Local children's book author highlights the free enterprise system in work

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Louise McClenathan had been writing children's picture books for more than two decades before she realized to her own surprise that all the plot lines were based on the idea of free enterprise.

It was 1996. Ms. McClenathan had written four children's picture books and was working as a stockbroker at Hunter Associates, Downtown. A young male co-worker and his wife had just had a baby and she wanted to give the couple one of her published books as a gift.

"I wasn't sure which book would be best so I read all of them to see which to give, and I realized all of the books have a free enterprise theme," said the 81-year-old lifelong resident of Washington, Pa.

She gave them a copy of her very first book published in 1977, "Good Wife, Good Wife." In the story, the new husband keeps telling his wife how to do things the right way -- the way his mother did them. When the good wife finds she's having a baby, she asked her husband how his mother managed it, but he was an only child and didn't know.

"The husband soon learns there is more than one way to handle the household," Ms. McClenathan said. "The story deals with the theme of options -- different ways of doing things -- which is the hallmark of the free enterprise system."

More than 20 years after her last children's picture book, "I Can Do It Day," was published in 1990, she is busy peddling two more book ideas to publishers here and in New York that focus on American farmers, the longest lasting free enterprise agents in America.

Her unpublished manuscripts are titled "Harvest: From Wheat to Bread," which explains the process of turning raw wheat to hot bread, and "The Old House At the Fair," which tells the story of the Washington County Fairgrounds, the only known county fairgrounds built on the grounds of a 223-year old farm with the original 1806 farmhouse still standing.

Part of her royalties from that book will be donated to help restore the farmhouse.

Ms. McClenathan began writing as a child. She majored in English literature at George Washington University, and then began writing professionally while working as a reading specialist for grades K-6 in the Fairfax County, Va., school system and later in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Md.

"I loved teaching and I loved kids," she said. "Always have."

While working as a teacher, she first published "Good Wife, Good Wife" with McGraw Hill Publishers under the pen name of Louise Dickerson. Under her own name, Ms. McClenathan published "My Mother Sends Her Wisdom" in 1979, a story about predatory lending, which became her bestseller.

In the story, a Russian widow who owns a farm borrows money from Boris, a greedy moneylender. When he comes for payment, she sends her daughter Katya to him on separate occasions with two white geese, two pigs and a sack of grain, which he promptly sells and then later sues her in court for foreclosure. The widow tells the judge if Boris had kept the animals, they would have produced more, and if he had planted the grain, he could have sold more grain at the market. The judge ruled in the widow's favor.

Ms. McClenathan left teaching, moved back to Washington, Pa., and ended up working a series of odd jobs, after she tried but could not find work at schools in this area as a reading specialist. Then she read an article about the need for women stockbrokers and that they could potentially earn $100,000 a year. At the age of 50, she began a new career as a stockbroker for Kidder Peabody, Downtown.

"I had a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas and one of them was that I'd make $100,000 in a year, retire and write children's books," she said.

One of the female brokers at Kidder Peabody advised her to take a loan for two years' worth of living expenses to tide her over until she could make enough to live on. But as a child of the Great Depression, she was strongly against taking on debt and she never took that advice.

After becoming a stockbroker, she published her third book in 1982, "The Easter Pig," which showed children how to create a niche market in a monopoly.

A pig wanted to go with the Easter Rabbit and leave small things in children's baskets -- a marble, a bright penny, a silver button. The rabbit refuses, saying these things had nothing to do with Easter. But the pig follows behind the rabbit and slips his small gifts in each basket, cutting in on the rabbit's monopoly.

Her fourth book, "I Can Do It Day," points out that each person has a unique gift, and in the American economic system there is freedom to use those gifts best through free enterprise.

In "I Can Do It Day," the animals hold a contest to see who can do things the best. The main character -- a frog -- can't fly, run or climb best. The frog wishes he could do these things, but he can't. When the jumping contest comes around, the other animals could only stand back in awe and watch the frog in amazement.

"I want children to know each of us has a gift and even if we fail, we can try again," she said.

Ms. McClenathan struggled to make ends meet on her earnings as a stockbroker, and she said the children's books actually saved her financial life.

When her first three books went out of print, she bought the overstock from the publishers with her savings -- about 2,000 books for around $3 each. During lean months as a stockbroker, she would call area schools to see if they would hire her for a day to work with children on their writing skills. As part of the workshop, she offered her books to the children for about $15 each.

She eventually sold all the picture books. These days, some of her books are still available on Amazon.

Meanwhile, she was able to make a living as a broker from 1982 to 1998, working for three different firms, including AG Edwards from 1984 to 1995.

Some of her most memorable clients include two cleaning ladies who were cousins working in her office building. They entrusted their combined $5,000 life savings to her to invest, and she said she turned it into $6,000 in one year. One of the cousins died and the other cousin cashed in the investment to pay for a decent funeral.

Another client, a teacher with multiple sclerosis who could not walk, gave Ms. McClenathan $200,000, which she turned into $1.3 million over 13 years. Also, she said, the head of a prominent family foundation gave her a $500,000 check to invest and she is proud of doing a good job for him, too.

"I did well for my clients," she said. "I didn't have money to invest myself. But some of my clients got rich. They have the yachts. I don't."

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Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591


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