So I mentioned there were several neat things about the K-8 school I attended when I was junior high age? And how I got the chance to learn French, and how one day a classmate ended up with a big surprise at the end of French class?
Well, another thing I really liked about going to that school was being a walker. Not that I had anything against riding school buses — it’s just that there were so many cool things to see and do between the school and my home. We lived a block and a half off South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, which was lined with commercial establishments: dime stores, grocery stores, laundromats, a movie theater. Sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, on the corners of the residential streets, were smaller mom and pop stores: delicatessens, shoe repair shops, dry cleaners, barbers and beauty shops, etc. I especially liked the sounds and smells that emanated through open doors in nice weather: the pounding of the hammer, and the leather, machine oil, and polishes at the shoe shop; the hiss of the steam presser and fresh, clean garments at the dry cleaners; the ring of the cash register and the dill pickle barrel at the deli; or the hum of the hair dryers and the hairspray at the salon. So much entertainment for the savoring.
Those were different times indeed, when school children were rarely chauffeured by parents, but free, instead, to dally on the way home from school. There was one particular stop I made more frequently than the others, and where I probably dallied the longest: the Carpenter Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, right on Grand, about two blocks from my school.
It had the smell of lemon oiled reference desks and reading tables. The rows and rows of shelves lined with books were absolutely tantalizing — what to read next? I mean, I could take home a new book every single day, if I wanted to, making it pretty easy to keep up with the pack in Mrs. Frenzer’s seventh grade reading contest. For the most part, I hung out in the youth section, rarely venturing into the adult stacks. My face must have become very familiar to the staff.
While they were always helpful and friendly — in a quiet sort of way — I didn’t actually give the staff much thought. Too bad for me. As it turns out, I would have done well to have become better acquainted with one of the employees. He frequently manned the desk at Carpenter Branch during the years I was a regular. But he just didn’t stand out all that much. He was, after all, a… well, a… librarian*. If I ever did know his name, I sure forgot it along the way.
Then several years ago, an Associated Press article popped up on an internet news site about a long-time employee who left a small fortune to the Carpenter Branch Library. Say what?!! — hey, that’s my library!
Turns out this mild mannered, fairly ordinary man — whose name, I learned, was George Kyle — loved the library and its books so much that he secretly schemed to set aside enough of his modest wages from 46 years of wages from the library to leave a gift of over $350,000 when he died, at age 88. Stunned coworkers and friends suspect that he had invested quite shrewdly over the years, since he would have never brought home more than $20,000 per year during his career.
According to a friend, “His passion was books, and he loved to talk about what he read, everything from the big bang theory to calculus.” I instantly recognized the picture that accompanied an article about his gift in a St. Louis periodical. I think he looks pretty happy. Made me think of another modest man who left a rich legacy that will continue to give for generations.
So now every year, as a result of Mr. Kyle’s bequest, new books with plates dedicated to both his mother and his father will be added to the children and adult sections of the library using the interest from the endowment. A regenerating gift from a man of simple lifestyle and huge passion.
So there you have it. A girl who frequented a library on her way home from school. A man who worked the checkout desk regularly during that period. The girl thinking this man was just a librarian. The man stamping due dates inside her borrowed books with a quiet secret tucked away in his heart, one that surely fueled tremendous joy.
I was a kid. And I missed it.
Just goes to show you: you can’t judge a book by its cover.
[Read the full article on Mr. Kyle’s gift here.]
* DISCLAIMER: My sincerest apologies to librarians everywhere for my pin-headed, youthful stereotype of your profession. (That means you, Jacquie, and you too, Tena.) My bad. I now know you guys hang out at wild and crazy librarian conventions.