01
Apr
09

A student and his teacher: How Lena Voiers influenced the life of Ky. author Jesse Stuart

By James M. Gifford and Erin R. Kazee, the Jesse Stuart Foundation

Vanceburg, circa mid-1940s. In middle, Kentucky author Jesse Stuart flanked by Lena Wells Lykins Voiers, left, and Stuart's wife Deane, right. The children are, from left, Helen Lykins and Mary Lykins, and the Stuarts' daughter Jane. (Photo courtesy of the Jesse Stuart Foundation)

Vanceburg, circa mid-1940s. In middle, Kentucky author Jesse Stuart flanked by Lena Wells Lykins Voiers, left, and Stuart's wife Deane, right. The children are, from left, Helen Lykins and Mary Lykins, and the Stuarts' daughter Jane. (Photo courtesy of the Jesse Stuart Foundation)

In the preface to the 1958 edition of The Thread That Runs So True, Kentucky author Jesse Stuart wrote:

And I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. I will live if my teaching is inspirational, good, and stands firm for good values and character training. Tell me how can good teaching ever die? Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.

In this oft-quoted passage, Stuart sought to encourage and inspire future generations of American teachers, but he was also paying tribute to the immortal teachers who had influenced his life. No teacher influenced him more than Lena Wells Lykins Voiers.

Lena Voiers descended from adventurous Kentucky pioneers.

At the beginning of the Civil War, her grandfather, Peter D. Lykins, was a prosperous land owner in Morgan County, Ky. He was loyal to the Union, and two of his sons joined the Union army. His neighbors and the other men in his family favored the South and gave Peter and his family an ultimatum: leave Morgan County or die. In the terrible winter of 1861-62, Peter and his family were escorted to the county line by his brothers, who warned them never to return. Their wagon train of furniture, people and livestock trekked northeast along frozen roads toward Mt. Sterling. Peter sought a place for his family “where no man is held in bondage,” and a sympathetic stranger recommended the Lewis County hill country on the Ohio River. The Lykins caravan completed its rugged journey in three weeks; no one fell ill and not a single animal was lost.

Peter settled about 20 miles away from Vanceburg, the county seat, and raised four boys and four girls. His seventh child, Dial D. Lykins, later became the father of Lena Wells Lykins. Dial ran a little store and post office in Petersville and taught his children to value education as a profession. As an incentive, he offered an inscribed gold watch to each of his children who passed the Kentucky teacher’s exam and earned a first-class teaching certificate. All eight children earned their watches, but Dial died at age 52, before Lena qualified for hers. Fortunately, her father had arranged for his oldest son, Jess, to fulfill the obligation. Lena studied at Transylvania University in Lexington and received her watch in 1914; she wore it until it was lost, along with her entire jewelry box, in the 1937 Ohio River flood. Miss Lykins was principal of Greenup High School from 1921-23. When the school year ended in 1923, she moved to Vanceburg in neighboring Lewis County. Five years later, she married Gus Voiers, a shoe and clothing store proprietor in Vanceburg.

‘Stirrings of ambition’

The Lykinses were responsible citizens who valued adventure as well as education. During the first week after Lena’s grandfather was driven out of town, the Morgan County Courthouse burned to the ground. Folks around the county seat, West Liberty, thought that one of Peter’s sons had ridden back during the night, set the fire, and then returned to his caravan. This event became family lore. “I am sure none of my uncles did it,” said Lena, “but they all claimed the honor.” She inherited their taste for excitement and infused her students with it. “How full of surprises life is with [you]!” wrote Jesse’s wife Deane, another former pupil of Miss Lykins.

When Jesse first met Miss Lykins during his freshman year at Greenup High School, she was his high school algebra teacher. When he felt sorry for himself because of his poor performance in her class, neither his mother nor his teacher allowed him to dwell on his difficulties. Martha Stuart made her son work especially hard on the days he stayed home from school, and later Miss Lykins hiked over the hills with Jesse’s sister to chide and encourage the sensitive farm boy. She challenged him not to be a quitter: “Are you going to let one subject keep you from finishing high school? … [Don’t] go through life like this.” Her words were strong, but she had a big smile and a friendly way. Jesse took her admonitions to heart.

That evening, Jesse carried a lantern and walked Miss Lykins back to town. She was only 26 at the time, 10 years older than her student, but Jesse wrote that he had “stirrings of ambition to try to amount to something in life, simply because she had so much confidence in me.” She told him that if he worked hard and advanced his education, he might even write a book someday. More practically, she assured him that if he didn’t give up, algebra might be “as easy for you as walking over this mountain.”

After high school, when Jesse was working at the steel mill in Ashland, Lena visited his boarding house and encouraged him to attend college. She followed his fortunes as a student at Lincoln Memorial University, as a teacher and superintendent, and as a graduate student at Vanderbilt. One afternoon, Jesse was washing dishes in Vanderbilt University’s Wesley Hall Cafeteria when he heard someone call his name. It was Lena and her new husband Gus. Jesse was so moved by her continued support that he gave her an inscribed copy of Harvest of Youth on the spot.

In 1937, Lena was there to see Jesse off when he left for his Guggenheim Fellowship. She encouraged him to “travel in every country you can.” While he was gone, they exchanged dozens of letters, Jesse expounding on the beauty and finesse of the women he was encountering and Lena offering friendly advice regarding romance and marriage. “Most women get married at the first opportunity,” she opined.

It is all well forever if a woman marries the one and only man she ever loved and all wrong if she doesn’t. No woman ever loved but one man, real happiness for any woman is ‘to love and to be loved by one man.’ I am not trying to say what it is for a man. Here’s hoping you know for sure sometime.

Then she shared a glowing description of the man she loved.

There is no person living happier than I am – because I am married to the only man I ever loved. In September 1910 I fell in love with a little friendly, redheaded, gawky, ugly boy who was nice to a big, bashful, ugly, country girl who came to town to go to high school. Since that time I have courted many others, at least two other men loved me and wanted to marry me but against the advice of my friends and family I married “the drunken sot” (as my sister said) who has made me very happy. It still gives me thrill to see him coming home each day thru 10 years of marriage. Drunk or sober, good or bad, my love has never changed in the least.

I am fond of the man who cusses, fusses, and says dirty words. Try him by every measure of fine manhood and Gus is the best man I know. It’s springtime in America and I’m in love. How is it in Paris?

Lena’s interest in Jesse was not unique. After she married “Poppie” Gus, they spent their summers visiting Lena’s former pupils across the country. Often, when one of her former pupils was in trouble, Lena, who had no children of her own, would appear to help and hearten them: “It’s not as bad as you think, and we’ll see what can be done about it.”

She “never let a pupil [or former pupil] down if she thought he was in the right” and often championed ones who were wrong but had the potential for self-improvement. Stuart told her that she was “enjoying what a good teacher always and should enjoy … the success of … former pupils.”

“More than any other teacher I know,” Stuart wrote a decade later, “she has left a permanent stamp on her children.”

‘The Accident’

In the summer of 1940, Gus and Lena invited the newly-wed Jesse and Deane for a weekend visit. On Sunday afternoon, the two couples went for a scenic drive along the Kinnickonick River. Gus was driving and as he came over a little rise, a man “came from nowhere” and was struck by the car and knocked against a tree. The four friends “about had heart attacks.” Fortunately, Gus was not driving fast. The fellow who had been hit came to his senses and identified himself. The Voierses and Stuarts rushed him to a doctor in Vanceburg, where X-rays revealed that the young man had no serious injuries. Gus was certain that he would be sued.

Soon after, the injured boy and all the men in his family arrived at Gus’ store to shop. Poor Gus was so scared that he hid in his office. After making an incredibly large purchase, the father asked to speak to Mr. William Augustus Voiers. Gus approached fearfully, and the man told him that his son had a “fault of running in front of automobiles and getting hit. He was born with it, I guess.” He then thanked Gus for being “the only man who ever took him to the doctor,” cared for him and took him home. Praising Gus “as the finest man we have ever known,” the father left with the promise “to trade with you all we can.”

Jesse recorded this episode in a little notebook of story ideas he always carried. Twenty-six years later, when he was in Greece, he wrote the story and had it typed upon his return to America. He sold “The Accident” to the Saturday Evening Post for $1,750.

Before the story appeared in 1967, Gus died suddenly from a heart attack, but Lena thought it was “the greatest story [Jesse] ever wrote.” She purchased 100 copies of that edition for gifts to friends and family and was elated each time it was reprinted in an anthology or textbook. Jesse was glad to have preserved something of Gus’ good nature in his art. From the very first, he felt that “Gus [was] a good looking man [and] more than that … a fine man.”

New horizons

Such adventures cemented their lifelong friendship and gave them “new horizons.” When Jesse, Deane and Jane were living in Washington, D.C., the Voierses visited them. Together they took a tour of the nation’s capital. They also went to Florida together, shared holidays and frequently invited one another for dinner and overnight visits. As Jane grew older, she was often included in these outings and developed a close relationship with “Auntie Lena” and “Uncle Poppie Gus.” The Voierses often brought their twin nieces, Mary and Helen, to play with her.

In the summer of 1949, the two couples embarked on a tour of Europe, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth. The preparations took months and flurries of letters as they tried to work around Jesse’s busy schedule. Deane proclaimed to Lena that she was “so excited with the thought of [the] trip that [she couldn’t] settle down to do a thing.” Meanwhile, Jesse was lecturing, traveling and revising Hie to the Hunters. Deane tried to get him “to come down and talk ‘trip'” but couldn’t get much enthusiasm. She frequently told Lena that she couldn’t believe they were actually going. Lena made many of the plans herself, sending clippings from travel guides and ideas for what to do. The Stuarts arranged for young Jane to stay with her Uncle James and Aunt Betty, and, finally, the Queen Elizabeth sailed off.

They visited England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. The trip was such a success that Jesse wrote, “[W]e might go every year to Europe from now on to the ends of our lives and we’d never have a better trip and more fun than we had on that trip.”

Every aspect of it was memorable, down to the voyage there and back. Crossing the Atlantic, there were “rough seas and people getting sick” the whole time. On a ship of 400 passengers, only four people remained impervious to the rocking ship: the Voierses and the Stuarts. Even Lena, Jesse and Deane had difficulty eating, but Gus ate four-course breakfasts every day. Eleven years later, the Stuarts were sailing to Egypt when their waiter told this story and bragged on the “large man” with the iron stomach and his friends. Jesse was elated, and the steward pleasantly shocked, when he explained that he and Deane “were two of the four.”

“So I guess,” Jesse told Lena, “Gus has made maritime travel history!”

There was a community-wide interest in hearing about their adventures, and Jesse and Deane showed their “European films” at least three times in Greenup to “good reception” and audiences of nearly 100 people. The Voierses also made numerous presentations to school, church and civic organizations. Lena lectured from the notes she had made while they were traveling, and Gus, an accomplished photographer, developed slides to accompany her talks. They charged a fee for the presentations and used the money to provide scholarships at Kentucky Christian College in nearby Grayson. The first presentation earned $20, but Lena felt “conscious-stricken” over taking so much money, so she set a $10 limit for all future shows.

‘What a teacher and friend’

Stuart wrote thousands of letters to Lena and Gus, regularly quizzing them on a wide variety of topics ranging from county politics to local response to his latest book. They were his confidants, his sounding board, and his eyes and ears when he was away from home. Lena was proud to be named in his autobiographies, but she never shied from telling Jesse what she really thought of his work. When he first finished Beyond Dark Hills, he told her that she would like it “for it will bring so many things back to you.” Lena responded that she found the book vulgar in parts, especially the language used by the steel mill workers. Jesse apparently had not anticipated criticism. He reacted defensively, calling his former teacher an “ultra-conservative” who was “under the influence of [the] Easter revival.” Furthermore, he reminded her that “if you want vulgarity you can get all you want in the Bible … If people come onto these words and halt and speak of their vulgarity – then I say they are the vulgar creatures and not the author. I’m certainly not a vulgar man.” In fact, Jesse believed that Beyond Dark Hills was his “cleanest” book to date. The debate continued for several more letters.

Nonetheless, Jesse respected Lena’s opinions, particularly when she gave favorable reviews of his work. Of The Thread That Runs So True, she assured him that “800,000 [will be] behind this [book]!” In public, she claimed the honor of being the teacher who read Robert Burns to Jesse Stuart in high school “because Miss Hamilton [Hatton] is dead and has her reward.” She never got over the excitement of “reading my name in print in a book written by my school boy.” An executive with E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc. told Lena that “there has never been any doubt in my heart that you have had a great deal to do with the success and progress of our Jesse Stuart.”

Recognition also came in 1954, when Transylvania University rewarded Lena for her work as a teacher and lecturer. A self-professed “proud and happy country school teacher,” she felt that she had already received rich dividends as a teacher and was “overpaid in [her] wealth of good friends.” Her good friends Jesse and Deane frequently commented in their letters about how much they appreciated her, too. In 1967, Deane framed her eighth-grade diploma, which proudly bore the name of Lena Wells Lykins.

A prevailing theme in much of Jesse’s work was laughter, and it was Lena who had taught him to enjoy each day to the fullest. Even when he was in his 60s and she in her 70s, Jesse recognized her vitality. She was interested in everything from Robert Penn Warren’s poetry to University of Kentucky basketball: “I doubt any woman knows more about basketball than you!” He thought her highly intelligent and good with an audience. In 1968, Lena delivered a high school commencement address, which Jesse praised as “excellent.”

“What a girl you are,” he wrote. “What a teacher and friend.”

About the authors: James M. Gifford serves as CEO and senior editor of the Jesse Stuart Foundation, a regional press and bookseller headquartered in Ashland. He earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Georgia in 1977. Erin R. Kazee, a graduate of Vanderbilt University, worked as an editorial assistant at the JSF in 2008. She is studying for a Ph.D. in French language and literature at the University of Maryland. This article is an excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Jesse Stuart. The authors wish to thank JSF board member David R. Palmore for contributing materials from his extensive personal collection. Special thanks also go to twin sisters Mary M. Hampton and Helen L. Smith of Vanceburg who shared manuscript material, photographs, and memories of their late aunt, Lena Wells Voiers.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine. To receive the magazine, e-mail Editor Julie Nelson Satterly at julie.satterly@uky.edu. To download a PDF, visit www.kyhumanities.org.

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