national acclaim. From time to time, she would chuckle and wonder if the attention she received at the age of 88 would have been so great if she had been younger.
Consisting of 1,433 pages it was well received, bringing many television and newspaper personalities to her door. During a television interview, Bill Kurtis asked what she would do next after achieving such success. Helen answered simply, “I think I’ll just go back to bed.”
Born in Cincinnati Nov. 25, 1895, her parents Joseph and Bertha (Hooven) Santmyer moved to Xenia when Helen was 5 and her sister Jane, 3. They moved to a home West Third Street, the home of her grandparents built in 1868. Her father worked in the rope industry and was president of the board of education.
Following graduation from Xenia High School in 1913, she went on to higher education at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, graduating at the top of her class with a major in English Literature and composition. In school she often demonstrated for women’s rights. She worked for a year as the secretary of a radical suffragist group.
She hoped to work for a large publishing firm where she could meet those whom she considered to among the more important authors of the day. She accepted the job of secretary to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine where she met Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, though she didn’t always approve of their actions or writings.
Her job allowed time for her own writing and so in 1925, her first novel was published. “Herbs and Apples” is the story of a young girl living in a small town in Ohio, who aspires to become a famous writer in New York.
She taught English at the high school for a year and then served as an assistant in the English Literature Department at Wellesley, teaching Milton and Shakespeare. Then she began her studies in Oxford, England. Her thesis for graduation was written on minor novels of the 18th century. She received the degree of Bachelor of Letters in 1927. She stated that “It was a degree they invented for American students who already had their bachelor’s and they couldn’t think of what else to give them.”
She came back to Xenia to work on another novel. Then she joined the Woman’s Club, an organization which had been in existence for many years. It was the responsibility of each member to research and present programs, a skill at which she excelled. Perhaps it was from her association with this organization that the pattern for the club in her book was established.
Her second novel “The Fierce Dispute” was published in 1929. In 1930, her father found work in California and so the family moved. She was not happy there and began writing a series of manuscripts about the small town where she grew up. She wrote about the library, court house, cemetery, churches, schools and other features of the town she missed so much. Eventually this became another book “Ohio Town”, published in 1963.
At last, the family moved back to Xenia. Helen accepted the position as Head of the English Department and Dean of Women at Cedarville College, a position she held for 18 years. Then she worked at the Dayton Public Library until she retired and began to travel.
She continued writing and after many years of making notes, she put together one of the largest books ever published in one volume. The manuscript for “…And Ladies of the Club” was sent in eleven cartons to The Ohio State University Press. The book was deemed worthy of printing, but it was entire too long. One thousand pages must be cut!
Her friend, Mildred Sandoe encouraged Helen to edit and shorten the manuscript, offering to help. The two worked over the manuscript page by page and sentence by sentence for months. Finally, Helen said she could eliminate no more. The book must stand as it was written.
When it was published by the Book of the Month Club, Helen became a celebrity. People came to learn about the fictional town “Waynesboro” which was modeled after Xenia. By that time Helen and Mildred were residents of a nursing home, people wanted to meet the famous author so visiting hours were established.
Helen received a number of awards. The Ohioanna Library Association recognized “Ohio Town” and later “…And Ladies of the Club.” She was inducted into the Greene County Women’s Hall of Fame, the Ohio State Women’s Hall of Fame and the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. An honorary Doctor of Humanities was presented to her by Wright State University. Another book “Farewell Summer” was published posthumously.
She died Feb. 21, 1986, leaving a legacy of published materials that for generations yet to come will present an example of living in a small Ohio town in the last 19th and early 20th centuries. The Greene County Historical Society has opened a permanent exhibit in her honor.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.