Frances Strickland's 'The Little Girl Who Grew Up to Be Governor' Offers Lessons on Leadership to Kids

The former first lady hopes her revised and reissued children’s book about the life of Kentucky's first woman governor, Martha Layne Collins, will encourage civility.

Joy Frank-Collins
Former Ohio first lady Frances Strickand with her reissued book, “The Little Girl Who Grew Up to Be Governor.”

Thirty years ago in 1991, long before her husband, Ted Strickland, became the governor of Ohio, Frances Strickland penned a celebratory children’s chapter book about the life of Kentucky’s first woman governor, Martha Layne Collins, elected in 1983.

This year, Strickland, who has a doctorate in educational psychology, has revised and reissued “The Little Girl Who Grew Up to Be Governor” with a 2021-style goal in mind. Collins’ life, she says, offers lessons in bipartisan leadership that speaks to all children—especially girls—who are growing up in a time of deep division, incivility in politics and worse.

Each story in the book relates a childhood lesson to a leadership skill. In an early chapter, 3-year-old Collins (née Hall) disobeys her mother by wandering out of the yard and crossing a highway to visit the local grocery store. Instead of punishing the child, her mother reinforces the rules she’s already taught. “Martha Layne had to learn that good leaders don’t do dangerous things that can hurt themselves or others. They try to make things as safe as possible for everyone.”

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There are times when it’s OK to bend the rules, however, as the young governor-to-be learns when she devises a way to feed a neighbor’s chickens by squeezing through a gap in a fence instead of walking around it, too close to that forbidden highway. “Good governors believe if people are hurting in some way, there has to be a way to help them,” the book advises. “But just like Martha Layne learned, it is important to find ways to help that don’t break the rules.”

While Collins is, like Strickland, a Democrat, the former first lady is eager to ensure that her “little book” will function as a tool for educators and families on both sides of the aisle. To that end, she enlisted the guidance of Ohio’s first female attorney general, Betty Montgomery, a Republican, to review the manuscript. She also has organized a public conversation with another Republican, former first lady Hope Taft, at the Bexley Public Library on Dec. 8.

Over lunch at Milestone 229 in July, Montgomery shared with Strickland ideas for broadening the book’s descriptions of the Republican party (which Strickland describes as cautious about innovation and interested in ensuring new ideas are cost-effective, safe and feasible), and on how to approach two “really divergent points of view.”

Both women agreed that learning to cooperate across ideological divisions begins by getting to know each other. “It’s so much easier to call somebody a horse’s patoot when you don’t know their children’s names and you don’t know them,” Montgomery says in an interview.

Strickland agrees, and she thinks Martha Layne Collins can lead the way. Can an old-fashioned book of stories about a little white girl’s childhood spent feeding farm animals in rural Kentucky resonate with a generation of children growing up in the age of TikTok and Black Lives Matter and threats to overthrow democracy? Strickland admits she’s not sure. But if she’s learned anything from chronicling Martha Layne Collins, it’s that good leaders never stop trying to make life better for others.

“We are not living together comfortably with each other right now. And children are seeing this,” she says. “This little book just helps make sure that they’re getting some way of learning how to navigate through.”

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.