Akron librarian Harriet Leaf entered thousands of living rooms every day to read to children.
As narrator of Tip Top Tales, a program that aired for nearly 20 years on WAKR radio, Miss Leaf earned the nickname “The Story Lady.”
Older residents might recall that friendly voice from long ago. Through live broadcasts in the early morning and late afternoon, Miss Leaf introduced literature to young audiences and promoted reading as a daily pastime.
Miss Leaf — never, ever called by surname alone — was a memorable character at the Akron-Summit County Public Library, which is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. She arrived at the Akron library in 1928 as director of children’s work and organized services that continue to this day.
Born in 1892 in Rochester, Pa., Miss Leaf studied education at the College of Wooster because she wanted to work with children. A chance meeting with a librarian in Lawrenceville, Pa., made her change course.
“She was the niece of a friend, and the first time I saw her she was giving a story hour for children,” Miss Leaf told the Beacon Journal years later. “I don’t know what it was, but I knew just then that was what I wanted to do.”
Miss Leaf transferred to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library School, studied with Norwegian storyteller Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen and graduated in 1915 with a degree in library science. She served on the Carnegie staff for six years before becoming children’s librarian at Cleveland Public Library’s Superior branch. In 1928, she accepted the job in Summit County and moved into a Highland Square home at 28 Conger Ave.
Almost too many books
The new director carved out a space in the basement of the Akron library, then located at East Market and North High streets, and organized a new room for juvenile literature. Children had their own entrance on High Street.
“Oh, yes, we had books for children, lots of them,” Miss Leaf recalled. “But books alone aren’t going to make libraries popular with a lot of children.”
She organized story hours, reading clubs and special programs, and oversaw a staff of 10 workers. Miss Leaf carefully cultivated a collection of 36,000 books for children.
“The young reader is critical of his material, whether it be folk tale or reference work, and judges new books by the best of the old,” she told the Akron Times-Press in 1931.
She was especially fond of classics, including Little Women, Treasure Island, Heidi, Black Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gulliver’s Travels, Kidnapped, Ivanhoe, A Child’s Garden of Verses and Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.
Some titles, however, did not pass muster. Miss Leaf thought the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series were dreadful and refused to stock them. Similarly, she had no love for The Wizard of Oz, and declined to let kids follow the yellow brick road.
“Almost too many books for boys and girls have been written,” she said.
Miss Leaf organized library services for Akron Children’s Hospital, the Summit County Children’s Home and summer camps. She served as a merit badge examiner in reading for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. She taught student nurses the art of storytelling.
Right material for radio
In 1938, she began reading stories on Akron radio. Her first program, Folk Tales, was carried for a short time on WJW. Her next show, Broadcasting Books, aired briefly on WADC. In 1940, WAKR premiered Tip Top Tales, which began as a weekly program, grew to five days and concluded as a Saturday feature. Its time slot jumped around from 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. “The Story Lady” became a household name — at least in homes with children.
The challenge for Miss Leaf was to find material that fit the tight scheduling of radio. Stories couldn’t be too short or too long. How awful it would be to begin a story and then run out of time before reaching the end! Miss Leaf preferred to read aloud at a leisurely pace without rushing through words.
“I remember the staff would help me rehearse a program sometimes for hours,” she said.
In 1941, she built a home at 1157 Greenvale Ave., which she filled with antique furniture, Pittsburgh glassware and old books.
Miss Leaf oversaw the children’s department expansion when the main library moved in 1943 to the old Beacon Journal headquarters at East Market and Summit streets (now the site of Summit Artspace).
She garnered national attention in 1946 as chairwoman of the American Library Association’s committee to select the year’s best books in children’s literature. The panel awarded the Newbery Medal to author Lois Lenski for Strawberry Girl and the Caldecott Medal to illustrators Maud and Miska Petersham for The Rooster Crows.
Distraction of television
The next decade was a challenge as Miss Leaf touted reading while children increasingly became distracted by television. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, neatly coiffed hair, conservative fashions and eye-catching necklaces, she calmly guarded her post, battling to keep the art of storytelling alive during the onslaught of TV culture.
Miss Leaf led the children’s library for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1957 and signing off as “The Story Lady” on WAKR. She looked forward to traveling overseas and catching up on her reading.
“Miss Leaf has made an outstanding contribution to the library and to the community,” head librarian R. Russell Munn noted in 1957. “She will certainly take with her the good wishes of a great number of librarians, teachers, parents and children of Akron.”
After retirement, she kept busy volunteering, including reading to blind people.
In 1976, the library honored Miss Leaf by naming its collection of early and rare children’s books as the Harriet W. Leaf Collection. About 2,000 books, many from Miss Leaf’s personal collection, were included.
“Recognizing that it was through your efforts this collection of distinctive books for children was originally gathered together, it is highly appropriate that this collection will hereafter bear your name,” library director John Rebenack wrote to Miss Leaf.
Harriet Leaf was 93 years old when she died in 1986 at Rockynol. She donated her body for medical education.
In 1994, “The Story Lady” was inducted posthumously into the Akron Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Today, the Harriet W. Leaf Collection is maintained by the Special Collections division at the downtown library at 60 S. High St.
Miss Leaf would be pleased if you took a look.
Just remember the rules: Be quiet, be courteous and beware of The Wizard of Oz.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.