International Writers Association/Friends of Helen Steiner Rice

Lorain, OH, the birthplace and burial place of Helen Steiner Rice


 On Sunday afternoon, December 12, 1999, four people met at the home of Dick and Betty Knitter.  Dr. Mary Hilaire Tavenner and Mr. Lambert Fitzgerald (brother-in-law of Helen Steiner Rice) joined the Knitters in their living room for the purpose of establishing a society meant to educate the public about the life of Helen Steiner Rice of Lorain, Ohio and to recognize the world-wide, inspirational impact of Helen’s prolific and impactful talent for poetry.  These same four people did not feel enough was being done in her hometown of Lorain to acknowledge the positive and profound impact of her life.

They agreed to assume the following roles of leadership for said society: President: Dr. Mary Hilaire Tavenner; Vice-President: Lambert Fitzgerald; Secretary: Betty Knitter, and Treasurer: Dick Knitter.  In time, both Betty (2005) and Dick (2006) Knitter died and Lambert respectfully resigned city work and personal responsibilities.  Dr. Tavenner (for about six years was the former Vice-President and President of the Faith Followers, another local Lorain group, now dissolved, that had worked to honor Helen Steiner Rice) continued the work of the Friends of HSR after resigning as the President of the Faith Followers.  It is very sad that several of the “Faith Follower Leadership” saw “The Friends of Helen Steiner” as “competition” and not an “additional source” of educating and promulgating the talents and legacy of Helen Steiner Rice! 

Dr. Tavenner had worked too hard and too long for several leaders of their membership (Faith Followers) to be constantly and consistently disrespected. (And these officers shall remain unnamed, but let it be known that the president I served as her Vice-President for two terms, was entirely charitable and  saddened by Dr. Tavenner’s resignation.)  One of the more relevant things Dr. Tavenner was able to accomplish as President of the Faith Followers was to approach Mayor Kozouria and request 3 street signs to be placed near the grave of Helen and on North Ridge Road, travelling both east and west of the entrance furthest west in Elmwood Cemetery.  Dr.Tavenner designed this sign, created a logo for the group, bought pens and paid for them, to be distributed to the public, (for which she was admonished and criticized!) The last official thing Dr. Tavenner did as their president was to oversee for the Faith Followers was to organize the placement and dedication of the three signs in the spring of 2000, before handing in her resignation in June of 2000.

On November 1, 2001, the Friends of Helen Steiner Rice held a fundraiser at the Palace Theater.  The “Saints Day Concert with Tom Franzak” was not well attended and consequently, we found ourselves $2000.00 in debt, so Dr. Tavenner personally paid, out of her own pocket, the $2000.00 fee we owed to Mr. Franzak for his concert.  Our treasury and ticket sales paid the other expenses such as the $500.00 for renting the Palace for one day, the printing of tickets, publicity, etc.  The Faith Followers remained very public in their outcry and contempt for this new group, “The Friends of HSR.”

In 2001, thanks to the initiate of Dick and Betty Knitter, we received a non-profit corporation status in the State of Ohio from Ken Blackwell, Secretary of State in Ohio, on January 9, 2001.  (Charter number: 1206110).  In 2006, the status was renewed, but Dr. Tavenner became the appointed agent, as both of the Knitters had died.

In 2002, Dr. Tavenner applied for an Ohio Bicentennial Marker for Lorain to honor HSR.  We asked the Mayor and City Council for permission to plant the historical marker in the west section of Lakeview Park, near the Kiwanis Pavilion.  Dr. Tavenner composed the text on the marker and her wording received approval by the Ohio History SocietyCommittee in Columbus.  Dr. Tavenner employed the use of her HSR image which is named “The Lorain Portrait”, given to her by Lambert Fitzgerald in 1999, with the remarks, “Use this image for promoting Helen, the city of Lorain or for your own personal use.”  Dr. Tavenner owns this image to date.

Dr. Tavenner has always encouraged the free replication of this particular image, especially in Lorain, and internationally as well.  Many local organizations such as the Lorain Public Library and Black River Historical Society have chosen to promote this “Lorain Portrait” of Helen.  The Lakeview Ohio Bi-Centennial Historical marker cost $2,000.00 and was dedicated in 2003 with 70 in attendance.  Dr. Tavenner personally donated $1,000.00 out of pocket.  Additionally, she wrote and received two $500.00 grants from both the Longaberger Basket Company and the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, respectfully. 

Dr. Tavenner personally paid, along with some of the treasury monies, for rose bushes at the dedication of the Lorain County Lakeview Rose Garden, in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Knitter after their deaths, in gratitude for their service to our society, and their Christian friendship.  Dr. Tavenner also paid for another rose bush in honor of Helen Steiner Rice, from her own wallet.  Our treasury was always very modest as membership was usually under five members for the first five years.

Then in April, of 2006, the Friends of Helen Steiner Rice sponsored a book signing and readings ceremony at Lakeview, near the HSR marker.  The event was held in honor of the 25th Anniversary of Helen Steiner Rice’s Death (1981).  Twenty-nine poets, writers and authors attended.  The event was so enthusiastically received that we (the group attending) decided to meet at the Lorain Public Library on June 17, 2006 and there launched our next great step: to morph the Friends of Helen Steiner Rice in to the writers support group known henceforth as the International Writers Association!

Charter members, supporting our society then included: Dr. Mary Hilaire Tavenner, Joyce Ruf Rhodes , (her husband, Bobby Rhodes volunteered to create an IWA website, and Dr. T. paid the fees, as we still did not have monies), Al Thiery, Helen Tisler, Holly McCain and Robert Moore enthusiastically supported our new name and goals. 

Dr. Tavenner merely continued leadership of the Lorain fledgling writers group and it’s, ever so slowly, increasing membership.  Because Lorain is known as “The International City”, we decided to be known as “The International Writers Association”, yet still keenly aware of our history as a group, first born in the efforts of promoting and honoring our most famous local writer, Helen Steiner Rice.

Even while serving the Faith Followers, Dr. Tavenner wrote letters to the Lorain School Board asking them to name a school in Helen’s honor.  To no avail.  Dr. Tavenner started a petition to honor HSR with a street, another for a building, and still another for a park in Lorain to bear her name, but it all came to no nothing until 2007, when Dr. T. personally collected the signatures of 1,000 local residents and voters of Lorain.  She then took these same names to the Lorain City School Board, where she eventually was told that a new elementary school in Lorain would be built on Tacoma Avenue in South Lorain and named “Helen Steiner Rice Elementary” on February 26, 2007.  The school was completed August 27, 2007, and the dedication ceremony was held the following year, with about five IWA/FHSR members in attendance.

By now, our group was rowing into our new purpose, that of helping the local writers to obtain a collective voice in the local community.  Members joined from Buffalo, NY and throughout the state of Ohio, averaging three to six members who might attend our monthly meetings.  “On the books”, we had about twenty registered/paying members.  Because membership was poorly attending our monthly meetings, Dr. Tavenner proposed quarterly meetings and found attendance now tripled.  As of July 4, 2011, we have 27 active (paid dues) members and generally about fifteen of them usually attend the quarterly meetings: the third Saturday in February, May, August and November. 

In August of 2011, upon a second renewal of our “non-profit corporation status” in the great state of Ohio, our official name was officially changed by voting membership to: The International Writers Association/Friends of Helen Steiner Rice.  This was done in order to embrace our humble beginnings and our collective vision for the future.  In earlier years, we had experimented with meeting in various locations, but learned that our best attendance was realized at the Lorain Public Library and has become our “official” meeting location.  Our volunteer officers are and will remain in office until “official elections” are a part of our process, hopefully “in time.”  Dr. Tavenner, President; Robert Moore, Vice-President; Denise McKee, Secretary and Joyce Ruf Rhodes, Treasurer.  About 50 percent of those who join our society choose to stay active and remain supportive of our mutual/ongoing/collective goals and vision.   Bobby Rhodes and James O. Barnes created the official logo of IWA/FHSR.  Bobby Rhodes had created our first IWA/FHSR website, but yielded to Richard Todd who created a most impressive new website, promoting our writers society locally, nationally and internationally.  Updated 1/28/2012

Addendum: March 11, 2016

In the past few years, we have agreed to meet bi-monthly: January, March, May, July, September, and November, on the third Saturday of the month, unless it should land on a holiday.  New membership has brought even greater talent and it needs to be noted that James O. Barnes has created his own publishing company as well as a Northeast Ohio Christian Writers Conference with the help of active members such as Kelly Boyer Sagert, Robert Moore, Debbie Alferio and Richard Todd.  IWA has supported this writer conference held at the Presbyterian Heritage Church in Amherst both fiscally and in every other way.  The event is growing and, for the past several years, has been very successful, in all measures. 

Also, in April, 2014, James O. Barnes held the first OFFICIAL IWA/FHSR elections whereby active members voted.  President: Dr. Tavenner; Vice-President, Robert Moore; Secretary: Denise McKee; Treasurer: Kelly Boyer Sagert.  He has agreed (God bless him!) to oversee future elections.

At the Lorain County Community College, during May of 2015, IWA/FHSR was invited to the LCCC Learning Center by Dina Ferrer to have a ceremony to mark the 115th anniversary of Helen Steiner Rice’s birthday!  It was well attended by elected officials, people from her church, Lighthouse Methodist, the press, 4 visitors from Reedsville Pennsylvania, and local citizens of Lorain, Amherst, Vermillion and Elyria!  Approximately 70 people were in attendance.  IWA/FHSR authors had an opportunity to sell books and Charlene Connors did an awesome portrayal of Helen Steiner Rice. 

 Richard Todd’s new website has brought in about ten writers from other countries such as: India, Scotland, Cayman Islands, China, Viet Nam, Nigeria, etc.  Our challenge will be to keep them served and engaged in our society! Richard Todd’s talent has created more than 16,000 hits in the past year!  Local membership is about twenty paid members, and we have writers in several Ohio cities, and Kentucky. 

In February of 2016, Lambert Fitzgerald composed and certified a letter stating that any citizen of this town or organization has the right to teach, speak of, promote or write about Helen Steiner Rice.  Lambert Fitzgerald is Helen’s brother-in-law and the one in custody of all of Helen’s personal letters and possessions.  This is an important document as some of us have gotten the impression from Cincinnati that the Helen Steiner Rice Foundation has ALL rights to Helen.  The biography, Ambassador of Sunshine could NEVER have been produced without the generosity and sharing of Helen’s personal effects by Lambert.  This, in no way, affords anyone or any group in Cincinnati as “a copyright on the life and legacy” of HSR.

In 2016, members have decided that we need to return to monthly meetings once again!  There are so many events and issues of concern, that after 17 years, it appears the decision to be a wise one.  At our June 18th meeting, our IWA/FHSR society and the public marked 10 years since IWA “was born” merging with “The Friends of Helen Steiner Rice” established seven years ago, in 2006, (as a result of the Friends of Helen Steiner Rice and our local community celebrating the 25th anniversary of Helen Steiner Rice’s death…April 23, 1981 at Lakeview Park.) On Saturday, June 18, 2016, we met from 9:00-1:00 pm, in the Rotary Pavilion near the Helen Steiner Rice Historical Bicentennial Marker.  Some of the speakers included: Dr. Tavenner, Kelly Boyer Sagert, Robert Moore, Melba Asberry, Teresa Linden, Miranda Garganz, Julie (Holly) McCain and others.  Because there was an open microphone, other brave souls addressed the group of us as well. Local authors could sell their books, and refreshments were shared.

On October 8, 2016 the Lorain Public Library hosted Independent Authors in the Toni Morrison Reading Room.  Valerie Smith, Lorain librarian over saw the event, and ten IWA/FHSR attended.  Because this was the first ever, national attempt at supporting independent (self-published) authors, the experience was novel to say the least!  Very few books were sold, and a national panel of speakers along with a local panel presented their individual insights.  Valerie Smith has asked IWA to assume a leadership role in the upcoming 2nd annual October, 2017 IndieAuthor event.

Plans are for the last meeting of the year, on December 17th, we will enjoy a very brief business meeting and then to celebrate with cookies, a gift exchange and fellowship to mark the “anniversary” of the Birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

Updated December 12, 2016, Dr. Hillarie Tavenner