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Miss Jean of influential ‘Miss Jean’s Storytime’ dies at 87

February 4, 2018 GMT

The longtime host of Omaha television’s church-oriented “Miss Jean’s Storytime” grew up unchurched.

But starting at age 26, by then a churchgoer and Sunday school teacher, Norma Jean Kelley Schnase made it her mission to reach children through TV, assisted by hand puppets Zak the Frog and Claude the Dog.

She hosted the show on KMTV from 1956 to 1994, and was followed as host by her daughter-in-law until 2011 — a total run of 55 years.

“Miss Jean,” as most people called her, died Thursday from kidney failure. She was 87.

“Over the years, we’ve heard from lots of people who remember her being so loving and kind,” said son Fred Schnase Jr. “Some say if it wasn’t for ‘Jean’s Storytime,’ they wouldn’t be going to church today.”

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She grew up “very, very poor” in South Omaha, he said, so poor that after she and her relatives were evicted from their home, they lived for six weeks in a chicken coop. Then they moved in with her grandparents.

When she was 9, she peeked through a window at a Sunday school class, and a kindly teacher invited her in. By 12 or 13, she began attending St. Luke’s Lutheran Church at 23rd and I Streets.

At 18 she married Fred Schnase, who became a machinist at the Falstaff brewery, and they had two children.

In 1956 KMTV sent out a notice to churches and elsewhere that it was looking for the host of a religious show for children ages 4 to 12.

With a diploma from South High and no acting experience, she auditioned along with about 20 other women, some of whom had college degrees and had appeared in local theater. Each was asked to tell a story with a moral.

She was called back to meet with station officials. She asked where the other women were. They told her, “You’re it, Norma.”

But what to call the show? The family name, Schnase, is pronounced “Snozzy,” and her son said station executives thought “Norma Snozzy” wasn’t a great name for TV.

So they used her middle name, called the show “Jean’s Storytime,” and put it on the air — live and in black-and-white — in September 1956.

Besides serving as host, she eventually became its writer and producer. She urged kids to send in drawings and showed them on the air. She brought them the word of God and referred to the Bible but never mentioned any particular religious faith.

A big change occurred behind the scenes when her puppeteer left.

She enlisted Fred Jr., who was 14. He continued in the job for 45 years, only his puppet-covered hands showing, and using different voices for Zak and Claude.

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Besides her TV show, Norma became Ashland Park Elementary School PTA president, gave communication workshops and traveled to Mexico on mission trips, among other good works.

The show, which ran from each September through May, had switched to pre-taping and in color. It won various awards and became known as “Miss Jean’s Storytime.” Norma Jean was inducted into the South High Hall of Fame.

In 1994, she suffered a stroke and gave up her longtime hosting role. Maribeth Schnase, wife of Fred Jr., took over the position for the next 17 years.

Miss Jean also is survived by daughter Eileen and husband Bob Thornburg of Fremont, as well as by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Fred Schnase Sr. died in 2008.

A visitation will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Korisko Larkin Staskiewicz Funeral Home, 5108 F St., with a celebration of life at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Luke’s Lutheran.

Eileen Thornburg, former alumni director at Midland University, said her mother affected a lot of people and maintained a sense of humor, even with hospice nurses in her final days.

“Even though it’s been a long time since she was on TV,” Eileen said, “most everybody remembers Miss Jean.”