As a young boy I experienced three life-impacting experiences, rooted in books and Indiana libraries, in a matter of one calendar year. Those three experiences changed my life forever for the better, and all in comprehensive and connected ways.
I remember 1974 lucidly because of how the first of those experiences occurred.
It was my first week of fourth grade at Southwick Elementary School, one of the East Allen schools located on the far southeast side of the city. Our teacher told us we were going to take one of the most important and far-reaching field trips we would ever take but without leaving our school building. I was puzzled about the mysterious way she phrased this message, and I came to see she was precisely correct.
The next morning, our class walked down the hallway to our school library. As we waited in the hall, our teacher told us that the world on the other side of that entrance to the library was one of the most exciting journeys we would ever take if we committed ourselves to taking full advantage of what the library had to offer.
I am pretty certain my classmates and I had no idea what she was talking about, but we were definitely intrigued. When we entered the library, our school's librarian, Lucille Evanoff, began to show us around the shelves: biography, history, geography, maps, sports, literature, and on and on those “worlds” seem to increase, layer upon layer.
Mrs. Evanoff encouraged us all to check out one book we would commit to reading over the next two weeks. I selected a book with a photo of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the cover. Not only did that biography seed my lifelong admiration for this greatest of all England's prime ministers, it also encouraged me to think about how a young person could think about building a meaningful life in the public square.
That experience in the Southwick library also commenced a lifelong love of reading, and if I live to be 100 years old, my gratitude to my teacher for that field trip could never be repaid.
Later that same academic year, my mother, who read to me regularly in all my growing-up years, and whose own infectious love of reading was passed along, took me for an extended visit to the Allen County Public Library downtown. Downstairs, I would meet one of the most remarkable people of my life: a longtime librarian named Laura McCaffery.
She was so enthused about great mystery writers and 19th century novels, particularly by a writer I had never heard of but came to love, Charles Dickens. It was Laura who encouraged me to read “A Christmas Carol” for the first time. She was a learned person who took reading seriously, and she conveyed a love of books to a 10-year-old that day and in the months ahead.
When the school year came to its close, I had made a list of a handful of books I intended to read that summer. Lo and behold, I learned that the bookmobile would be coming around our neighborhood with some regularity, and I remember going inside for the first time when it parked catty-corner from our home off Tillman Road.
I had never been inside a camper-style vehicle with floor-to-ceiling books, mostly paperbacks, and learned that the library card I had obtained several weeks before could also be used in that grey library on wheels. It was from the bookmobile that I checked out one of the first books ever on astronomy, which seeded my lifelong fascination with stars, planets and the awesome night sky.
Many years later, my wife and I found ourselves driving through the Yosemite Valley National Park floor on one of the most beautiful starlit nights we had ever experienced. There were incredible views of the planets and stars and constellations. I recalled the bookmobile of Eastland Gardens and the first time I had ever read seriously about what I was now viewing on that majestic evening.
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who owned the largest personal library in Revolutionary America, once wrote that he “cannot live without books.” Years later, Horace Mann observed, “A house without books is like a room without windows.”
My experiences in 1974 with libraries in Indiana confirmed the wisdom of Jefferson's and Mann's observations; it is how young lives are formed for decades forward, and my gratitude remains wide and deep as oceans.
Timothy S. Goeglein, a native of Fort Wayne, lives in northern Virginia.