HOLLY HILL - A Holly Hill native's autobiography can't be found yet in bookstores, but people from around the world have for years been cuddling up with her creations just as they might a good book.
Holly Hill native Jean Schell, affectionately known as "Ms. Noah," designed and created 450 plush stuffed toys for 28 years before retiring more than a decade ago. Many people over the years held onto her toys and still cherish them today.
Now, Schell is working to complete a book, titled "28 Years of Wonderful: A Middle-Aged Love Story," by the end of the year. But more about that later.
Schell was just 5 when her mother's living room curtains fell victim to her creativity as she turned some of the newly purchased drapes into "paper dolls." She said the way the curtains were hanging, they were "just waiting for some paper dolls."
Schell began sewing at age 10. Her parents, who were educators, "would let us do anything we wanted to do creative," she said.
Her sister Millie became a folk artist, and her sister Sarah also designed and made stuffed toys.
Schell graduated from Holly Hill High School, and earned a bachelor's degree in English from Limestone College and a master's in textiles and design from the University of Alabama. She has completed 24 hours toward an advanced degree in English from Birmingham Southern.
For four years, Schell taught English to college students, and for six years she taught college prep English at Holly Hill High School, where she served as head of the English department, ultimately leaving the school system as an administrative assistant.
It was 1973 and time for a change, she said.
Schell got the bug for creating stuffed animals while accompanying her sister Sarah to a Southern Living Christmas Show that year.
"I looked at the toys, and they were all these funky avocado colors and stuffed too hard and had buggy glass eyes," she said.
Schell said she turned to her sister and announced, "I can do better than that."
She said her sister replied, "I'm doing a show in a month."
Schell said her sister gave her what she needed to get started: a goal, a deadline and 30 bags of polyester stuffing.
Her first show wasn't as successful as she'd hoped, but that didn't stop her. She said she began working on new creations.
As she and Sarah were preparing for a show in Clemson, she said her sister asked her, "What are you going to name this enterprise?"
Schell said she told her, "I'm just trying to get two's of everything to take to the show," and that's when the name "Ms. Noah" popped into her mind.
Schell established her business location, which she referred to as "The Ark," in an empty residence just two houses from her home on Peake Street in Holly Hill.
She said her inventory came about through trial and error.
"Birds didn't sell well because their eyes are too close together and they look mean," Schell said.
Her best seller was Magic Mouse, a fuzzy rodent with big ears and a long tail. Following close behind in popularity were Bride Bunny and Mama's Precious Baby.
Before too long, Schell was able to hire employees to stitch, stuff and craft the toys. These workers were affectionately called "elves," Schell said.
"I named them elves because I thought they did magic things," she said.
At the peak of business in 1990, 27 elves worked at Ms. Noah's "ark."
"The only person I ever fired was over a rotten attitude," Schell said.
She recalled during the early months of the business shipping six "little baby angels" to a shop in Arkansas.
When the shop received the shipment, the owner immediately called Schell and said, "These angels don't have on any underwear."
Schell said she warmly told the client, "Well, you know, I don't know how your angels are in Arkansas, but in South Carolina our angels are so superior, we don't need underwear."
As a result of that conversation, many of the Ms. Noah creations began to sport bloomers and boxer shorts.
One of her favorite creations was Bunchy, a "pudgy bunny rabbit who always carries a carrot," Schell said.
The descriptive tag Bunchy came with read: "Bunchy ate a whole pound of chocolate when no one was looking and then hid the wrappers under his bed. He's now on a strict diet of carrots and string beans."
Schell said the birth of Bunchy was a result of her own love for chocolate.
"I once tried to rid myself of the love of chocolate at summer camp and ate a box of 24 Hershey bars. But I didn't hide my wrappers under the bed, I threw them in the trash," she said.
Schell is also fond of her Chicken Little creation, which she described as "a fat, yellow chicken with a big ol' bandage on his head."
Chicken Little's tag read: "Even if the sky is falling, not to worry, not to worry."
Schell said the idea for Chicken Little hatched one sleepless night in the early years of her toymaking business.
Another stuffed character, Upside-down Clown, stood on his head, and his accompanying tag read: "Upside-down Clown loving his world right-side up and wants to begin with you."
Sometimes Schell thought of a name for one of her creations first. Other times, the story came first.
Bunchy was the name of a character in a murder mystery she was reading at the time of his creation. Other characters' names were of family members or friends or a name she glimpsed just for a moment - Tarlton Sebastian, a hound dog; Julius Pendergrass Gamble III, an owl; and Elizabeth Jane, a bride.
"I was always designing ideas on the places I'd go, the people I'd meet and the books I read," Schell said.
It was around the time of the Persian Gulf War when her "sales dipped tremendously" and her workforce was reduced to five, Schell said.
"The major mistake that we made was that we never got someone to really professionally market us," she said. "I could not market the toys myself.
"I was the best thing about them and the worst thing about them. I was way too emotionally involved."
Schell closed the doors of her business for good in 2002. A stained-glass window with "Ms. Noah" in green letters and a teddy bear remained on the front door of the house for months. Then it was time to sell the property, and Schell carefully salvaged the window and hung it in her home.
Getting back to her book, Schell is currently busy transposing nearly 80 microcassettes that she and her late husband, Dr. Bill Schell, exchanged with each other during their long-distance courtship for several months in 1981. The cassettes were "living journals" the couple exchanged, creating one for each other nearly every day during that period.
They married on Valentine's Day in 1982 and shared a blissful 28 years together, Schell said. She said her husband encouraged her in her toymaking over the years.
Dr. Schell suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 11, 2009.
Listening to and transcribing the cassette tapes, and hearing her late husband's voice, is bittersweet, Schell says. She says she remains grounded in her Christian faith, which is built on hope, love and God's own creative pattern.
In addition to being the proud mother of three and grandmother of 10, Schell will always be remembered as the creator of hundreds of huggable, lovable stuffed animals who brought joy into so many lives.
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