I have been asked to speak briefly about my wife. Only a very foolish person would do that, but here goes.
I did not know Bessie until she was nineteen. Her family had its ups and downs. Her father had gone into the oil business at eighteen and was the sort of Texas oil man who doubted the reality of dry holes. Her mom had attended a college for a few months before dropping out to marry. I never saw either of her parents read anything other than a newspaper. There were few books in their house. Neither of them read to her as a child. She attended public schools in Austin. Her junior high school was heavily populated with Hispanic children who spoke English only as a second language. Yet perhaps her best friend in high school was Shelby Hearon, who has since published a dozen novels.
No one in her class at the University of Texas was a better student than Bessie Meek. Yet when she consulted the guidance counselor there, she was told that it was her duty to stay out of the job market, marry and have children. The reason for this advice was that in 1950 there was great anxiety about the welfare of returning servicemen. About fifteen million American men had been in uniform. It was widely believed that their return would be accompanied by a return of the Great Depression, and it was feared that veterans would be left to stand on a street corner with a tin cup. So a patriotic guidance counselor told Bessie not to seek employment that might otherwise go to a returning veteran. The macroeconomics underlying that advice was at best questionable.
But I am not one to complain. I was apparently the first guy in sight after she was told to stay off the job market. My mother had long thought of me as an ugly duckling and she was ever on my case until the day I introduced Bessie to her. Never again did my mother question my manner or my judgment, and forty years later she told me that marrying Bessie was the best thing I could ever possibly have done with my life.
She was still twenty when we were married in 1952, and we left Texas for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I attended law school. In an important sense, we grew up together.
To pay the rent, she got a job as a bookkeeper at Radcliffe College. When I was offered a mostly clerical job with a law firm in Manhattan in the summer of 1953, the Business Manager of the College was desperate. He offered to find me a law firm job in Boston so that Bessie could remain in his office through the summer. It seemed the office had become dependent on her.
After I got out of law school, Bessie turned to raising four children. While they are also my children and I am very proud of them, I have often said that they are at least eighty percent her kids. It is no accident that one of them is a librarian and English teacher, or that the other three have doctorates from elegant universities. She was always game to take the children just about any place we were invited to go. Between 1955 and 1980, she and I and the available children resided for a month or more in sixteen different cities, fourteen in the US plus Cuernavaca and Bogotá.
During our years in Ann Arbor, Bessie became the volunteer poobah of the Girl Scouts. I was elected to the School Board because many voters knew her.
In the early seventies, as our youngest child outgrew the need for intense supervision, Bessie studied at the University of Michigan. The guidance counselor there ascertained that Bessie wanted to serve people, but only those who wanted to be served. She suggested the library school, and that is where she went. Because I spent a year at Columbia University, her first library job was at the Housing and Urban Development Library in the federal courthouse at Foley Square, Manhattan. When she left the job to return to Michigan, she wrote a six-page single-space memorandum to Henry Friendly, the chief judge of the federal court, telling him what needed to be done to improve library services in the federal courthouse. Judge Friendly was too overwhelmed to reply.
Shortly before we left New York, she went one morning to a dealer at Columbus Circle and bought herself a Dodge Dart. She went on to Foley Square and called me to pick up her new car. The salesman gave me the keys, saying he was very glad to meet me, that he had been selling cars in Manhattan for 27 years, and Bessie was the first married woman ever to buy a car from him without her husband’s approval. What sort of guy was I, he wondered, to be so subordinated.
When we returned to Ann Arbor in 1973, Bessie took a job as a reference librarian at the Detroit Public Library. This entailed a long daily commute, and she worked one night a week even on snow days. I remember two reference questions mingled in her public service. On night duty, she often got phone calls from barrooms to settle bets. One bet depended on her answer to the question, “do Korean dogs have slant eyes?” The other was a daytime call inquiring as to the minimum legal size of a dormitory room. She rummaged through the Code of Federal Regulations and the Michigan statutes and gave the caller a few references, along with the caution that she was not confident that she had provided an answer. You might call the General Counsel to Wayne State University, she suggested. “This is the General Counsel to Wayne State University,” came the reply. While she was at Detroit, she also did some teaching in the Library School.
In 1978 we moved to Durham and I will not speak of Bessie’s work at the desk at Perkins Library or to her service to Durham, or her occasional teaching at the University of North Carolina. However, I will recall that in the spring of 1989 I was teaching at the University of Texas Law School. The librarian there, Roy Mersky, who is himself a distinguished librarian, invited her to visit with his staff. She discussed the promise of the new technologies then coming on line. Afterward, Roy came to my office to declare that Bessie Carrington was the best librarian he had ever encountered, having, he affirmed, not only brains and experience, but the energy and enthusiasm of a person “two generations younger than herself.”
Also, to show you that Bessie directed her energies in directions other than libraries, I will recall that we spent the spring of 1995 visiting at the University of Hawaii. There is a nice city park in Honolulu, about a large city block in size, and full of tropical plants. After a few visits there, Bessie wrote the chief gardener a letter redolent of her letter to Henry Friendly. In only three single-space pages, she told him how to reorganize his garden. This time she got a reply. He asked her to join his advisory council.
In the nineties, Bessie became the co-editor of the standard reference book on reference books. Having achieved fame in her profession, she retired to spend more time on volunteer work at the Durham Public Library and the Literacy Council.
There are many in this garden this afternoon who might reaffirm Roy Mersky’s assessment. I cannot do that. I am limited to saying that I was very proud when in 1951 she agreed to be my wife, and I am even more proud today to be her husband.