Monday, July 28, 2014

Lillian Thoele and the I Dare You Library

Back in early June, Ellen and I visited Camp Miniwanca in Michigan, where Shirley spent the month of August, 1954, being trained as a "Danny Grad" for the Danforth Foundation. Her assignment was Kansas State Teachers College (KSTC) in Pittsburg, KS, and it was during that assignment that she came to Chicago for a conference at Chicago Theological Seminary, and that is where we met, Thanksgiving weekend, 1954.

On our visit to Camp Miniwanca, I  had one very specific goal: to find where the following photo was taken:
Shirley with Danny Grads at Camp Miniwanca, Aug. 1954
Shirley is at the far right. This is one of the few photos I have from that summer. The building that this group was sitting in has some distinctive features - the windows, the pine paneling, and especially the mural running along the top of the wall and over the window. When I showed this photo to the young man who was showing us around the camp, he immediately said, "Oh, that's the I Dare You Library. I'll show you how to get there." And he did.

The I Dare You Library is named after William H. Danforth's book, "I Dare You" in which the title expresses his Philosophy of Life - a challenge to "be your own self, at your very best, all the time." The mural expresses something of this philosophy, and must have been commissioned by Danforth for this building. It runs the entire perimeter of the interior. The artist is Lillian Thoele, who signed a panel of the mural. It depicts idealized scenes from American history and American life, as well as some visionary scenes of the unity of all peoples under the auspices of the triumph of Protestant Christianity over the entire world! 

The I Dare You Library is a charming, cruciform little house. Ellen and I immediately thought, "this would be the perfect little house for us!"

The I Dare You Library

Ellen took the following picture of me in more or less the same place that Shirley was sitting in 1954. As you can see, little has changed. Amazingly, even the same many-sided table, which the Danny Grads were seated at, and which fits nicely under the central dome, was still there.

Me, seated at the table where Shirley sat in 1954

The artist of the mural, Lillian Thoele, was a St. Louis, MO native, born in 1894; she died in 1971.  She studied at the Washington University School of Fine Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. Early in her career, Thoele worked as a commercial artist, becoming an active member of the Women’s Advertising Club. She was also a member of the St. Louis Artists’ Guild and the Society of Independent Artists of St. Louis. As an indication of her reputation, in 1962 Thoele was voted into the Federated International Artist’s League.  One auction site describes her as "a well-listed Saint Louis, Missouri painter, illustrator, commercial artist and designer."

There is a charm to her paintings, which remind me of children's books from long ago. Here are a couple of her paintings from auction sites:

Club House Sun

Missouri Autumn
And here are some samples of panels from the mural - photos I took:

Close-up of the mural on wall behind the Danny Grads
Teacher calling children to school

The Pilgrims going to church

The achievement of the Transcontinental Railroad

Industrious early American life
A vision of a new world - under Christian leadership!
Achieving new heights
The Four-Fold Life: Religious, Physical, Mental and Social


  1. I love the pictures in this post. This summer I am helping revitalize the collection. I also have an interest in Miniwanca history. Would you be willing to exchange info with me? We have an archives there, and I'm always on the look out for more about the camp's heritage. Thank you

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi Laura: Would be glad to share anything I have. I can be reached at