Missouri Marble Collector

Hometown Heroes, Odd Collections, People
on January 27, 2002

No one can accuse Cathy Runyan of Parkville, Mo., (pop. 4,059) of losing her marbles. She’s got millions of them—literally—in drawers and boxes, display cases and cabinets, on lampshades and in her driveway, as necklaces and as earrings. They are in her car, her purse, and her pockets.

“Cathy Runyan simply is The Marble Lady,” says Gary Huxford, president of Marble Collectors Unlimited and coordinator of the nation’s oldest consecutive marble meet where Runyan often is a speaker and referee. “She is certainly one of the country’s most respected authorities on marbles.”

As a child growing up in Ventura, Calif., in the 1950s, hers was a family and neighborhood of all boys. “They wouldn’t let me play basketball or baseball with them, but I learned that if I brought out my marbles, they would let me play and I could win,” recalls Runyan.

Soon Runyan fell in love with the colors and designs of marbles. Her mother liked them also because they were an inexpensive and quiet toy. They bought them at garage sales and dime stores as the family moved around the country following her father’s higher education career.

Years later, as the mother of five, Runyan’s oldest daughter had an elementary school assignment to write about games her parents played as children. The box of marbles came out of the closet with all of the enthusiasm Runyan had felt as a child.

“I told my kids ‘This will be so much fun,’ as I dumped them out,” she recalls. “They just looked at me and wondered where to plug them in.”

Runyan accompanied her daughter to school with the project, teaching the second-graders how to shoot the tiny glass balls. Other teachers asked Runyan to teach their classes, then other schools began to call—along with churches, scout troops, and libraries. The Marble Lady was born.

“Kids were fascinated by her stories, and her enthusiasm was so contagious,” says Nancy Gower, an elementary schoolteacher who taught all five of the Runyan children. “As a teacher, it is invaluable to have a resource like Cathy.”

In their research for her daughter’s classroom project, Runyan found very little written material on the game of marbles or its history, which she found amazing since marbles are the world’s oldest toys and can be documented in every major culture. So she set out to write a small guidebook to donate to the schools and libraries at which she spoke. Knuckles Down has sold more than 33,000 copies since 1985 and is in its fourth printing.

Runyan has donated hundreds of copies of the booklet and accompanying sets of marbles over the years. Her generosity is how former PTA President Laurie Burgess remembers Runyan. Burgess’ youngest son, Jeff, won a set of marbles donated by The Marble Lady to an elementary school carnival, which began the collection of marbles he maintains today at age 25.

“She is always so gracious with her time and materials,” Burgess says. “She really wants other people to love the game like she does.”

Runyan’s audience has grown from local school groups to international corporations that fly her around the world to teach about marbles. A Japanese biotech company, the Moritex Corp., brought her to Tokyo where she appeared on television shows, at shopping centers, corporate retreats, and dozens of schools.

“They told me they felt children were growing up too entrenched in technology and they wanted me to teach them the simplicity of life through marbles,” Runyan says.

Such is the theme of Runyan’s second book, a work of fiction titled What Goes Round. The story, set in rural Missouri town, tells how children and adults learn to appreciate each other in a new light because of the game of marbles, which is what Runyan attempts to teach in all of her public efforts.

“Marbles are all different and that’s what makes them so beautiful,” she says. “They are like people. If they were all alike, we would have no need for more than one.”