So, what is Creative Nonfiction? The simplest, clearest, and probably most “apt” answer is this: true stories, well told. Recently, Steve Goldfinger shared a piece about Henry and Claire Booth Luce, and now, Lydia Bogar provides her thoughts about her local childhood library and the woman for whom it was renamed.
A FAVORITE HAUNT AND THE OLD LADY IN THE PAINTING
by Lydia Bogar
Even as her vision failed, my maternal grandmother always had her Bible, The Morning Telegram, or The Evening Gazette) in hand. As she grew older and needed both a magnifying glass and a bright lamp to help her, she continued to read, every day, until her death at the age of 94. She passed her love of reading on to me, and it wasn’t long before the library became a favorite haunt.
The Greendale Branch of the Worcester Public Library was built in 1913 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The children’s section of the library was on the left, divided from the adult books by an enormous, heavy, oak desk where you showed your card to the librarian and were then able to borrow books to read at home.
I started with the Little Golden books and got hooked. Years later, I decided to turn a sharp right inside the front door and, over the course of that summer, read everything in the fiction section. That was when I met Mary, Queen of Scots and Ernest Hemingway. Eventually, I would drive my mother’s car there to “study” with friends. In my family, women passed on not only our love of reading but books as well. I have been hooked on mysteries since an elderly aunt left me her collection of Perry Mason paperbacks in 1968. My mother helped me to grow by passing on The Power of Positive Thinking, Silent Spring, and The Quiet American.
In the library, there was an enormous marble fireplace along the back wall. A portrait of Frances Perkins, for whom the library was renamed in 1944, rested above it. When I was a child, I had no idea who Frances Perkins was. To me, she was just an old lady in an old painting.
Eventually, though, I learned just who this remarkable woman was. Born and educated in Worcester, she started learning Greek from her father as a child, took classes in physics and chemistry at Mount Holyoke College as a young woman, and worked with poor, undereducated women in Illinois as an adult. After her graduation, Frances devoted herself to mentoring working women, black and white, especially those in factories who were trying to support their families on miniscule paychecks. She later earned a Masters Degree at Columbia University, writing her thesis on malnutrition among public school children. It is difficult to imagine how many glass ceilings she shattered just in her own educational efforts.
In 1911, when Perkins was in New York, she witnessed dozens of factory workers leap to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—a turning point in her life. From that point on, she dedicated her life to seeing labor conditions improve for workers. She worked with a legislative committee after the disaster and became a consultant to Governor Al Smith. Eventually, her lobbying efforts caught the attention of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who appointed her to serve as his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a U.S. Government Cabinet position. Serving in that position for over 12 years, she championed such causes as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Federal Emergency Relief, Fair Labor Standards, and Social Security.
Years before Rosa Parks or Gloria Steinem made their marks on our culture, Frances Perkins said:
“I promise to use what brains I have to meet problems with intelligence and courage.”
Quite a resume for a woman from Worcester whose portrait still inspires young visitors to the Greendale Branch of the Worcester Public Library.
Lydia has become a frequent BOLLI Matters contributor, even creating her own monthly feature, “Lines from Lydia.”