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150 years old and still kicking: As KC public celebrates anniversary, memories abound

Carrie Westlake Whitney earned the moniker “Mother of the Kansas City Public Library” by nurturing the fledgling institution for 30 years through a period of incredible growth. But her baby was 8 years old when Whitney was appointed librarian (the equivalent of director now) in 1881.

What was then the Public School Library of Kansas City had been operating since 1873, with its initial collection consisting of eight volumes of the New American Encyclopedia purchased for $8 and housed on an oak bookcase in the school superintendent’s office.

From such humble beginnings, the Kansas City Public Library has grown to 10 branches and more than 800,000 books and other items such as audio books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs and CDs.

The library will celebrate that growth with a yearlong series of events kicking off Dec. 5, when all branches will have giveaways and activities. The highlight will be a program at the Plaza Branchh featuring Tommi Laitio, an expert in library and public park design and governance, and poet Glenn North reading a work written for the occasion.

As the library commemorates its first 150 years, here are a few lesser-known tales from its hallowed halls.

Carrie Westlake Whitney, known as the “Mother of the Kansas City Public Library,” was librarian (the equivalent of director now) from 1881 to 1911.
Carrie Westlake Whitney, known as the “Mother of the Kansas City Public Library,” was librarian (the equivalent of director now) from 1881 to 1911.

Early days

After the Kansas City Board of Education created the library, Westlake guided it as it moved first to a building at Eighth and Oak streets in 1889 and then to a larger building at Ninth and Locust in 1897. The library’s holdings grew from fewer than 1,000 volumes to nearly 100,000 during Westlake’s tenure, and she was responsible for turning it into a free library (subscriptions had been $2 annually or $10 lifetime).

A story in The Star in 1978 quoted her as saying that “all men are afraid of books who did not handle them in infancy.” Accordingly, she added a separate children’s area that was believed to be one of the nation’s first of its kind in a public library.

Westlake also wrote the three-volume “Kansas City, Missouri: The History and Its People 1898-1908,” which was published in 1908. Her days with the library ended in 1911, however, when the Board of Education dismissed her because of factional infighting.

The library remained under the school district’s control until 1988, when two-thirds of district voters supported its independence.

The Community Bookshelf runs along the south wall of the Central Library’s parking garage on 10th Street between Wyandotte Street and Baltimore Avenue. Completed in 2004 when the library moved into the former First National Bank building, it showcases 22 titles suggested by Kansas City readers.
The Community Bookshelf runs along the south wall of the Central Library’s parking garage on 10th Street between Wyandotte Street and Baltimore Avenue. Completed in 2004 when the library moved into the former First National Bank building, it showcases 22 titles suggested by Kansas City readers.

Readers of all ilks

The library has always been a place where people can lose themselves in books, newspapers and magazines, as The Star has detailed over the years:

Aug. 30, 1889: A 15-year-old boy, who remained anonymous, was “the most active subscriber the Kansas City Public Library ever had,” having read 95 books in three months the previous winter.

The Star reported: “Excepting Mark Twain’s two books, (James Fennimore) Cooper’s four and (Alexander) Dumas’ one, the stories chosen are of the mildly exciting juvenile type, in which heroes are rigidly moral and exemplary young lads, whose lives are lessons but who have a spice of boyish humanity about them.”

Sept. 4, 1898: Louis B. Woodard, born in Maryland in 1809, became known to library folks as “Uncle” as he spent up to nine hours daily reading, sometimes sneaking in food so he wouldn’t have to leave the building.

“I go to the library every mornin’ to read about the war, suh,” he told a reporter. “I like to read about the war.”

In 1898, that would have been the Spanish-American War. Woodard had been a child during the War of 1812 and was a soldier in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

“I fought in two wars and here I am, old, nigh onto 90, waiting for taps to sound for me at the close of the fourth American war I’ve lived through,” he said.

“I read all there is, all that relates to war. And then when I come home for an evening and fall asleep after supper, it is to dream of battle scenes and campfires — of the soldier’s life I led years ago. And in my dreams, I am young and vigorous and happy. … And I awake refreshed and invigorated, ready and anxious to get down to my favorite corner at the library.”

May 12, 1929: Minnie Neal, head of the library’s circulation department, recommended Basil King’s “The Conquest of Fear” to a firefighter who was not a regular reader but thought a book on philosophy would help him deal with suicidal thoughts resulting from a domestic incident.

The man found the book helpful, then moved on to other genres.

“Although he must be 40 years old, he began at that age to develop a taste for reading — a taste which now is firmly established,” Neal said. “It has become almost a passion.”

April 17, 1938: John Hitchcock never finished grade school, but when he died at age 65, librarian Irene Gentry described him as “one of the best-read men in Kansas City.”

Hitchcock had read day and night, working at the library for 20 years as a night watchman and night engineer and browsing the bookshelves by day. He had special interests in history, economics and genealogy.

Jackie Brown has worked at the library in various capacities for more than three decades. She’s now a facilities services specialist.
Jackie Brown has worked at the library in various capacities for more than three decades. She’s now a facilities services specialist.

Decades of service

When Jackie Brown began working for the library about 35 years ago, she had a job that no longer exists. Stationed at a desk in the library’s headquarters in the Board of Education building downtown, she was surrounded by telephone directories from around the world. People would call asking for telephone numbers, and she would look them up and provide them.

One regular customer sticks in her mind, a man from Perth, Australia, who hadn’t been back Down Under for years. He didn’t merely call requesting numbers.

“He’d like to come and look at the directories,” Brown said. “He would just like to see if people he knew were still in that area.”

Brown is now a facilities services specialist at the library, making purchases and paying bills, after having also worked in marketing, circulation and IT.

She made another likely lasting memory while helping at the library’s recent Heartland Book Festival.

“A young lady was standing off to the side, and I looked over at her and said, ‘Crystal?’ And she said, ‘Oh, Miss Jackie, I didn’t think you would remember me,’” Brown said.

Crystal Everett had been a child when Brown assisted her and her brother when their mother brought them to the library. Now Everett is a published author.

“It’s just such a great joy that I was putting books in her hands as a child, and now she’s doing the same to others,” Brown said.

For Tom Pratt, seated at left, helping with book sales at author events is one of many volunteer duties.
For Tom Pratt, seated at left, helping with book sales at author events is one of many volunteer duties.

‘Library guy’

Tom Platt provides a direct link to the library’s beginnings 150 years ago. He is the great-great-grandson of James M. Greenwood, who as superintendent of Kansas City’s schools from 1874 through 1913 was the library’s first director.

Platt, 75, has become one of the library’s most valued volunteers since retiring.

“I had some friends that retired and six months after they retired from something, some of them were 6 feet down in the ground,” Platt said. “I decided I wanted to do something to volunteer and do stuff to help promote the library.”

In addition to having served as president and treasurer of the Friends of the Kansas City Public Library, he has worked at most public events the library has put on in recent years.

“Many people would see me on the street and call me ‘The Library Guy,’” Platt said, “because I was at maybe 80 to 90% of the programs that the library would have each month.”

His volunteering earned Platt the Lieutenant Governor’s Senior Service Award in 2017. In his nominating letter to then-Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, then-library director R. Crosby Kemper III estimated Platt worked 300 volunteer hours annually.

“Thomas M. Platt lives and breathes for the library,” Kemper wrote.

Author George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame made a lasting impression when he visited the library’s Missouri Valley Room in 2016.
Author George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame made a lasting impression when he visited the library’s Missouri Valley Room in 2016.

Visiting dignitaries

In 2006, not long after moving into the former First National Bank building at 10th and Baltimore, the library launched its signature programming series, bringing in big-name authors and other speakers. Among those drawing the largest crowds were Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, and the “Queer Eye” guys, Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness.

There also have been visits by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, legendary CBS anchorman Dan Rather and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough, to say nothing of William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Charlie Parker, Amelia Earhart and other greats (portrayed by actors) during the popular “Meet the Past” series.

But for Eli Paul, former manager of the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, an unexpected encounter with George R.R. Martin left the biggest impression. Paul, author of this year’s “Skywalks: Robert Gordon’s Untold Story of Hallmark’s Kansas City Disaster” and other books, wrote an item for The Star recalling Martin’s visit:

“It was Aug. 17, 2016, and Martin was in town to be feted at a sci-fi convention. He and ‘Game of Thrones,’ his great literary creation, were at their absolute peak popularity, both in print and on TV as a wildly successful HBO series. What was he doing in our Missouri Valley Room?

“A German documentary team was in town and had snagged Martin for an off-site interview at the Central Library. What better place than the well-appointed Missouri Valley Room with its elegant, wooden shelves teeming with books as a proper backdrop? He sat in one of our comfortable chairs, and we the excited but mute staff took time off and stood off-camera taking in the amazing scene.

“Two memories stand out. Known as a real curmudgeon, Martin remarked to the staff his annoyance about the paucity of Robert Heinlein books available at the Central Library. A Kansas Citian and a mentor to Martin, Heinlein penned more than 30 novels; we only offered a handful. Ouch.

“Then there was a question from Martin’s German interviewer. The interviewer asked what we all wanted to know from the notoriously slow writer, but no polite person dared to pose. “And when will your next novel be finished?” I think there was a collective gasp from the onlookers.

“I don’t recall Martin’s answer. I only remember the cold, hard stare he gave his inquisitor. If Martin had been a dragon, the man would have been burnt toast.”

Celebrating 150

“Cultivating Good Community Vibes: How Libraries and Parks Bring Us Together” with Tommi Laitio and poet Glenn North: 7 p.m. Dec. 5, Kansas City Public Library-Plaza Branch; reception at 6 p.m. with food by Dutzel’s Catering, music by The Phantastics; also a beer crafted by the Vine Street Brewing Co. and a specialty cocktail donated by J. Rieger & Co. kclibrary.org.

Other 150 highlights: Eve Ewing, author and sociologist, March 8; Ari Shapiro, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” June 13; Margaret Atwood, novelist, Sept. 24.