The Midwest Birthplace of Dick and Jane

Back in the 1920s, Zerna Addis Sharp was enjoying a vacation in Clinton County, Ind., when she received an urgent call. It was from Scott Foresman and Co. of Glenview, Ill., where she worked as a reading consultant.

Return immediately, they said. We have an important assignment for you: Create a reading primer for schoolchildren.

Neither Ms. Sharp nor her firm could have known that the primer would turn out to be the now-historic Dick and Jane series. But even at that point, the late Ms. Sharp, who had been a teacher and principal in Indiana, knew what kids needed. As she walked along Lake Michigan in Chicago, near Glenview, she watched closely how children played.

"It was 'Oh, look! See! Run!' " recounts Nancy Hart, director and curator of the Clinton County Museum in Frankfort, Ind., Sharp's home territory. A good part of that museum is devoted to a permanent exhibition of Dick and Jane memorabilia.

"It was her decision that the text should be short, simple, to the point, and clear," says Ms. Hart, "and that the pictures should enable the student to catch the point right away."

"Sharp was totally involved with the company until 1965," Hart explains, "but she never actually wrote the stories."

Instead Sharp was what could be called the creative director. "She had total control of everything that went into it," says Hart. "She named the characters, indicated what kind of wording she wanted, how she wanted characters to look, their posture, the color of their clothes, and the expressions on their faces."

What Hart calls a "stable of writers" would then carry out Sharp's instructions. The Clinton County Museum has some of the original notes that Sharp wrote detailing her wishes. They also have photographs documenting her life, original artwork, and other memorabilia.

After Sharp died in 1981, Hart went to her nephew, who lived in Frankfort. "He had all these things of his Aunt Zerna's," she recalls, "and I said I wanted to do something with them."

Eventually they ended up in the County Museum, a big sandstone building that Hart says looks like a castle.

It gets a mix of visitors, from area residents to tourists. Since Sharp was from the county, there is a special local interest, Hart says.

"We get lots of school tours, and when the teachers look you can hear them saying, 'Oh, I remember that - it was one of my favorite parts!' "

"When visitors from afar see the exhibition," Hart says, "they can't believe it all evolved from this small community."

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