Norma Jean Schnase was an example of how one tender gesture could affect a life.
And how that life could go on to impact thousands of others.
Norma Jean Kelley, who grew up in a poor family, was 9 years old when she and her friends peeked in the basement window of a church.
A Sunday school teacher asked them to please come into the class. The other children ran away, but Norma Jean stayed.
“I can’t come in. My clothes are dirty and torn,” Norma Jean said.
The Sunday school teacher extended the invitation again.
“Jesus loves you. We want you to come in,” she said.
So the little girl did.
And the seeds for a future ministry were sown.
Norma Jean, who’d later marry Fred Schnase Sr., would become known to generations of children via “Miss Jean’s Storytime” on television.
Each week for 38 years, Miss Jean would tell a Bible story, display drawings sent in by young viewers, and talk to children about God’s love.
Schnase’s son, Fred Jr., and daughter-in-law, Maribeth, continued the Sunday morning program after Miss Jean had a stroke. The ministry lasted for a total of 55 years.
On Feb. 1, Miss Jean died at age 87 — but not before leaving a legacy.
“At her visitation and funeral, there were so many people who said, ‘I watched your mom and that’s what brought me to my faith,’” said Schnase’s daughter, Eileen Thornburg of Fremont.
Norma Jean actually hadn’t grown up in a family who attended church, but the kind act by the Sunday school teacher made a difference.
“That teacher planted a seed and look what ministry my mom went on to do,” Thornburg said.
Schnase later said the same thing about her television ministry: “I planted the seed and what happened after that only God knows.”
Growing up, Schnase dreamed of becoming a missionary or teacher.
She didn’t get the opportunity for further training or college to fulfill such dreams, but did various office jobs.
Schnase was a Sunday school teacher and married with two children when a call went to churches for a Sunday school teacher for television.
A parish worker looked at Schnase.
“You couldn’t do it, could you?” the worker asked.
Schnase said she’d try, but then told her pastor, the Rev. Arthur Pinkall, that she’d decided not to audition.
“I wish you would,” he said.
So she went to the audition. About 20 women were there to try out for the part. Some had acting experience. Some had degrees.
During the initial interview, Schnase was asked if she could sing or draw.
She said, “no.”
Schnase was asked what college she attended. She told them she didn’t, but was an Omaha South High School graduate.
“What are you doing here?” the interviewer wondered.
Schnase then said that getting the message of Christ across and using TV to its full potential was important — not the teacher.
She was called back for another meeting.
“Aren’t you going to take any notes?” asked a man in charge of the process.
“I’m waiting for the other ladies,” Schnase said.
“There are no other ladies,” he said. “We’ve chosen you.”
Schnase was shocked.
The man asked if Schnase would be available for 13 weeks. Schnase said she’d have to ask her husband if he could get their children dressed and take them to Sunday school.
And thus began her Sunday morning ministry.
Back in the late 1950s, the television program was broadcast live on KMTV in Omaha. Schnase had to be at the station by 7 a.m.
Designed for unchurched children, the 30-minute ministry program had a Sunday school format. Schnase told a Bible story. She said a Bible verse and a prayer.
There were puppets, too, but Schnase said they were only an attention-getter. The focus was on the Bible story, verse and prayer.
The program also included a storyboard. Schnase would show six pictures each week, asking children to draw one or more of those.
In the show’s prime, she’d receive thousands of envelopes with pictures from children.
Schnase used every picture, which went on a storyboard, to tell a story with a Christian moral — like being kind to one another or obeying parents.
Children put their names on their pictures. Their names also were typed into a Who’s Who roll call and would roll across the screen. That way, all the children could see their names on television.
Sometimes, Schnase received many pictures that illustrated the same thing so she’d have to ad lib until each one had been shown. If she only got a few pictures on a subject, she’d have to shorten her narrative.
At first, the scripts and storyboards were written by other people. She’d memorize 20 to 25 pages of script each week.
After eight years, Norm Williams, a director at KMTV who had the idea for the television mission, was transferred to Phoenix.
Schnase then took on all aspects of producing and presenting the program. She wrote the scripts and storyboards, typing them while kneeling on the floor with her typewriter on her hope chest.
She’d type the Who’s Who roll call on a machine at the studio, too, and still open all the mail and memorize scripts.
Many local church and children’s choirs appeared on the show.
“I took children’s choirs to ‘Miss Jean’s Storytime’ for 30 years,” said Sharon Francis of Fremont. “Miss Jean always welcomed the children to the studio, made them feel at ease, and shared the love of Jesus with every child.
“She let them know how much she appreciated them coming to share their gift of song, and let them know that their singing was a blessing to others. The kids always looked forward to going. It was the highlight of their year.”
Thornburg said her mom always wanted children to know they were loved, because they might have people in their homes who didn’t express love.
Schnase wanted children to know Jesus loved them.
Children enjoyed Schnase.
“We’d go to a presentation together and little kids would come up and give her a hug,” Fred Jr., said. “She’d look them in the eye and talk to them. They’d talk to her like they knew her because they saw her every week.”
Thornburg and her brother were just 6 and 4 years old when their mom started this ministry.
“I was on the program as a child,” Thornburg said. “Fred and my kids sang at Christmastime when they were children and our grandkids sent in pictures.”
Schnase lived to see her great-grandchildren reach their teenage years, Fred Jr. said.
Looking back, Schnase’s children have good memories of her.
“She was such a happy person,” Thornburg said.
And Schnase was happy despite several health problems over 25 years that included strokes, breast cancer and then kidney failure. She had a triple bypass operation and two pacemakers.
Despite of all these health issues, she never complained, her daughter said.
“She was a fun-loving person and had a great sense of humor,” Fred Jr. said.
Thornburg also remembers her mother’s good nature.
“She had a fabulous sense of humor,” Thornburg said. “She entertained the hospice staff the week before she died.”
Fred Sr., died a decade ago and Schnase died on her late husband’s birthday.
The Schanses’ son was his mom’s caretaker for the last 9 ½ years. Thornburg and Maribeth Schnase assisted.
During her life, Norma Jean Schnase received the Gold Frame National TV Award, Lutheran of the Year Award and was inducted into the South High School Hall of Fame.
And all that without acting classes or other training.
But perhaps it was just another example of what happened after a seed of kindness was planted so many years ago.