Marble Lady's `small and simple' talent edifies, lifts others

Her name is Cathy C. Runyan, but to more than a million kids and kids-at-heart, she will always be "The Marble Lady."

Her collection of marbles - approaching a million in number - has been represented in museums around the world."But I keep enough here to show examples," she said, referring to a room in her home that might be described as a shrine to the small, colorful orbs and the inter-generational brand of fun they generate. Lining the walls are hundreds of thin drawers containing marbles dating from about a century-and-a-half ago to now. Some of her more resplendent specimens are contained in a lighted, rotating glass case that once displayed wrist watches in a retail store.

All kinds of marbles are included in the collection: aggies, black beauties, boulders, cats eyes, glassies, steelies and others. Some are handmade, some hand painted. Some are from as far away as Germany. One, sent to her by a friend, contains a fragment of the Berlin Wall.

Others display the logo of last year's Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial with the motto, "Faith in Every Footstep." The sesquicentennial marbles were sent to her son, Jeff, and others serving full-time missions for them to give away to contacts.

A round, felt-lined table for playing marbles occupies the center of the room. On shelves are figurines depicting youngsters engaged in the activity. There are examples of the clusters of glass grapes (resembling and akin to marbles) that were popular projects of ward Relief Societies a generation ago.

Hanging on the walls are framed Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell paying homage to the role of marbles in Americana. One, showing a girl besting a group of boys at marbles, could be a depiction of her own childhood, she said.

Also displayed is a March 16, 1995, letter from Charles M. Schulz, the famed creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip. He had heard about and obtained a copy of her booklet, "Knuckles Down! A Fun Guide to Marble Play."

"I was a real marble fanatic when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I still have my two favorite shooters," the cartoonist wrote in the letter thanking her for some marbles she sent. He also advised her that Charlie Brown would be playing "in an important match within the next few weeks."

As varied and extensive as the objects in the room is the Marble Lady's knowledge. Pointing out some large marbles encasing such tiny figures as a dog and a little girl reading a book, she explained: `You see, back in the early 1800s they didn't have plastic or rubber for balls, and they had wood floors. Glass wouldn't scratch the wood floors, so the glass marbles were made for babies as crawling toys; the baby would crawl after a marble. And it was made too large for the baby to swallow."

Such is the encyclopedic knowledge of Sister Runyan, a member of the Platte Woods Ward, Platte City Missouri Stake. (She retains her maiden name at the suggestion of husband, Larry Svacina. He recommended she not take his Czechoslovakian name because it is so difficult to pronounce and spell in English. They have four children ranging in age from 15 to 24.)

That profound expertise about marbles has placed her in demand. Television viewers and readers of newspapers and magazines have been exposed to her talent. An article about her in Reminisce magazine, for example, brought her 18,000 letters from around the country.

In a month, she averages six to eight speaking engagements or appearances. "And that doesn't count all the Cub Scout pack and den meetings, usually three or four a month," she added. She has helped about 4,000 Cubs earn their marble badge.

"I've worked with almost a million children and adults in the last 15 years, teaching them marbles and hopefully a lot more than that," she said.

Her attitude is reflected in some specialty marbles she had made, containing the reference to her favorite scripture: "And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things." (1 Ne. 16:29.)

"You can always use whatever talent you've got to share and to uplift others around you," she mused. "You just go with it, and doors will be opened. Marbles are about as small and simple as it gets. Yet I have had more missionary opportunities through this than anything I can imagine doing. I've been in more churches in this area doing marble presentations than most Latter-day Saints will ever go to in a lifetime."

Often after such engagements, people have commented about the spirituality she radiates. "I never would have thought you could tie in spirituality with marbles, but you can with anything," she said. "If your life reflects your belief, it comes through."

Such radiance and love make her a magnet for people. On a recent afternoon, her home was crowded with friends, with two full-time missionaries doing their laundry at her house and a handful of pre-school-age children playing marbles in her wooded backyard.

"We have found marbles to be a great bridge builder between grandparents and grandchildren," she said, noting that enthusiasm for the game seems to have skipped a generation; that is, adults born approximately in the '40s and '50s.

"I was at a game, and this granddad got down and started shooting for his grandson," she recounted. "The grandson said, `Gosh, Granddad, you learned this new game fast!"

In addition to family solidarity, Sister Runyan has used marbles as a tool for promoting other noble virtues.

"Two years ago, my daughter Karen, who's 15 now, was in a very serious accident," she recounted. "Her neck was broken. We had a lot of kindness shown to us." The daughter recovered, but during her convalescence, she and her friends passed the time making "kindness marbles" from clay.

These Sister Runyan distributes in a small, plastic bag with a printed poem she wrote. The poem, instructs the recipient to place the marble in a left pocket until he or she has done a kind deed for that day. The marble is then to be transferred to the right pocket. The goal, of course, is to try not to end the day with the marble still in the left pocket. The poem concludes:

Now may this kindness marble roll

Forever in your life,

And bring to you more joy and peace

While lessening the strife!

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed