by Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater
Some people manage to successfully align their passion with their profession. Martha Sechler is one of them. An artist in many mediums and by vocation a school librarian, Mrs. Sechler
is known by Brown County’s elementary school population as the lady who tells stories.
“I was never encouraged to do art for a living, and I knew I didn’t want to be an art teacher,” she admitted. “The thing that I really enjoy is storytelling. I heard someone say that when you tell stories to children, you are saying, ‘I love you.’ I have kids come up to me after they are in high school and they remember me—they don’t remember that I taught them the card catalog, but they remember the storytelling,” she laughed.
Mrs. Sechler likes to learn (and polish for her own delivery) funny stories, folktales, Native American lore and stories that have an unusual twist at the end. She tells stories primarily in the schools or the public library. “In a place like the public library, you just get the kids whose parents have the initiative to get them there, and in school you get kids who wouldn’t ever have anyone telling them stories,” she explained. “At a recent 6th grade ‘Medieval Feast,’ I told a story about what a woman wants most. King Arthur has to answer that question. And what a woman wants most is to be able to make her own choices. In those times, everything was decided for women. They were totally dependent on the men they married, if they were lucky enough to marry.”
Judging from her remarkable life, it appears that Martha Sechler has effectively exercised her modern-day freedom to select her own options. She spent her formative years in a Mennonite community in Goshen, Indiana. While a high school student, Martha volunteered through her church’s service program to spend a summer in Montana on a northern Cheyenne Reservation. “I just loved it,” she remembered. After graduating from the University of Evansville, when all her classmates were looking for jobs, she felt she wanted to do something different. Recruiters from a Hopi Indian reservation suggested a teaching job.
Martha went to live with the Hopis in Northeast Arizona. “That was probably the life-changing experience for me. The reservation was very isolated. The Hopis had never been moved from their land and had been there a very long time. It was an introduction to a completely different way of thinking about the world, and challenged some of the things I had been brought up with. Working with kids in the classroom—the Hopis are a cooperative people. They help each other. So when you give a test, they naturally help each other. The concept of working alone to achieve something is alien to them.”
Leaving the reservation after four years created a difficult transition back into the American mainstream. After a short period of reflection, Martha decided to join the Peace Corps in Jamaica.
“That’s what really got me started in using books with kids. I was a teacher trainer. I went around to what they called basic schools, which are the same as pre-schools, and I would help the teachers there. The teachers’ qualifications were that they had to be seventeen years old and be able to read and write.” She smiled, “So it was an operative word there.
“The kids sat in schools that had tin roofs and they were so hot. They didn’t have any books. If they were lucky they had slates to use. Some schools had chalkboards, some didn’t. This was in 1973–1976. Kingston was a really good resource, however, and had incredible books.
“We were not allowed to earn extra money when serving in the Peace Corps, but one of the Jamaicans who was working in the Corps said, ‘Why don’t you sell your paintings and use that money to buy books?’ So that’s what I did. It was so exciting. The Jamaican art scene, if you could call it that, was much more music than art. So a lot of expatriates were interested in getting pictures of Jamaica. I did a lot of scenery and people in the market place. Mostly watercolor and some pen and ink. I sold enough paintings over two years so that I could buy books. Then the thing that surprised me was that I had to teach those teachers how to use the books. They just had never used picture books with children.”
Returning to the United States, Martha attended graduate school at Indiana University in the Master of Library Science program. While studying in the Bloomington campus library, she met her future husband, Kim Sechler. He was already living in Brown County and working as a teacher at Sprunica Elementary School. The two were married in 1979 and raised their two sons, Aaron and Joel, in their Helmsburg cottage. Kim is now the principal of Helmsburg Elementary School.
Martha Sechler’s librarian job covers four different county schools and she also sits on the Board of the Brown County Public Library. And her passion for telling stories fits well with her occupation. “Stories have become such an important part of my life,” she said. “I was struck after 9-11 how we as a nation tell stories over and over. It’s such a healing process. Stories are a wonderful way of pulling people together. It’s the best thing I do outside of my family.”