The People You Meet in the Library, Part 1

As the readers of this blog know, I am now a retired Library Lady, and am looking back on a career that started in 1977 and ended this summer. People not immersed in the library world tend to think of librarians as obsessed with books, quiet, and cardigan sweaters, but in fact I was always fascinated by the assortment of people I got to meet. Artists, auteurs, paranoid schizophrenics, the grieving, the celebrating, all pass through the library, and all have questions.

My career was spent in two departments, Fine Arts and Recreation for 2 years, Humanities for 5 years, back to Fine Arts for 19, then up to Humanities again for the remaining 11 years. Most of these stories are from Fine Arts, because that was the biggest block of time.
Mr. Kramer
I had heard about Reuben Kramer all my life, because he went to the Maryland Institute at the same time as my father. He was a sculptor of renown, a “Baltimore boy,” and my father admired him immensely. (Picture of my father being sculpted by Mr. Kramer).

Reuben Kramer sculpting my father

Reuben Kramer sculpting my father

My first actual meeting with him was a little startling.

I had been working at the library for some months, and was spending some time on the desk in the General Information department, a beautiful room on the first floor. The Chief of the Central Library, John Burgan, ran into the room, stared at me for a moment, and then said, “I need you for something.” The librarian on the desk with me shooed me along, and I went with Mr. Burgan out into Central Hall, where an unveiling of a bust of Gerald W. Johnson was about to take place. The endower of the bust, Jules Horelick and his wife, who in Baltimore fashion also knew my parents, were there, a small group of people and a few reporters were there, and there was also an unusual man in a threadbare suit. I was introduced to Mr. Kramer who earnestly explained to me that he always and only had his works unveiled by an attractive young woman. I pulled the string, and the bust was unveiled.

I was too tongue-tied to mention my parents to either the Horelicks or Mr. Kramer, but I came to know the latter in his many visits to the library. When I did tell him that my father knew him, his eyes lit up in memory of his years at the Institute, and I showed him pictures of him as he sculpted my father at a talk he had given some years before. He was enchanted and asked if they could be used in a book. I don’t know if such a book ever materialized. After that he would stop in to see me periodically. Getting old, he often repeated the same stories to me, just as my father would do, and had a little fantasy he would recite about how I was born, which I suspect he recited to all the “attractive young women,” about an angel flying through the universe, into the solar system, passing Jupiter and Mars before alighting on Earth to deliver me.

I was amused once, when a relatively new staff member came into my office to announce, “There is a street person who’s asking for you.” “Oh!” I said, “It must be Mr. Kramer.” And it was. He was not known for his sartorial splendor.

Statue of Thurgood Marshall by Reuben Kramer, courtesy of M. Dean

Statue of Thurgood Marshall by Reuben Kramer, courtesy of M. Dean

After his wife Perna Krick, also a sculptor, died in 1993, Mr. Kramer lost some of his fire. His visits were less frequent and less chatty. He passed away in 1999, leaving a legacy of art and wonder.

Mrs. Levy
The first time I met Ruth Bear Levy, she marched me over to our Vertical File to show me the booklet she had written about Lefty Grove. They grew up together in Lonaconing, Maryland, and she never lost an opportunity of talking about him. A Jewish girl with a Scottish/Hungarian heritage in a western Maryland coal mining town, life must have been interesting.  She graduated high school, no small feat, went to Goucher College, then a kind of sister school to the all-male Johns Hopkins University, and completed the Jewish American girl dream by marrying a doctor.

However, she was not exactly the average matron. She maintained her interest in baseball all her life and in late middle age started painting.

"Lexington Market," painting by Ruth Bear Levy, photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum of Maryland. 1999.012.013

“Lexington Market,” painting by Ruth Bear Levy, photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum of Maryland. 1999.012.013

She would arrive in the Fine Arts department with an African-American man who would poise himself in the doorway of the department and stand in readiness for Mrs. Levy’s frequent consultations. I had assumed he was her driver, but according to her obituary, she drove until she was 90. When I saw Driving Miss Daisy, my first thought was that someone had written a movie about Mrs. Levy.

When she turned 90, Mrs. Levy gave herself a birthday party for her family and friends. She called me to ask for the sheet music for a song representing each year of her life. I managed to bargain her down to a song for every four years of her life—90 songs was a tall order. I no longer have the list of songs, but I know I ended it with Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life.” I sent her the list, and she had a few quibbles. To represent the depths of the Great Depression I had included “We’re in the Money.” (video here). She preferred “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” “That’s such a downer of a song,” I objected. “It wasn’t a happy time,” was her dry response.

She was also troubled by the lack of rock and roll songs. “But you told me you hate rock and roll,” I explained. “We’re representing eras, not my tastes!” Good enough. Elvis and the Beatles made their way onto the list. I photocopied the songs and sent them to her free, as a birthday present. In return, she made a generous donation to the library, impressing the administration no end.

Eventually, even the dynamo that was Mrs. Levy faded, and in 1994 she passed away. She left her mark on at least one librarian.

To be continued.

* The Colors in a Candlestick

Categories: General Stuff!, Work and Jobs

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Very interesting post.
    xxx Hugs xxx

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to seeing who else you met. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and the wide assortment of people I met.

  3. I felt I came to know these remarkable artists through your descriptions. How wonderful! I also love the painting by Ruth Bear Levy.I’m going to google for more works.

    • How wonderful that you enjoy my grandmother’s artwork!
      A great many of Ruth Bear Levy’s paintings can be seen in her book entitled “A Wee Bit of Scotland; Growing Up in Lonaconing, Maryland at the Turn of the Century.” Ruth Bear Levy wrote this memoir and used her paintings to illustrate it. Published by The Maryland Historical Society, it is available on Amazon.
      The actual paintings remain in private collections, although some can be viewed in the Maryland Artists Collection at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in Adelphi, Md.
      In addition, the Regional Library in Lonaconing, Md. (her home town) also houses images of the paintings.
      If you (or anyone) would like to get some notecards with Ruth Bear Levy artwork, contact me.

  4. I am Ruth Bear Levy’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, and I want to thank you for the wonderful story you shared about my grandmother. She truly was a remarkable and amazing woman — and you captured her essence so expertly. I would love to chat with you. How can I reach you?


  1. Library Memories, from my favorite retired librarian | Yankee Skeptic

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: