Miss Conway Lea

As I begin my journal today, I would like to express my appreciation for the many nice comments I receive quite regularly from those who read my articles. To say I enjoy doing this does not adequately express what this interesting part-time occupation has turned out to be for me. The research and preparation of each story has provided me with many happy hours.

Of those stories that have been printed so far, it would be hard to pick a favorite, but one that rates pretty high on my list was on Miss Conway Lea. And as a follow-up on that story, I would like to share some information Sam Coward Jr. passed along to me when I visited him and his wife, Kathryn, at their home in Algood recently.

Sam Jr. lived across the street from the Leas on East Cedar Street, as did the Davis family, and he grew up knowing the entire Lea family quite well, especially Miss Conway. He was about 4 years-old when the Leas moved in the house on Cedar Street that was originally built and owned by Alexander Gaston Keisling, who was state representative for this district for the 1919-1920 term.

Fireplaces in Miss Conway Lea’s old home on Cedar Street have been well taken care of over the years. Current residents in the house are Clay and Eldrith Parsons.

The first time Sam Jr. saw Mr. Lea, he thought for sure he was Santa Claus. He described him as a little rotund gentleman with a snowy white beard, and after he and Mr. Lea got to know each other, they became quite good friends, especially since Sam Jr. was allowed to frequently accompany Mr. Lea on trips to town.
Mr. Lea was a very respected citizen of Livingston and when the need arose, he was known to have made loans to folks he felt deserving and trustworthy, or in Sam Jr.'s words, "If you were the right sort of person according to Mr. Lea's standards." The car Miss Conway owned was not a Model T as I referred to in my earlier story, but a black Chevrolet, probably a 1934 model, which she drove only on the occasion of going to the cemetery to take crepe paper flowers she had made to place on the graves of her parents.

Sam Jr. told me he accompanied Miss Conway quite regularly on these trips, and each time they returned from the cemetery, the car was parked in the little garage building near the house, and then covered entirely with quilts. He helped her many, many times put the quilts back over the car after a drive to the cemetery. He described the car as having a spare tire mounted on the front fender, and a second spare tire bolted on the back. Brown paper that came in the car from the factory was still on the floorboards, and as long as he could remember, the car had that "new" smell about it.


Though the home formerly occupied by Miss Conway Lea has changed a lot over the years, the view of the staircase just inside the front door appears much the same today.


Miss Conway always declined any offers of a ride to town with anyone, and walked to the grocery store or anywhere else she needed to go. Sam Jr. remembers the car as being used by Miss Conway for the sole purpose of going to the cemetery. He believes Miss Conway was the best Bible scholar in this entire area, and even though she was raised in the Methodist faith, she didn't attend church, but conducted her own service each Sunday in the parlor of her home. Part of the service she held included playing the organ and singing hymns which could often be heard by neighbors or anyone passing by on the street.

In the story I did earlier about Miss Conway, I described her yard as not the neat and manicured one it is now, but Sam Jr. does not remember it ever being grown up and not kept neatly. The entire lot between Miss Conway's house and the Ethan Phillips house was her vegetable garden, and in the yard she grew beautiful flowers. Sam Jr. has a very large painting Miss Conway began work on when he was quite small, and was then left to him in her handwritten will that she had prepared herself. He was allowed to watch her paint this picture that depicts Christ on the cross, some completely life-like roses, lilies, and peonies across the top of the painting, and also includes some of her original poetry, along with some Bible verses. Sam, Jr. told me it took Miss Conway five years to complete this particular picture, and he plans to donate it to Overton County Historical Museum.

He told me Miss Conway didn't think there was any reason to travel outside of Overton County, and was never out of the county more than three times in her adult life. The first trip she made that took her into Putnam County was for the purpose of going to a bank in Cookeville. Before she made the trip, she came to Sam Jr.'s mother, Marie Coward, and asked her if she would accompany her on the bus to Cookeville, and Mrs. Coward agreed to do so. The second time she travelled outside Overton County, her cousin, Delia Seahorn, came to take her for a drive. While they were out, Delia happened to mention the fact that they had just driven across the Clay County line, and this information greatly upset Miss Conway. The third and last time she left Overton County was when she had to be hospitalized in Nashville due to a broken hip, and Sam Jr.'s help was necessary in order to convince Miss Conway she needed to go on to Nashville to have her hip set.


Miss Conway Lea’s art piece on the Crucifixion took her about five years of off-and-on painting to complete.


Dr. Denton Norris was her doctor at the time, and when she was brought to the hospital, he called Sam Jr. and told him he believed Sam Jr. was the only person Miss Conway knew that could possibly persuade her to go to a hospital in Nashville to be treated for her broken hip.  He agreed to come talk to her and, sure enough, his efforts were successful, as Miss Conway did agree to go on to Nashville. Miss Conway was very fond of all the members of the Coward family, and when Sam Coward Sr. became quite ill with cancer, she would walk across the street every day to check on him.

Sam Coward Sr. had a great love for politics and was quite involved in the growth and development of Livingston and Overton County during the last years he lived here. His name was well-known and respected in state government, and he had many friends who held high positions in the political field. At the time of Mr. Coward's death, he was chairman of the State Election Commission. On one of Miss Conway's visits to check on Mr. Coward during the course of his illness, she learned that former Governor Frank Clement was expected at the Coward home later that day to visit with his friend, Sam.

Miss Conway was very protective of the neighborhood, especially around fair time, and if someone made the mistake of trying to park near her house to walk on up to the fairgrounds, she would not allow them to do so. On this particular occasion of checking on her neighbor, and just shortly after Miss Conway had returned to her house, a long black limousine drove up and stopped near her home, but before the passengers could get out, she approached the driver and told him he would have to move on, that a former governor of Tennessee was expected at her neighbor's home to visit Mr. Sam Coward. Much to her surprise Governor Clement stepped out and introduced himself to her and told her he would appreciate it if they could be allowed to park there while he visited with Sam.

Mr. Coward passed away not long after that visit with Governor Clement. Many dignitaries and government officials were in attendance at his funeral, including former Governor Frank Clement, Buford Ellington, who was governor of Tennessee at the time of Mr. Coward's death, and many fellow cabinet members of the Election Commission committee. Sam Jr. confirmed Miss Conway's love of bantam chickens and told me how she would serve them their own eggs which she scrambled especially for them.  He also told me about the last biscuits her mother made which she saved by tying them up in a cloth napkin and hanging them from the electric light wire that hung down from the ceiling in the front bedroom of her home.  Miss Conway and a neighbor, Mrs. Mose "Eula" Ledbetter, who lived on Railroad Street and just to the back of the Conway home, had their own way of communicating with each other by hanging out a towel that could be seen from each home. If the towel was hanging out each morning, that meant "I'm up and I'm okay this morning." If the towel wasn't out, that person would be checked on by the other one.

Sam Jr. and Kathryn (Hinds) Coward were living at his father's home when their first child, a daughter named Mary Kathryn, was born. Following the baby's birth, Miss Conway would come over every day especially to see the baby. She seemed to be fascinated by this small child and enjoyed her daily visits with the baby very much.
Most everyone who was acquainted with Miss Conway would describe her as a highly opinionated person, even to the point that she would turn her back on women she came into contact with who were dressed in shorts or pants, which she considered inappropriate.  At one point, however, she was somehow swindled out of quite a large sum of money by a fellow who eventually wound up in prison because of his schemes. The man was not a local person, and although by the false misrepresentations he made to Miss Conway about some phony oil stocks to get his hands on her money, she absolutely refused to prosecute him.  He ended up in prison because someone else he had hoodwinked was not as forgiving as Miss Conway. The entire time this man was imprisoned, Miss Conway wrote to him encouraging him to repent and to ask forgiveness for the wrongs he had done to others. Could this have been her way of turning the other cheek? We can only wonder.

The more I am able to learn and talk to others about Miss Conway, the more I realize what an interesting person I missed out on getting to know, even though we lived just down the street from her house.  Sam Jr. described her as being not only well-educated, but a well-spoken person that reflected the way in which she was brought up. Even though I never got to met her personally, I am happy to have had the opportunity to learn about her from others, and to pass along her story as told to me for my journal.

Other Miss Conway Lea Articles:

Miss Conway Lea 

Miss Conway Lea (3)


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