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Joe Brewen and Bill Knight

I have a distinct early memory of the Fredericktown branch of the Ozark Regional Library. When I was a kid of nine or so, I was a frequent habitué of the library, partly because my mom worked there part-time and partly because I was intoxicated with the rows and rows of books, an infinite amount of knowledge or so it seemed, free for the taking. (They also loaned out other things, of course, and I remember showing up at the checkout desk with a couple of full-sized art prints only to be turned away because such things were reserved for grownups. I have no idea what I intended to do with a couple of framed art prints.)

The day I am remembering came after I had discovered the juvenile historical fiction of Joseph A. Altsheler, a popular novelist of the early 20th century whose books were fat, action-filled, and intensely romanticized. In theory, these books were way beyond my reading level; I had to creep out of the kids’ section and into the “teen” section to get them. But I gobbled them up like an addict. So I loaded up my usual week’s supply – three or four books, I would guess – and headed for the checkout desk.

The clerk at the desk took one look at me, with my head barely clearing the counter, and the stack of five-hundred-page books in front of her, each branded with the tell-tale “J” on the spine (instead of the “Y” books I was properly entitled to), and then looked at her co-worker at the desk. Something unspoken passed between them, and she stamped all the books and handed them back to me.

That was when I first recognized the possibility of libraries. A library can turn the most ordinary of transactions into an unexpected opportunity. Its very existence is a statement that doors are never fully closed and that thoughts are ultimately free. Many of us need to be reminded of these facts from time to time; the recent PBS documentary Ex Libris does a wonderful job of it, and if you haven’t seen it yet you should.

But back to the Fredericktown library, and one of my favorite Ozarks people. I’ve been back to that library several times in recent years, putting on programs, leading workshops, and attending ceremonies (that’s what’s going on in the photo above, my cousin Joe Brewen on the left presenting two copies of War of the Wolf to the library – it’s a history of the U.S.S. Seawolf, the submarine on which our uncle Mike served during World War II). My contact person for all my visits has been Bill Knight, who is the other person in the photo.

Bill has been a wonderful asset to the Fredericktown branch, as a recent article in the Fredericktown Democrat-News attests. He’s curious, humble, open to new ideas, intelligent, and devoted to the best interests of the library patrons. He isn’t alone in possessing these qualities, though; all the people quoted in the article have them as well. But Bill gets to stand out in this post because he has just retired from the library. A celebration was held in his honor Friday afternoon.

Bill Knight epitomizes the values of a library, and I am grateful to have gotten to know him. It’s heartening to know that those ideals I first experienced as a child are still alive and in practice.