Summer Reading a Grand Louisville Free Public Library Tradition

The coming of warm, humid weather sends some Louisvillians running for the comfort of air-conditioning or the solace of backyard swimming pools. But this seasonal turn has always meant one thing for me: The beginning of summer reading season, and long afternoons in swings or window seats, reading as the warm breeze keeps the air moving.

Among my best early memories was the late spring afternoon in 1956, the day that I “graduated” from Kindergarten at St. Mark’s Episcopal pre-school, my grandfather drove me in his 1953 Packard to the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library to get my first library card. I was only 5, barely able to read, but so anxious to hold and explore the glories of books. Grandpa was all dressed up in his suit and tie and Panama hat, as he always did when going downtown, or going just about anywhere else. I still remember my shorts with suspenders and Davy Crockett shirt. Together we walked, my little hand in his big one, through the big doors on York Street, and up the grand staircase to the second floor, where the children’s department then occupied a spacious area. The Library seemed as if it had been there since Biblical Times. In fact, it was only a half-century old.

Getting a card was a fairly simple process. The primly dressed woman at the desk looked down at me and asked whether I was prepared to take responsibility for a library card. I believe I nodded. She asked me my name, my address and my telephone number. (Well-trained, I knew all of these facts.) Then she asked my grandfather if he would sign as the responsible party. After he wrote out his name, he handed me the old-fashioned dip-fountain pen to sign my own name. I printed K-E-I-T-H. And he added the Runyon. With that, I was all registered and ready to read, and to learn and I’ve never been quite the same since. (In years to come, I would remember this rite of passage when I sought a driver’s license, registered to vote, registered for the draft and applied for a marriage license. It’s much the same, even as time progresses.)

How fortunate I was to be a child in this city, which had one of the best public libraries in America, run by a man generally considered to be a wizard at his field. Clarence “Skip” Graham was a big bear of a man, remembered for his acerbic wit and for his baritone voice, which, on afternoons in the 1940s his neighbors in the Highlands could hear bellowing “Old Man River” out the open windows. Like his boss, Mayor Charles Farnsley, Graham was a big thinker and he brought all sorts of innovations to the libraries. One idea wasn’t an “innovation,” but under his direction the summer reading programs, initiated in the 1920s and 1930s, flourished as baby boom children became readers.

I recently spent the better part of a day combing through the Louisville Free Public Library’s archives looking at materials about summer reading programs from years gone by. Like everything else in the last half century or so, these have changed considerably, reflecting the taste of children as the years went by.

In 1960, the first year I can remember actively participating in the program, the theme was charmingly quaint—“Under the Story Tree.” I know this for several reasons. The first occurred a few months ago when I was cleaning out files from my childhood, many of which had been stashed away by my late mother. I scanned a copy and sent the original to our current librarian, Craig Buthod, whose record for ingenuity and innovation has, if anything, exceeded Skip Graham’s.

In my recent archival research, I found a two-page, handwritten but sadly unsigned memo written with beautiful penmanship describing the 1960 summer program. “As simple as the idea was, it proved to be a happy inspiration. By mid-June, leafy green trees, some actually alive, had transformed the nooks and crannies of children’s areas in seventeen different agencies (branches), into inviting spots to relax with a book or listen to a story.” My mother always took us to the Main Branch, at Fourth and York streets, where the children’s librarian, Mrs. Barbara Simmons Miller, was the best storyteller this side of Hans Christian Anderson. I can still recall her musically inflected voice telling stories like “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Puss In Boots.” Mrs. Miller was important for many of us children of the ’60s for other reasons. In my case, as in many others I suspect, she was one of the first African Americans in a position of authority in a time when segregation, tragically, still dominated our culture. We were just on the cusp of big change, but people like Mrs. Miller demonstrated that skin color was an irrelevancy. Unlike other places around town (like the cafeterias and the Fourth Street movie palaces) the library was integrated in every way. In that was, Louisville was distinctly different from other cities that were South of us. My good fortune was to continue to know her through the years until she died in 1995.

I read 17 books that summer, 1960, when I was 9 years old. I can’t remember them all, because sadly we just punched a hole every time we finished one, instead of writing down the title. But I remember a few: Stuart Little by E.B. White, They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson (I still occasionally read more advanced picture books), Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Rocks and Minerals by Herbert S. Zim, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty, an early history of the movies by a long forgotten author, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and All-of-A-Kind-Family by Sydney Taylor. And the pattern I set that summer continued for years to come, setting a course for a life of reading that I continue to this day.

Over the years, the summer reading themes reflected the times: In 1966, a big year for James Bond and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” the theme was “ ‘Top Secret’ Summer Reading Program,” and participants received cards identifying them as Library “secret agents.” By 1972, the theme was “Read Instead.” Instead of what? I guess television, rock music and whatever else kids did in 1972. In 1974, it sounded like a song by the Cowsills: “Get It All Together With Books.”

But the changes were really apparent in 1982, when the library not only called the program “Rockin’ and Readin’,” but actually designed a mascot (“I.M. Gorilla”) for the summer’s events. And children who participated got a 45-RPM disc with two songs—“Let’s Rock And Read” and “I.M. Gorilla,” recorded by Butch Morgan.

How far we had come from “Under the Story Tree.”

In 2007, when I was still with The Courier-Journal, it was a moment of great pride to report that the summer reading program in Louisville attracted more children than the entire New York Public Library system. I don’t know if that is still true, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Regardless, the point remains the same no matter what the theme or what premiums children are offered to entice them to participate. I like this year’s theme better than a lot that I encountered: “Build Your Brain: Read.”

The kickoff was nearly three weeks ago, and if you read 10 books you get all sorts of prizes (like a pass to the Thomas Edison House or “KentuckyShow!”) and there are drawings for more sophisticated gifts. I don’t remember if there were any gifts in 1960; I doubt it. Generally any trip downtown meant a special treat like an ice cream cone from Ehrmann’s or a cookie from the Federal Bakery. But the treats we remembered were those marvelous books from the Louisville Free Public Library. More than a half-century later, they are the gifts that keep on giving.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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