My mother-in-law, Leta Thorp Howell, was an early proponent of Vacation Bible Schools in Texas. In fact, she may hold the record for the most Vacation Bible Schools conducted in the state.
After graduating from Wayland Baptist College, she married Clarence Howell in July 1932 in Lamesa. He graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1940, and they moved to Kress, where both taught in the public schools.
At Kress, Leta began organizing summer Bible schools for children. In spite of a meager income, she purchased supplies for Vacation Bible School, such as paste, crayons, Bible pictures, paper, scissors and gelatin.
During the summer months they drove to neighboring communities, car trunk loaded with the supplies, and set up in a church, school, private home or simply under a good shade tree in a front yard. Leta enlisted volunteers from among the neighbors or church members. She served as the principal of the school, and Clarence taught the Bible lesson.
In 1947, the Howells moved to Hemphill, when Clarence accepted the pastorate at First Baptist Church. Leta continued conducting Bible schools in East Texas as she had done in West Texas. By this time, her two daughters were old enough to lend a hand with the music and teach the younger children.
Homemade ‘copy machine’
Leta was creative in arts and crafts and even developed her own “copy machine.” She created a mixture of gelatin and other secret ingredients and then poured it into a shallow cookie sheet to jell. Then she drew pictures on paper with a purple indelible pen and pressed the drawing on the surface of the gelatin, which absorbed the ink and produced a master copy. She then pressed blank sheets of paper on the gelatin master and produced copies.
She usually was successful in getting support from community fire departments to lead a parade with a fire truck to the steps of the church, attracting more children along the parade route. Decorated bicycles always were a popular part of the parade. On Friday night, the commencement program was held so the parents could see all the things their children had learned to make in Bible school.
100th Vacation Bible School
In 1979, the Baptist General Convention of Texas honored Leta for her 100th Vacation Bible School. Bob Fuston represented the BGCT during a ceremony at First Baptist Church in Pineland, where she was recognized for her faithful work. She conducted eight more schools after that ceremony. Thousands of children learned about Jesus and his saving grace during her 74 years on earth.
After her death in 1984, her daughters found her large “Bible School purse” still crammed with supplies she had readied for the next Vacation Bible School in the Yellowpine community—pencils, rubber bands, paste, paper clips and other necessities.
It’s hard to say with certainty 108 Vacation Bible Schools is a state record for an individual, but it definitely is a pretty impressive achievement. I feel confident Jesus greeted her with “Well done, good and faithful servant,” the words we all want to hear someday.
Neal Murphy is a life-long Southern Baptist deacon from San Augustine who has directed church choirs and taught Sunday school classes many years. He is an independent writer with columns appearing in several newspapers and online magazines, and he has written four books.