In the spring of 1994, Southeast Missourian managing editor Joni Adams began a series called "Profiles." It featured in-depth interviews with some of the area's most interesting characters.
One of the first people she wrote about was long-time Missourian columnist and book author Jean Bell Mosley. It was published June 7, 1994.
Cape Girardeau writer Jean Bell Mosley enjoys her pansies. (Fred Lynch ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
WRITER JEAN BELL MOSLEY REJOICES IN EACH DAY'S LITTLE JOYS
By Jone Adams
You can find her there most days -- gently swinging on her cozy porch, watching nature's frolic in her lush backyard.
But don't be fooled by her relaxing pose.
Her sharp eyes take in every animal encounter, each fragrant flower. Her quick mind is preserving a snippet in time or pondering a phrase for future publication.
At 80, Jean Bell Mosley remains an extraordinary woman and gifted writer.
Home sweet home
Her red brick home with white iron trim suits her. It was built in 1936 for newlyweds Edwin and Jean Bell Mosley, and she's lived there ever since. Edwin died in 1977.
The towering trees overhead shade the generous windows in her front room. Green seems a favorite color -- perhaps reminding her of the outdoors she loves so much. A pair of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls are perched on one windowsill. Built-in bookcases line one wall -- filled with her favorite authors. The tick of a clock marks the passage of time -- punctuated by a cheery cuckoo. A wall print shows three small girls poring over a book. A colorful quilt adorns her dining room table -- topped by a vase of delicate irises. A basket of yarn rests by a favorite chair.
More than just home, this is the place Jean Bell has composed four books and hundreds of short stories and articles that have appeared in dozens of national magazines. It is here she is completing a fifth book -- a compilation of her newspaper columns entitled "Seeds on the Wind." Concord Publishing House, which is the corporate name for the Southeast Missourian, will release the book for sale later this year.
Life on the farm
But it is another homestead that has played such an important role in her writings. The farm home where she was raised has been designated as a National Literary Landmark.
She was born in Elvins, Mo., which she characterizes as a tough little mining town.
"It reminds me of that radio show, 'Our Gal Sunday,' which starts out by asking 'Can a little girl born in a mining town find happiness?'"
Her grandfather was a miner. Her dad owned a livery stable and blacksmith shop. But when she was born in 1913, Henry Ford's contraption was making inroads into the livery business and the mines had erupted in riots.
"Grandpa thought it would be better to buy a farm on the St. Francois River. It was rich bottom land, surrounded by hills."
And so the entire family of seven -- parents, three daughters and grandparents Bell -- moved to this self-sufficient farm near Doe Run. It was this farm, and her way of life, that found its way into so many of her writings.
Don't call me Myrtle
Jean Bell Mosley seems a fitting name for a writer.
"Some people have accused me of changing my name when I became a writer," she muses.
The name on her birth certificate is Myrtle Bell.
"My daddy named me after mamma, but she wanted to call me Louise. My sisters were Lillian and Lucille, and I guess she liked the alliteration. Grandpa Bell wanted to call me Imogene, so I was known by a mixture of names -- Myrtle, Myrtle Louise, Myrtle Imogene and Myrtle Jean."
A teacher in high school wouldn't call anyone by a double name. In his class, she became Jean.
Her classmates starting calling her Jean Bell -- as if it were one name. It's been that way ever since.
A trip to the library
She developed her love of reading at an early age.
"I could read books without looking at them," she laughs. "Little Boy Blue was the first book I ever had. Long before I went to school, I'd get anyone to read it to me.
That book was read so many times I could repeat it word for word. They got tired of hearing me, and one day that book disappeared. But I kept reading it, even turning the pages when they were supposed to be turned."
A trip to town was unusual for the young girls -- but one day Grandpa Bell took his 8-year-old granddaughter along.
"He stopped his wagon in front of the Farmington Library and told me to go in and get a book to read. I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to do. A librarian saw me standing there looking puzzled and asked me want I wanted. 'I want a book,' I told her. 'What kind?' she asked. 'Any kind,' I told her."
That librarian chose wisely.
She handed the young girl what remains her favorite book today -- "The Wind and the Willows." It provided fodder for several short stories and eventually she patterned her fourth book, "The Deep Forest Award," after it.
A love of learning
She always enjoyed learning, and wanted to go to college. But money was tight, and she knew only a scholarship would make that possible.
As she neared high school graduation, she and another girl were practically tied at the top of the class.
She credits a classroom speech as a real turning point.
"I'd seen a newspaper story on a haunted house in California. I thought if I gave the speech without notes, I'd get a better grade. I did, and it really made an impression on the teacher. I was chosen valedictorian by the narrowest of margins."
That top spot earned her a partial scholarship to Flat River Junior College.
Like one of her sisters, she set her sights on becoming a teacher.
A writer is born
She traces the beginning of her writing career to the encouragement of a junior college English teacher.
The professor instructed the class to write an autobiography as a way to become better acquainted with the students.
"Mine seemed rather dull -- growing up on a farm. So I added some folderols to make it more interesting."
The piece earned her a good grade, and the professor even read it in class.
"Afterwards, he called me up and said, 'Miss Bell, have you ever thought of writing fiction?' I guess he recognized that some of the things weren't all together true. I had drawn a bell on front and put a crack in it. I thought it would indicate that not everything was so."
She smiles at the memory, leaning back and adjusting her glasses.
One picture included in the essay showed her riding a horse, but the caption told of busting wild broncs.
Imagination took flight -- A writer was born.
A brood sow and college
She graduated from junior college with 60 hours and a teaching certificate. But it was the middle of a depression, and she couldn't find a job.
"My parents scraped together enough money to send to me to Cape," she says. "Old Betsy, our brood sow, helped out. She never had more than eight or nine pigs, but that time she had 14 pigs in the litter. That extra money helped pay my tuition."
The fact she graduated at the top of her class from junior college, also earned her a scholarship to Southeast State Teachers College (now Southeast Missouri State University).
After her first winter semester, she was accepted as a teacher at a two-room school in Iron County. She taught the first three grades for two years, and hated the lack of supplies and worn-out materials.
She later finished out her degree at Southeast during summer terms -- graduating in 1937 with a bachelor's degree in education and major in English.
A beau called "John"
She quit teaching in 1936 to get married. She had met her beau -- Edwin Mosley -- at Mrs. Perry's boarding house in Cape Girardeau.
Jean Bell and six other girls stayed at the house, near the corner of Normal and North Henderson. Edwin Mosley and Ralph Hirsch were the best of friends.
"They made it their business to stop in at Mrs. Perry's and visit on the porch swings. For some reason, they called each other John. It was a boyhood thing I guess," she beams.
When "John" called for a date, Jean Bell inquired about the Hirsch family.
"Was I ever surprised when Edwin Mosley came up the door to be my date that night," she chuckles.
Sweet cream and shoes
The new couple wanted to pay off their new home before starting a family. So with butterflies in her stomach, she applied as a insurance firm secretary and got the job. When a company rule change banned married women, she swapped jobs with another firm's secretary. When her new boss went off to war, she ran his insurance office.
Approaching 30, she decided to quit work to start a family. Not long after, son Stephen was born.
One day at the grocery store, she picked up a magazine called Woman's Day. It sold for 2 cents.
"A Wisconsin housewife had been writing in the magazine about the things I knew so well -- cow pastures, barn lofts, root cellars. I figured I could write that."
And so she wrote a story about the family buying two pairs of shoes for her sister at one time -- despite tough times. The family shipped cream to St. Louis, but it would always sour before arrival. That particular week, the cream stayed sweet and brought double the price.
"They wrote me back and asked if I'd accept $400. I'd have paid $400 -- if I had it -- to have it published."
Jean Bell Mosley, circa 1954. (Southeast Missourian archive)
But she also learned the hard way about the ups and downs of writing. The magazine bought the "Stono Mountain Sweet Cream Shoes" story in 1948. It wasn't published until April of 1951.
"Everyone thought I was having delusions of grandeur," she says quietly, still remembering the disappointment.
At first Woman's Day had a first option agreement on all her work. But she began turning the stories out so fast that they soon released her. She expanded her repertoire of publications to include Better Farming, Extension, Farm Journal, Ladies Home Journal, Parents Magazine, Progressive Farmer, Reader's Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and many, many more.
Her work has since appeared in 15 nationally published anthologies and 10 foreign publications. She has written a weekly newspaper column since 1955 -- which she considers "a weekly visit with friends whom I may never see."
Learning the hard way
She began by writing about the things she knew about, but soon expanded into fictional writing as well.
Edwin Mosley was proud of his wife's writing accomplishments. "Sometimes I think he'd like to chain me to the typewriter," she teases.
Although she was a full-time writer and mother, Jean Bell admits she sometimes felt like an impostor.
"I had no other training than that English composition in college. I took all the literature courses, but I hadn't planned to be a writer at all. I felt like a writer, but I felt I wasn't formally trained. I learned it the hard way. I had a lot of help from editors in those days. They had the time then."
She's ready to rap
She may be an octogenarian, but don't call her old.
Jean Bell keeps abreast of the latest news and trends, and plans to perform a Quest Club installation of officers later this month in rap -- complete with a grungy denim shirt and droopy cap.
She's working on an autobiography, and is now up to the World War II years.
"I don't think of myself as old. When I get up in the morning I feel pretty old, but it wears off in five minutes or so. I don't have any arthritis in my fingers. Probably all that typing exercise kept my fingers flexible."
She's like to see the arrival of the new century.
"I may have no teeth and walk with a cane, but I've set my sights on seeing the year 2000," she laughs.
A call in the night
Jean Bell hopes her writing has allowed her to "do some good" on this Earth.
"I'm not sophisticated or do what I'd call great writing, but I try to touch the common person."
Her work took a more serious turn in her third book, "The Crosses at Zarin." It is the fictional account of Zebedee, the father of apostles James and John. She hoped her book would help lead people to Christ.
"I must have been born with the idea," she says. "Grandma Bell came from the Bible belt, and I've always believed in God and the hereafter."
After the book was published in 1967, she received a phone call in the middle of the night from a sobbing woman.
"It startled me. I thought someone was hurt. But this woman has just finished my book. She lamented her past life, and talked about how she would be different.
The book had soothed her soul, and it made me feel good to think I had done some good."
The book was published in Spanish in paperback and widely distributed in South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Enjoying little things
It's this ability to touch people that makes Jean Bell such a beloved author.
Through her writings, she celebrates the common, everyday occurrences -- sipping a cup of coffee, sitting in a patch of clover. They link the writer and reader in a comforting bond of commonality.
"I try to get across that the joys from the little things stay with us the longest. The big joys don't happen that close together -- the birth of a child, marrying a good man. But you must keep your eyes and ears open to pick up these everyday joys."
Just don't call her a celebrity. She scoffs at the notion.
The tiny finches seem to pause at one of her six bird feeders -- listening to her gentle laughter. Jean Bell simply shakes her head and gives her porch swing a soft push. It's here she peacefully co-exists with the squirrels, rabbits, birds and butterflies.
"I'm just a country girl," she says, rejoicing daily in the little joys of life.