If you visit our house in Minneapolis one of the impressions you will likely take away is, “These people read a lot of books.” It’s true. My study/office has wonderful, full bookshelves, there are bookshelves overlooking the great room and lining Carolyn’s office walls, even more in the basement, and almost all those shelves are crowded with books.
My parents were active readers for most of their lives and deserve most of the credit for my interest in books, but it won’t be surprising for anyone from Hawley to learn that when I was growing up one of the most influential people in my life was the village librarian, Mrs. Verna Wefald. Most Saturdays, rain or shine, hot or cold, involved a walk across town to the small town library which was sandwiched into a corner of the community center, built on the site of a hotel owned by my grandfather that had burned down. The regional library 20 miles away in Moorhead had a bookmobile service and it came to town weekly to help rotate the shelf stock and give us new books to read.
Mrs. Wefald was an elderly lady with white hair the entire time I knew her, the wife of a well-to-do lawyer in town. Every Saturday she greeted by name each of us who entered the library and asked how we had liked the books we were returning, and talked about them with us. She was interested in what we liked and disliked, and in what we were having trouble understanding. In my memory, she was one of the few adults who actually conversed with children! Sometimes she even had a plate of cookies waiting on her desk to welcome us.
Verna usually had suggestions to offer us for the next week’s reading if we dawdled in picking something out, and she seemed to have a personal reading development plan figured out for each of us. I can’t remember what the number of books I could check out at one time was, I think 4 or 5, and most Saturdays I was usually at the limit when I walked out the door. My favorites were adventure stories – CS Forester was great when I was in junior high school and Helen McInnes was an author I liked a lot in high school, but these were supplemented by higher quality literature (James Baldwin & Richard Wright to name just two authors) with a push from Mrs Wefald.
My parents were the only people I knew who owned two sets of encyclopedias, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia, and in addition we had the full Great Books collection on the home bookshelf next to the fireplace. Other kids had to rely on the school library for researching their school papers; we didn’t. During my high school years, my dad seemed to be reading his way through the Great Books, and for my older sister, Elizabeth, the philosophers and Shakespeare seemed to provide the major attraction. I recall being drafted to read the Platonic Dialogues together, out loud – she always got to be Socrates and of course I was always the student, Plato. When I got to college and my first year’s social studies classes started with the Greek philosophers, I was the only person in my class to have already read all the Platonic dialogues, which is pretty funny when you think about it.
Reading is a great joy to me even today and the small Hawley library and wonderful, warm Verna Wefald, almost as much as my parents, were very influential in developing in me a habit of inquiry, a love of language, a desire to explore the world, and a respect for learning and understanding.