by Mark Y. Herring (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University)
It didn’t start out in any intentional way. In fact, it was entirely unintentional and unintended. Some forty years ago as I sat in a class about academic Friends of the Library (FoL) programs, I made a written vow I’d never get involved. As the professor went on about FoLs and how they worked and why every librarian should be interested, I, between notes, and so much smarter, of course, wrote in my crabbed griffonage, “Never bother with anything like this.”
I wrote that with all the careful sincerity of any twenty-something. I was more high-minded, more certain that I could convince any overlord I might have to answer to why libraries are important, and why he or she would need to fund my enterprise the way I thought it should be. Oh, the certitudes of youth!
By now you’ve guessed that I held firm to this vow until I got my first job and you’d be exactly right. Like a virgin on her wedding night (I assume the simile still has meaning somewhere in our sexual revolution), I gave it up only when the inevitable proved unavoidable. My first real job, after a couple of fits and starts in various short-term library occupations, was a very small liberal arts college in the mountains of a southern state.
Small really doesn’t do it justice. Through some whiplash of misfortune, this college had about 300 full-time students and a budget to match. It had just come off a near-death experience and was on a very rocky road to recovery. Even its most loyal hangers-on were not at all sure it should survive under new management that the old guard didn’t exactly trust. It did survive, but only barely. After a year or so of trying to fund everything that I thought should be, I admitted defeat and began my first Friends of the Library program in earnest.
I still held to the high-minded notion that this program could be literary in nature, and so I thought I would write some well-known authors (oh, the hubris of youth!). It happened that I learned about that same time that a very well-known and highly celebrated author had a connection with one of our students, so I wrote him, fairly certain I could not afford him, could not get him to come, and would likely never hear back from him.
Imagine my surprise when Alex Haley (yes, of Roots fame — millennials will need to Google that name) agreed. I planned an event that spread over two days and brought hundreds of people to the campus.
Thus began a six year reign of increasingly popular programs and led to a considerable financial claim on that library’s future. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, or, rather it was, but with many thorns. Consider but one example, the first bloom, as it were.
Haley was a great guest, though on the Saturday I picked him up, my career nearly ended before it began. Here’s why.
Mr. Haley did not want to fly into our very small airport, so I had to drive over one hundred miles away to pick him up at a much larger one. His flight was due at about 6 p.m. that Saturday evening, coming in from Ghana where he had been the last couple of weeks. My longsuffering wife and I drove to get him. When his plane landed, I waited expectantly as some 200 passengers deplaned. No Mr. Haley. This was before cellphones, so I had no choice but to wait the next flight in. That flight arrived just before 9 p.m. and I waited, less upbeat but prayerful. Again, no Mr. Haley. The next flight, arriving in about 10:30 p.m., had to be the one since there wasn’t another until the next day. I was sweating bullets by this time, thinking about all the people who were counting on this event. I was only a few years into my stint at this college, so things were looking a bit grim.
Not only was this the last flight, we still had that 100+ mile drive back, and the festivities, so to say, began at 7:30 a.m. the next morning at breakfast with students. I was in a panic when the last passenger got off the plane, followed about five minutes later by the crew and the pilots. I turned to my wife and said something like, “Just shoot me,” when her eyes didn’t exactly brighten, but surely saw something.
I turned and there was our guest … in a wheelchair. As it turns out, Mr. Haley’s last day on a beach in Ghana included a nice stroll at dawn. An odd looking fish, or so he said, had washed ashore and he went over to examine it. The seemingly dead fish stung him on his foot. It didn’t seem serious until he made the 12-hour flight back to the states. His foot was the size of a basketball, and he could put no weight on it.
This inauspicious beginning did turn out well. Before we left, I called the ER back home and got a physician who could meet Mr. Haley and treat his foot. To his credit, Mr. Haley made all our events. When he got on the plane the following Monday, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought I had dodged a bullet. Dodged, that is, until I returned home and had many well-wishers wanting to know what I would be doing for an encore the next year.
An encore was the last thing on my mind. As it turned out, we had a pretty good run. The next year I had famed Watergate plumber, John Ehrlichman, whose book (Witness to Power) and a slight change of heart, had just appeared. He was followed by Templeton Award winner Michael Novak. Kathryn Koob, whose book Guest of the Revolution appeared, was our author the year following. Our fourth year we snagged the great children’s writer Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time). Our event included children who had read her stories and drew posters that she judged. Of course, we had many parents in attendance. The biggest coup occurred a year later when by some strange and providential fortune, the conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. agreed to come at the height of his popularity. We not only had those who loved him, but those who loved to hate him. That one night alone we grossed over $60,000 at a school of by then 450 students.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. followed him the next year, and then I resigned, not only to go back and get a doctorate — what I felt at the time was the union card for academic settings — but also to get away from this albatross. I did not get back to Friends dinner until later in the 2000’s. This past year we had the famed chef, Vivian Howard and her award-winning book, Deep Run Roots. While catering prices have just about made such events impossible to make any serious money, we did have a huge crowd and garnered strong publicity for the university.
Are there any lessons here? The most obvious one is never say never. Perhaps the next lesson is don’t say you can’t until, well, you can’t. I cannot say that author events still work today as well as they did in the eighties, but something like it must. It has to. I am in my last semester as dean, retiring in June, and my budget this year was constrained more than it ever has been in the other nineteen years here, and this during a white-hot economy such as the U.S. has never seen. Unless one is content to struggle through tight budgets, an enterprising dean will have to come up with another idea to supplement this budget, or really any budget anywhere. We are, all of us in academic venues, in the same very leaky budget boat.
The ride, however, has been worth it. At nearly every event, we had some interesting, if not trying, memorable episode. One guest felt that everyone on campus, including our president, needed a linguistic lesson and so buttonholed everyone fairly severely, even before they had said hello. One speaker opined to our president that we did not serve alcohol at the event, on a campus that strictly forbade it. Oddly, it was the only thing that president remembered of the event.
Still, it not only proved enjoyable, but also entertaining and even fun, though I must admit that most of my time was spent hand-wringing over what could go wrong or already had. I would not, however, trade all the authors I met over the years, both the great and the up and coming, for anything. I think our work as deans or directors often means taking chances. Not all of them will work, and perhaps another column can chronicle my failures. But this chance paid off, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world. Well, okay, almost.