HELEN STEINER RICE...
Woman of Talent and Courage
Mary Hilaire Tavenner, Ph.D.
Helen Steiner Rice
is possibly America's most prolific poet. She lived nearly 81 years and
it's impossible to relate all the interesting things about her within
the limits this brief article. For every fact included, a hundred are
Both of Helen's parents
came from farms near Wooster, Ohio. Anna Bieri, her mother and family
were from Switzerland, her dad, John Steiner, was of German decent. When
John got a job with the Baltimore & Ohio Railway, the two married and
moved to Lorain, Ohio.
Helen Elaine Steiner
was born on May 19, 1900. Her only sister, Gertrude was born on November
2, 1902. The family worshipped at 20th St. Methodist Church in Lorain.
Here Helen attended and even taught Bible School. As a youngster she thought
of becoming a preacher.
In Lorain, Helen attended
Garden Avenue, Garfield, and Lorain High Schools. She published poetry
in the Lorain Scimitar in 1916 & 1918. Her plans for after graduation
were to go to Ohio Wesleyan for a liberal arts degree then Ohio State
to get a degree in law. She had thoughts of becoming a congresswoman.
However after graduating from Lorain High School in 1918, she got a job
at Lorain Electric Light & Power Company.
A few months later
her father died suddenly in the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic of
1918 at the age of 46. He was buried in the local Elmwood cemetery. Helen's
dreams for college were now impossible. She continued her job to earn
an income for her mother and sister.
While at the Power
Company she learned to decorate lampshades and taught other women how
to do this. She was soon promoted to advertising manager, promulgating
the Power Company with both her poems and knack for window decorating.
This is when she began her public speaking career.
In 1924, Lorain was
devastated by the tornadoes--yet Helen was nicknamed "The Lorain Tornado"
for her enthusiasm and optimism as a public speaker. She was becoming
an extremely successful businesswoman and earned a reputation as a feminist.
During her presentations she especially promoted what she considered "the
important role women play in business." She saw women as partners in the
work place, not as mere "decorations".
Helen was not much
taller than 5 feet, but by the age of 25, she was a nationally known speaker.
She criss-crossed the country giving speeches in the public service industry
and was even invited to the White House to be photographed with President
During the Spring
of 1927, Helen founded her own speaker's bureau. She called it "Steiner
Service". She struck out on her own because of the many scandals in public
In June of 1928 Helen
spoke at a bankers convention in Dayton. She agreed to a fee of $150.00
and expenses. Mr. Franklin Rice was assigned to escort Helen and after
the presentation, they had dinner together. Franklin offered to send any
newspaper clipping there might be in the Dayton local paper about her
talk at the banker convention. Helen informed Franklin that stories reporting
her presentations were usually on the front page. Several days later,
Franklin used a chauffeur driven limousine to deliver the Steiner story
to Helen in Lorain. It had been published on the front page.
Three months after
their first meeting, Franklin, the vice-president of Dayton Savings and
Trust chartered a yacht for a Lake Erie cruise. Two months after that
they were engaged. The following January they were married at New York
City's historic Marble Collegiate Church...only six months after their
meeting in Dayton. On their wedding day, January 30, 1929, they boarded
the S.S. Columbus for a honeymoon cruise to the Caribbean. It was a wonderful
journey, but the poverty and squalor of Trinidad, Havana, and Panama affected
Helen's sensitive nature.
After the honeymoon,
the happy couple moved into a 14 room house in Dayton...complete with
3 expensive cars. Everything in life looked hopeful and promising!
most of their wealth in the stock market, but when it began to fluctuate,
Helen wanted Franklin to stop buying securities. Franklin thought it was
only a temporary aberration. It wasn't. In October of 1929, the market
crashed bringing on the Great Depression. Within only a few months all
of their money was gone. Instead they had countless bills. Franklin lost
his job at the bank.
Several years later,
Helen established ties with JR Gibson of the Gibson Art Company of Cincinnati.
By December of 1931, she accepted a full time position as trouble shooter
for their company. Franklin refused to sell their home in Dayton, so Helen
agreed to live in Cincinnati, renting a room in the Gibson Hotel; the
two would visit on weekends. Franklin was overwhelmed that he couldn't
support their household. He became depressed and melancholy.
In her autobiography,
In the Vineyard of the Lord, Helen wrote, "Then one day I came home from
playing bridge with some of the ladies at the club and learned the horrible
news...Franklin had gone to the garage, closed the door, started one of
the cars and died of carbon monoxide poisoning." Franklin died on October
14, 1932. He and Helen had been married almost three years.
Franklin was buried
in Zion Memorial Church Cemetery in Moraine, Ohio and Helen proceeded
to work hard paying off their many debts. She worked diligently at the
Gibson Art Company and when their editor died suddenly, Helen assumed
Helen had wonderful
and lasting friendships at Gibson and she loved her work. This is when
she developed her strong ties to Willis D. Gradison, a very successful
politician, and Sam Heed, a Gibson employee.
Helen wrote verses
for the Gibson greeting cards; they were full of humor and clever wit.
During her lifetime, it is believed Helen wrote several million poems.
By 1940, Helen Steiner
Rice was widely acknowledged as one of the leading poets in the greeting
card industry. She had a vivacious personality and developed a reputation
for her impeccable attire...her gloves, beautiful purses, and fancy hats
were becoming her "trademark".
In February of 1945,
Helen was struck another painful blow. Her mother died suddenly of a heart
attack. Helen's devotion to her mother and sister was always remarkable,
but the loving bond she shared with Gertrude grew even more profound with
her mother's passing. The two women shared every holiday together and
wrote each other daily. Helen made countless trips to Lorain from her
hotel room in Cincinnati.
Helen lived in the
same hotel room on Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati ever since she
began work at Gibson Art Company. The people employed there were like
family for her. She was particularly close to her maid, the maintenance
supervisor, and elevator operator. She often gave them and others original
poems she would compose. She suffered the pangs of menopause and weight
gain during her 50's.
At the age of 60,
Helen Steiner Rice, watched as Aladdin Pallante read her poem, "The Priceless
Gift of Christmas" on the Lawrence Welk Show. This was national exposure
that hugely increased her popularity. In time, other poems became nationally
famous when they were read on the Lawrence Welk program: "The Praying
Hands", and "Tribute to JFK" just after his assassination.
During the 1960's
Helen's popularity soared and people flocked to buy her books of poetry,
to get her autograph, and to meet her. Helen felt the pains of lost privacy
and became increasingly exhausted as she tried to keep up with the demands
of her popularity. She experienced pangs of discouragement.
At this time she also
began publishing her hard cover books---Just for You was her first. Nine
others would follow. She usually had her royalty checks sent to Christ
Methodist Church in Lorain and to Wesley Chapel, where she worshipped
In her 70's, Helen
suffered from arthritis and a deteriorating spinal condition. In 1971,
after nearly 40 years of dedicated service, Helen officially retired as
editor at Gibson, but she decided to remain affiliated as consultant and
retain an office there. This allowed her to continue working with Mary
Jo Eling, her secretary, as they attempted to answer her volumes of correspondence.
Helen insisted, "I go there every day, but I'm working for God now, not
October, the month
of her father's and husband's deaths, was always especially difficult
for helen. Her memories of them would plunge her into a seasonal depression
each year. In time, these melancholy periods intensified and Helen began
to mistrust her own sincerity of purpose.
Another great hardship
occurred when she was 75. The Gibson Hotel her home for 40 years, was
to be demolished due to age and increased deterioration. Helen had to
move into a suite at the Cincinnati club, not far away. But the inconvenience
depleted Helen psychologically and physically. Her rib cage slipped over
her right lung, cutting off most of her oxygen supply, resulting in heart
complications. Depressed, short of breath, and limited in mobility, Helen
lost 30 pounds because of the move. Some of the discs in her back deteriorated
and she was hospitalized. She now needed to wear a back brace.
Fred Bauer, editor
of Guideposts did a series of interviews with Helen which became her only
published autobiographical source. Fred encouraged Helen to establish
a Foundation so that her sizeable estate would be used to help the poor,
the sick, the needy. Her dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Gradison had previously
died, but their son, introduced Helen to a Cincinnati attorney who specialized
in estate planning and a Foundation was established.
On April 23, 1980
Helen fell and broke her left hip and wrist. She would now live in the
Franciscan Terrace Nursing Home in Wyoming, a northern suburb of Cincinnati.
Good well wishes were sent by President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter, Pope John
Paul II, and many others.
Helen had never earned
a degree because she had given up her dreams of college to earn income
for her family, but on March 14, 1981, in a private ceremony at the nursing
home, the president of Mt. St. Joseph College, presented Helen with an
honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
The following month,
on the evening of April 23, 1981, at the age of 80---only one month short
of 81--Helen died. Her body was brought back to Lorain and she was buried
next to her parents. Twelve years later, her only sibling, Gertrude, would
be buried in the family plot.
During Helen's life
she published ten hardcover books of poetry, but since her death the Foundation
in her memory has published about 65 more. Helen's legacy is one of talent,
great insight, character, and immense compassion.
granted August 21, 1999.