Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Alamogordo Public Library Storybook Wall 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago, the Librarian at our public library (not me) approached a young woman named Maude Rathgeber, then Chairman of the American Association of University Women, about replicating a tile wall she had seen at another library. Together with local artist Lou Berkness, she drove a group of ladies through months of collecting and then selecting drawings from hundreds of area schoolchildren, and painstakingly replicating each chosen drawing onto a ceramic tile. The wall was completed and dedicated May 11, 1963.
The library has changed just a tad since then, but the wall is still there. Patrons waiting their turn to check out line up next to it every day. Children standing with their parents constantly run their fingers over the tiles, checking out the pictures drawn decades ago.
One year ago, FOL member Carolyn Ditmer was standing in that line, chatting with another patron, when she realized that the 50th anniversary was coming up, and immediately proposed we all do something about that. We, of course, agreed. There are 247 tiles, and one of my tasks (with help) was to track down as many of the original artists as possible.
Needless to say, this wasn't a matter of going through the phone book. After 50 years, many last names (and a few first) had changed. We are a military town, so the number of kids who moved before they even graduated was pretty high. Of course, more than a few had passed away, although we were able to find family members in some cases.
Word started getting around, though (hooray for Facebook!), and I started getting scribbled notes dropped on my desk, saying that so-and-so possibly now owns a car dealership in Tuscaloosa, or giving me somebody's cousin's best friend's phone number. As I sat in the chair at my annual eye exam, in between the "Is it better here at 1, or here at 2?" I got, "So, what is it you're doing with those tiles?" It turns out, my optometrist's sister illustrated one.
I also discovered that I already knew several of the artists, I just didn't know them by their maiden names. One old friend appeared at my desk one day with a huge grin, and the exact same copy of the book she drew her picture from!
A gentleman I've known for several years, both through his work and mine, finally shared that he had a tile. His parents, a very conservative and traditional couple, did not believe in drawing unnecessary attention to oneself. He told me that he once purposely spelled a word wrong in the district spelling bee, so he wouldn't be the one to go on to the state. When the tile project came up, he decided not to draw anything, so he would be sure not to be chosen - until his teacher threatened to send him to the principal if he didn't. Odds were, his wouldn't be chosen anyway, right?
He is normally smiling every time I see him - I think he's still checking over his shoulder for angry parents!
I made many new friends, as well. I talked with people in Alaska and New Hampshire. I heard wonderful stories, like the gentleman who admitted that, not only had he not read the book he illustrated, but he misspelled his own name. Another gentleman's family used to live in the building that now holds my favorite restaurant. One woman had just come to the United States from Mexico, and that had been her first year of school. 
The gentleman on the right here:
was visiting town one day, and we had a long talk, discovering several friends in common, including the secretary of C.'s school. The pretty lady in the middle is Maude's daughter, has a tile on the wall, and is the wife of C.'s principal! Have I mentioned this is a small town? The gentleman on the left is Maude's son. He was too young to illustrate a tile, but instead got to help carry all those tiles back and forth from car to kiln. Fifty years later, he was ferrying Maude to and from meetings preparing for the anniversary celebration. I have enjoyed getting to know him as well.
To help commemorate the anniversary, we decided to do three things: we had a huge party at the library on the exact anniversary, we (meaning our extraordinary clerk Melissa) put together a commemorative CD and booklet, and we started a quilt with squares illustrated by the descendants of each of the original artists. More on each of those in a moment.
Another full-circle story: The sister of the gentleman on the right also illustrated a tile, choosing Snow White. A biography she wrote for our commemorative CD compares her life to that of Snow White. Her daughter illustrated a quilt square with:
and as icing on the cake, she sent me this photo of the two of them together:
Around 100 people attended the Anniversary Celebration, including at least 19 of the original artists, their families and friends.
Raise your hand if you illustrated a tile...

A barbershop group kicked things off with some tunes from the sixties.

FOL President and City Commissioner Nadia Sikes read a proclamation by Mayor Susie Galea
We still had a framed copy of program from the original wall dedication fifty years ago. Both mat and frame, though, were the same beige as the program, and were beginning to show signs of age. FOL member Victoria Copeland and her husband donated a new frame, and Kelley Quarles of Hang it Up to Go created a new mat. The finished product was presented to Library Manager Sharon Rowe:
and it now hangs in the Children's Room, near the Storybook Wall.
So much prettier!
The program is fun to look at, because it was done on an old typewriter - the height of professional at the time - and the women involved are named as "Mrs. Jack Rathgeber" and such, rather than by their own first names. All of the original artists are listed by school.
One of the tile artists, Maude's nephew G.B. Oliver III, told the assembled crowd that "any class I have comes from my Aunt Maude". He said that he would have been perfectly happy to stay on the ranch, but that Maude got him into orchestra. "Can you see these big hands wrapped around a violin?"

Of course, the lady of the hour was Maude herself, who still remembers in great detail the whole project, from beginning to end. I can't remember what I did yesterday! She shared some stories and took questions from the audience.

When she was through, we presented the quilt-so-far. Once we started making contact with the original artists, we started asking if they had any children or grandchildren (or neices or nephews or very artistic dogs) who would like to create a square for a quilt, in the same tradition as the wall. We originally intended to have a finished product to display, but realized as the event got close, and we were still finding artists, that this would mean leaving some people out.
Grandma painstakingly pieced the sometimes-odd-sized pieces together and created the center piece. Some of the squares came from as far away as Singapore! Another arrived the day of the celebration, and more are coming. I would like to add at least one more strip to each side before we finish it off. This, too, will hang in the Children's Room. Fifty years from now, somebody else can track these kids down, and their descendants can make...holographic images? Who knows!
Several of the artists got up to share their memories. This gentleman,
another character I enjoyed meeting, joked that his tile - the second in the bottom row - was placed there so he could reach it when he grew up. He also claims his mother made him enter the contest:)
This pretty lady,
who is much less blurry in real life, didn't have a tile, but her brother did, and she read a letter from him. Her husband is one of those whose picture was NOT chosen for the wall, but he claims he isn't bitter about it any more. Not much, anyway.
We got most of the artists present to sit for a group picture, along with Maude, and June Harwell in the front, far right: June was not the librarian at the time of the dedication, but was soon after that, and is another trove of memories!

There is no way some of these people are over fifty. I think they got their grandkids to stand in for them.
And, there was food! We had traditional sixties party favorites, like meatballs and deviled eggs (they nixed my idea of martinis), as well as fruit and veggie trays, cupcakes, and a cake with a picture of the storybook wall. The local high school orchestra performed while people ate and caught up with old friends.

We also took the opportunity to showcase some of the things the library has to offer today, including our new databases, e-books, and award-winning Lego Robotics teams.

I don't pretend to understand any of it, I just schedule the room for them.
One of our library clerks, Melissa, spent a huge amount of time putting together a CD and booklet with pictures of each individual tile, again arranged by school, pictures of the quilt squares that came in, and biographies written by or about some of the artists. Then, she set the entire CD to music from the sixties! The husband of another library clerk burned copies for us to sell at the event (and after - a few are still available!)
Due to time and space constraints, not everything we received ended up in the booklet or CD. This came just before the celebration - a rejection slip, if you will!

If any other artists would like to share pictures, memories, or biographies, I would be happy to add them here so others can see them. They can be e-mailed to me at: ajones@ci.alamogordo.nm.us. I can also still send quilt squares out to interested descendants, just let me know how many and where to, at this same address.
I had a wonderful time getting to meet people in person, and everyone else seemed to enjoy the day as well. It was fun hearing the "Well, hi!!!" as people rediscovered old friends and got reconnected. Thank-you to all the staff and FOL members who worked so hard to put this all together!
Adding a link to the article in the Alamogordo Daily News.





  1. Wow! This is amazing. I loved seeing this wall this spring during a visit. You ought to tell School Library Journal about it or Publisher's Weekly. Surely this much attention on a library would be of interest to them!

  2. I just found this, Ami, and THANK YOU for writing such a thorough and interesting wrap-up of the Wall celebration. Great pictures, too.

  3. Ami, just ran across this article. Both my sister and I have tiles on the wall. So sorry I missed the 50th anniversary celebration. Now living in ABQ, and I really appreciated this affectionate article about something that is close to my heart from my childhood. -- Ann M.

    1. So sorry we didn't find you in time, Ann! Would you be willing to message me your contact info? I keep a (password protected) spreadsheet of the tile artists, just in case we ever decide to do something again! My work e-mail is ajones@ci.alamogordo.nm.us