STOW: Evelyn Nanashe still remembers that day in 1954 when she answered a knock on the door of her Arndale Road home to find a black woman standing on her stoop.

Stow’s population — a mere third of the 34,000 living in the suburb today — was almost entirely white back then.

The exceptions were three black doctors who had built new homes on Fishcreek Road, a move only made possible because their contractor presented his white face when purchasing the land from a local farmer.

Now the mother of one of those households, Leona Farris, was introducing herself and explaining that her daughter, Betty, had become friends with Nanashe’s daughter, Tina, at Woodland Elementary.

Given the fragile era of race relations, Farris felt responsible for paving the way for the burgeoning friendship of those 6-year-olds to continue.

But Farris ended up with a special friendship of her own. She and Nanashe quickly bonded as women, as mothers, and soon as co-leaders of a new Girl Scout troop at a time when mixed-race social groups were rare.

Their husbands followed the example set by their daughters and wives, with Dr. Melvin Farris and John Nanashe performing a skit at a school PTA meeting to promote racial understanding.

Perhaps it was only fitting that 35 years later, their families would unwittingly weave together through a modern-day marriage.

Making friends

Leona Farris, a spry 100-year-old great-grandmother, pleaded for patience in trying to recall the details of meeting Nanashe on that porch stoop 64 years ago.

“At my age, some of my memory is seriously gone,” she chuckled.

Nanashe, 94 herself, smiled warmly at her friend, seated next to her at the dining table of Nanashe’s Cuyahoga Falls apartment.

“I remember,” Nanashe said.

In the retelling of the story, one emotion that rises to the surface for Nanashe is compassion for Farris, the black mother who felt she needed permission before allowing her daughter to extend a birthday party invitation to her new white friend.

“There were still a lot of people in Stow who wouldn’t have accepted them,” Nanashe said. “She said, ‘I wanted to be sure it’s all right with you if she comes to our house.’ I said that was perfectly all right with me.”

The other emotion most evident is pride in both of their daughters, tiny ambassadors prepared to teach a community a lesson.

The Farrises were the only black children in the entire district, but Tina easily stepped up to Betty when other classmates were curious but cautious.

“I was really pleased that Tina knew to make friends with her right away,” Nanashe said. “Betty told me Tina was the first person who came up to her and spoke to her at school. They remained friends their whole life.”

Once her children were settled in their new school, Leona Farris asked Nanashe who was in charge of the local Girl Scout troop, hoping to sign up Betty. She learned Stow had none.

“So we said ‘Why don’t we start one?’?” Nanashe said. “We agreed we’d do it together.”

There was no audible rumbling in the community when they announced the effort, Nanashe said. In hindsight, she figures that’s probably because objectors simply wouldn’t have joined in the first place.

“We can’t know, but there were probably some people who didn’t join because of it,” she said.

There were a couple of moments, however, when race threatened to be a barrier.

The girls wanted to celebrate their “Fly Up” ceremony, a sort of graduation from Brownie status, at a skating rink in Kent, but the rink wasn’t open to blacks. Melvin Farris and John Nanashe solved the problem by offering to rent the rink during off hours.

Another time, the Farrises were going to host a Girl Scout event when one parent grumbled that she’d never let her daughter attend an activity in a colored home.

The women held their ground and in the end, the event was held at the Farris home and everyone was present.

Mary Helsel — one of the Nanashe children — was two years younger than Tina and loved to tag along on her older sister’s Girl Scout functions.

She recalled being surprised that there had been a fuss at the skating rink and over the event at the Farris home.

“I was shocked when I heard those things around the dinner table, that people saw differences in skin color,” said Helsel, now 67.

“I guess my parents were different, though I didn’t know that at the time,” she said.

John Nanashe spoke several languages and had been a “frogman” during World War II, snorkeling to various Pacific Islands to mingle with native populations and help them prepare for advancing Allied troops. He worked with the famed Navajo “code talkers,” later became an engineer and spent time as a Stow building inspector.

Evelyn Nanashe worked at hospitals, was a home caregiver and worked with bedridden patients at a psychiatric facility before pursuing a career in food service.

Their broad life experiences introduced them to people in all walks of life.

“People were people. They just accepted everyone,” Helsel said. “The subject [of race] had never come up in our family before.”

Part of the community

But if racial tensions were kept to a minimum as Stow welcomed its first black residents, much credit can be traced to a mother who was determined to help others accept her family’s presence.

One of Leona Farris’ daughters, Laura Farris-Daugherty, remembers listening to her mother’s explanation for being involved in so many efforts.

In addition to Girl Scouts and PTA, Leona volunteered at the school library, chaired cookie bakes and outdoor activities and stepped up when the school district needed a door-to-door head count of incoming students.

“She made a point of it because she thought if families were going to be curious about the black family who moved in with children, she was going to give them the opportunity to be somewhere where they could ask her questions, or see her be involved and participate even more than what a lot of other moms and families did,” said Farris-Daugherty, who works in the Beacon Journal’s circulation department.

Leona Farris had a bachelor’s degree in home economics from Ohio State University, a period during which she joined a successful effort to petition the university to permit black students to live in an on-campus dormitory. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Kent State University in 1970, and retired from the University of Akron’s home economics department in 1988.

Part of her motivation in earning a degree and becoming a teacher was having seen how her mother, a schoolteacher, was treated with deference for being an educated woman.

And while Leona Farris was never permitted to forget she was black — on some of those door-to-door missions for the school district, she encountered homeowners who pointed out her color in refusing her admittance — she was confident that being educated opened more doors than not.

Melvin Farris, an Akron physician, also worked actively toward acceptance in his newly adopted community.

When his children enrolled at Woodland, he, John Nanashe, and the school principal created a special program for the PTA.

A young Mary Helsel still remembers watching in fascination as the skit played out before the full crowd.

Farris and Nanashe portrayed strangers entering from the back of the room. Each step they took was accompanied by a comment — Nanashe expressing discomfort that a Negro family had moved to town, Farris talking about why he wanted his children to grow up in Stow.

With each step, Nanashe’s comments tempered and Farris’ appeal grew until they reached the front of the room.

“By the time they got to the front, they had become friends and were saying nice things about each other, like, ‘I’m really glad you came to Stow,’ and ‘I’m glad I moved my family here, too’,” Helsel said.

They shook hands to a standing ovation.

Family ties

Over the decades, the Farrises and Nanashes stayed in touch, even if it was just a card at Christmas time. The youngsters moved away, chasing their own careers and starting their own families. John Nanashe and Melvin Farris passed away. Leona Farris ended up in Copley, Evelyn Nanashe in Cuyahoga Falls.

With eight years difference in their ages, Laura Farris-Daugherty and Mary Helsel didn’t grow up together as their siblings did.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that they didn’t recognize each other when Farris-Daugherty’s fiance, Vern Daugherty, took his soon-to-be-bride to meet some family members in 1991.

Vern, who was white, took Laura to the Munroe Falls home of his nephew, Cliff Helsel. Cliff introduced Laura to his wife, Mary.

It didn’t take long for Mary to put two and two together.

“Wait, are you Lolly?” Mary asked Laura, remembering that little Farris baby she once pushed in a stroller.

Laura’s nickname revealed, the women laughed as their connection became clear.

It’s a story that seemed to have come full circle, though Evelyn Nanashe said she never really thought of it that way.

That her daughter and Leona Farris’ daughter would one day share a familial tie didn’t seem remarkable at all, Nanashe said.

Not remarkable in the same way those two 6-year-old girls saw nothing remarkable in their different skin colors way back in 1954.

“I always taught my kids, whatever is right, you do it,” Nanashe said. “If you do what’s right, you’ll never have to worry about it.”

Mary Helsel said she can condense the story of the Farrises and Nanashes using the lyrics of a Girl Scout song her sister’s troop sang at every meeting.

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.

A circle is round, it has no end. That’s how long, I will be your friend.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.

“I was really pleased that Tina knew to make friends with her right away. Betty told me Tina was the first person who came up to her and spoke to her at school. They remained friends their whole life.”

Evelyn Nanashe