Maybe it’s the positive way she talks, punctuating every few sentences with an exclamation point just to make sure you’re tracking. Or maybe it’s her infectious enthusiasm, sharing stories about the prototype curriculum she’s currently writing for “aged-out” orphans in Russia. Whatever it is, one gets the definite impression that Marlene LeFever has it in stripes. Retiring after 44 years at David C Cook, the board gave her one long-stem red rose for every year she’d been there.
“I could hardly carry the vase,” says LeFever.
LeFever began her career as a newspaper reporter.
“I think I would have been happy to stay a reporter if it hadn’t been I was behind a garbage truck and noticed that someone had wrapped their refuse in an article I had written. I thought, ‘I do not want to spend my life writing things that are good for a day, maybe helpful, and then end up as something to wrap garbage in.’”
She then spent three years as a missionary teacher in Japan before she began her stellar career at Cook.
“When I started at Cook,” says LeFever, “they were primarily a curriculum company. I wasn’t enamored with the idea of curriculum until I went to Japan to teach. I had the opportunity then to teach 7th and 8th grade Bible at a missionary school. The first day was terrible. The kids hated it. I decided the school couldn’t possibly send me home. After all, there was an ocean between us. So, I passed the wastepaper basket and the kids dumped their Bible handbooks into it—I didn’t throw them away, but I did get rid of them.
“That left me nothing to teach, so I started writing my own curriculum and I had a wonderful time trying to make God’s Word as exciting to these missionary kids as their other courses,” she says. “What a shame when Bible isn’t someone’s favorite course in school! So, I fell in love with curriculum and when a curriculum job opened at David C Cook, I jumped at it.”
No one can spend 44 years in the industry without encountering a variety of challenges.
“One of the challenges [I faced] was being a woman. My job included going and speaking at a large number of conventions across the United States and Canada. I was often the first woman speaker they had ever had. I had a man say to me one time, just before I went up to talk, ‘You’re the first woman we’ve ever had and you better be good or we’ll never have another one.’ I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’m representing half of the human race!’ That was challenging.
“It was also challenging to feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do, but not everybody agreed,” she says. “I went up to speak in one large convention at a church, and the last two rows stood up, in unison, and walked out as a protest of having a woman speak at a Sunday school convention. That hurt. But I did what God asked me to do. That protest was their right, but my message was God’s right.”
So how does someone stay so vital, so relevant, for so long?
“Listen to your own stories,” says LeFever. “It can get hard just sitting at your desk and writing or working or whatever you do if you don’t see the end result every once in a while. One of the things that happens in the Cook employee meetings every month is that letters from customers are read. They’re such an influence to those of us who don’t really see the customer. We should listen to the stories that God puts in our path.
“A teacher in India initially refused to teach a lesson on forgiveness because she had been abandoned by her mother at an orphanage. She finally decided to teach it, and a little boy came up to her afterwards and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard of forgiveness. My father hung my mother to death when I was a baby and I was raised by my grandmother who fed me big meals every time we sat down so that I would grow up tall and strong and someday find my father and kill him for what he had done to her daughter. Now I’m going to find my father, but I’m going to tell him that I forgive him and Jesus does too,’” she says. “Well, you think that didn’t make me get back to doing what I was doing with a new fervor!”
– Von Mitchell