Photo contributed

Photo contributed

Members of the Covington service organization Coffeenians Portrait Committee Bobbye Gerling, Sue Holmes, Club president, Laura McMahan, and Sandee Frey show the restored painting.

A Covington ladies club, the Coffeenians, recently presented a framed print of their club’s namesake, Olive Coffeen, to be displayed in the library at Covington High School.

“It took five months to restore the original portrait and the frame. It was completed in July 1997 with the help of fundraising from the Coffeenians and the Covington Community Foundation. At that time, after a dedication, it was hung in the Covington City Library where it remains today,” said club member Sandee Frey.

“Miss Coffeen was not only remembered for her years of service as a teacher, but for her loving devotion to young people and her many humanitarian acts. In her epitaph she was described as a friend to all, regardless of wealth, class, color or creed; she was kind to everyone,” said club member Ann Minnette.

Minnette gave a history of Coffeen.

“Miss Coffeen joined the faculty at Covington High School in 1908, retiring in 1931 at the age of eighty-four. She continued to mentor and tutor students in her home until the age of 94. She began teaching at the age of 15 and her overall teaching career spanned more than 69 years. The publication, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, claimed that Miss Olive Coffeen had taught the greatest number of years in the public schools in the United States.”

Frey explanded on the group’s namesake. “Olive Coffeen began her teaching career at the age of 15. She had first come to Fountain County from Lebanon, Ohio, by covered wagon as a small child. The family stayed only a few years before returning to Ohio. After having completed both high school and college in Ohio, she sought employment there. Although she had received one of the highest scores in the entire state on the teachers’ exam, few schools were ready to hire her because of her young age. It was then she returned to Fountain County and just four days after passing an oral exam, she began teaching at the Coates School. From 1862-1931, she taught in schools in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kansas and Washington, including stints at Indiana Normal College in Covington and the Normal College in Effingham, Illinois. At 74, she decided to retire but found she needed two more years to qualify for a pension. She returned to Covington High School and 10 years later, she officially retired but continued to mentor students on a private basis until her death on Aug. 17, 1943. She was 95. Olive Coffeen officially taught for over 69 years. Miss Coffeen never married. She had three siblings and a few nieces who looked after her as she aged.”

The portrait came about through one of Miss Coffeen’s former students was a well known artist named Eugene Savage, said Minnette. “The C.H.S. class of 1921 commissioned Mr. Savage to paint a portrait of Miss Coffeen and requested that it be displayed in the high school. The oil painting remained in both the original high school building and the current building until 1997 when it was badly in need of restoration Coffeenians sent the portrait to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for extensive and costly repairs. After the work was completed, the club decided that the painting would be better protected if it was displayed in the Covington Public Library and the original oil painting still hangs there today. In recent months, with the aid of modern technology, the Coffeenians had a print made from a photograph of the original oil. Their decision was to honor the wishes of the Class of ‘21 and return a portrait of Miss Olive Coffeen to Covington High School.”

“Everybody loved Miss Coffeen. The Class of 21 dedicated the portrait to her and wanted it hung in the high school. The original was completed in 1923. Since our group, Coffeenians, is named after her, we felt a certain loyalty to return at least a copy of the original portrait to its original intention,” said Frey.

In 1936 a junior organization was formed as a branch of the Covington Booklovers Club and was first named the Altrusa Society. Twenty-six young women became charter members with the original intention to form a literary club. Many of the new members had attended school when Miss Coffeen was teaching and decided to rename the organization Coffeenians to honor their beloved teacher.Shortly after organization, the club decided to embark on projects to help the community. As the years progressed, the emphasis was put on projects that primarily benefited the youth of the community. One of their first major accomplishments was to organize the first kindergarten in Covington in 1951. They have raised funds to support numerous youth-centered projects through the schools, the library and the city park, said Minnette.

“Coffeenians financially support the city pool. We host bingo four six nights during the Fourth of July Celebration at the city park. We are in charge of the Courthouse lawn beautification in the summertime. We also judge the holiday decorations during the Christmas season in the downtown area. We Christmas shop, wrap and deliver Christmas packages for designated families. We are currently looking at the sidewalk situation from the high school to the sports complex. No safe path leads to and from. We are working with the Covington Community School Corporation and the City of Covington and The Covington Community Foundation Sidewalk Fund to glean the best way to approach this. We work several fundraising events through the year to financially support our projects,” Frey said about the same group the both women enjoy.

“For 83 years the Coffeenians have continued to work for the youth of the community as a lasting tribute to Miss Olive Coffeen,” said Minnette.