to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”

New Hope Gazette

May 31, 2008




No mountains in the way. That’s what my father used to say. Nothing between you and the horizon. Which spans forever. It’s frightening to some people, afraid they’ll fall off the edge of the earth. Kansans believe it takes a sophisticated traveler to appreciate its beauty.

The empty skyline matches the blank spiral notebook digging into my back hip. Speeding along I-70, there is nothing, and everything, ahead. One hundred days to finish my dissertation so I can submit it before the last extension on my last deadline. The time is now, or never. My advisor has been absolutely clear on that point. I can pull it all together, or … or what? Not much future for a penniless dropout in a dismal economy.

Time to get to New Hope. And fast. No more diversions. No more distractions. Time to stand on the steps that inspired me to write the story of the libraries Andrew Carnegie built. If the library the next town over was destroyed, what about my library? The library that changed my life by giving me the love of books. Time to soak in its history and salute its glory, while it’s still standing, although as an arts center.

It wasn’t easy to make arrangements; I had my moments of absolute terror. If I hadn’t just devoured Eat, Pray, Love, I might not have summoned my courage. I couldn’t sleep the entire week as I contemplated what it would mean to walk out of my mother’s Philadelphia house, alone, to take the steps I should’ve taken a decade ago. What it would mean to let go of a routine, in which I knew every single thing that needed to be done and when and why and how. I couldn’t breathe a word of my fear so pretended I was nine years old, brave, and ready to set out. Defiance guided my steps, and my will to achieve a dream pulled me forward.

I’ve been fascinated by Carnegie libraries since my first and only visit to Kansas, that trip to visit my father’s mother, over three decades ago. What I remember most is reading Little House on the Prairie with my father. We sat close to look at the drawings. My memories smell of sunshine, because when we were in Kansas, my father always changed his shirt before he read to us, and that shirt had always spent the day flying on a clothesline outside. What I remember about the book are Conestoga wagons. Conestoga wagons filled with families leaving everything behind to start anew. Back then, more than anything, I wanted to be Laura—to wear pigtails, play with corncob dolls, drink from a tin cup, and win spelling bees. The Halloween after our visit, I convinced my teacher to help me construct a pioneer girl’s costume—a bonnet made from a round Quaker oatmeal carton and a calico skirt held in place with a hula hoop. I could hardly walk in that hoop skirt, and I wanted to run. Run away from home. When I dreamed of running away from home, I dreamed of running to Kansas.

And now I’ve done it. It’s taken over thirty years but now I’m on my way. My boxed set of the Little House books in the trunk of the car.

When I announced my decision to leave, Mother threw her dishrag into the sink with the force of the tornado we’d just seen on TV. She was angrier than she’d ever been, at least since the World War she’d fought with my father after we got back from visiting his mother all those years ago. That entire autumn the house was either deadly silent or so loud we had to close the windows. By then, I’d long outgrown the magnificent days of his reading Hop on Pop, but I’d not been ready for his new distance from me. To cope, I sunk into my stories, pretending I was Anne of Green Gables or Mary in her Secret Garden. Not creative enough to make up my own imaginary friends, I depended on the world’s greatest writers to distract me when the tension between my parents got too intense. I certainly couldn’t ask real live classmates to come home with me for snickerdoodles and cocoa and shattered glass.

The one thing I knew for certain was my father lost his job for staying too long in Kansas. Mother never liked Kansas, largely because Kansas, in the form of her mother-in-law, had never liked her. Our return ignited a firestorm that was never extinguished, smoldering even after my father died.

“Don’t bother to call, Ms. Smarty-Pants,” were Mother’s parting words as I closed the door yesterday. She swore she didn’t want to hear from me and told me not to count on another penny from her, now or forever. Yes, I may have to flip the proverbial burgers after I’ve hit my credit card limit. And, yes, I may be in therapy for the rest of my life for having finally cut the umbilical cord. But right here, right now, it feels like my only choice. As clear as the wide open space in my rear view mirror.

Ten years I’ve been PhD, ABD: Doctor of Philosophy with All But Dissertation. Ten years wasted, not getting my own work done, nor fulfilling my promise to my father.

Ten years ago, I was determined to finish my dissertation, despondent at facing thirty candles on my birthday cake without my PhD. I was unequivocally jealous when a patron completed her thesis on the mating habits of polygamous social insects. Specifically, she was studying queens who mate with multiple males called polyandours, males who mate once and then die. In other words, I found myself envying promiscuous, murdering female insects. Or at least her study of them. I wanted to sink into the intellectual pursuit of discovery, become a Doctor of Library Science, and then run a major research library. Maybe not smart enough to know everything in that library, to have read every book in the card catalogue, but I’d be able to answer any question that came up. People would call me Dr. Sprint instead of just plain Angie.

Finishing my PhD had necessitated my moving home while I wrote, which had thrilled my father. As the only child of an only child, my not being conceived until late in his life, the statute of limitations for his doting had not yet run out. He couldn’t have been more delighted to have me within smothering distance or prouder of my being the first in his family to go to college. Mother didn’t think I was smart enough to go for a PhD, but she promised to hold her tongue and stop using her pet names, “Dimwit” and “Clueless.”

Just one week after I got home from a research trip to Scotland to visit the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, my father died. The very next day, I went to work at Sprint’s Print Shoppe, where, until last Friday, I had worked every day since. Until last Friday, when we locked the doors, believing the business no longer to be viable, knowing printing is too quickly being replaced by online communication, with little desire for print newsletters and invitations. Thanks to my efforts, thanks to my obsessive tendencies, the business did well enough the first few years under my management. My father was a font guy, entranced by serifs and curlicues, but I thought my business acumen would actually make a go of the business. Until it didn’t. The outside world—changes in social customs, environmental concerns, to say nothing of technology—made our prospects for profit nil.

In short, a decade wasted. With a printing crisis or a mother crisis each and every week, work on my dissertation was slow going indeed. Progress measured in single sentences, not pages. I tried to steal a few hours when I could, but there was always a crisis to be handled. A last-minute delivery of wedding invitations because the bride procrastinated on her decision of gloss versus matte finish. Or my mother’s urgent need to return Advil to the drugstore because she’d meant to get Aleve. I was just plain stupid to have mixed up my priorities, to have been diverted from my most important goal, that of finishing my dissertation on the structures built by the “patron saint of libraries.”

It was Grandmother who told me Andrew Carnegie built fifty-nine libraries in Kansas in the early 1900s. Before he was done, he’d spent $875,000 in communities that donated the land and committed to raising 10 percent of the capital costs for ongoing operations of a public library. As I look at the wide open space, it’s hard to imagine how a literary movement would have taken hold here at the turn of the twentieth century.

Grandmother described Carnegie as a benevolent Johnny Appleseed kind of guy, and it was only later that I discovered his despicable treatment of mineworkers, including the murder of seven men in his attempt to break up the union. A few Kansas communities, Goodland and Atchison among them, refused to take his tainted money even for the promise of a library.

Should we, or should we not, forgive and forget? Was he redeemed because he gave the country 1689 libraries that served thirty-five million people by 1919? I became fascinated by this man who was both a philanthropist and robber baron. Obsessed as if he’d been a bad boy boyfriend. On the one hand, he believed the wealthy should live without extravagance and give away their excess wealth to promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. On the other, he was shrewd to the point of ruthlessness.

My grandmother talked about the man as if she’d known him personally. She was as proud of the library as if she’d built it herself. Once she thumped her journal and said, “The story is in here.” But she wouldn’t let me read it. “Not now,” she said. “It’s a secret.”

The next day she handed me a diary so I could keep my own secrets, but my secrets weren’t that exciting. All I wanted was to write down every book I ever read. I still have that journal, and I still write down the name of a book as soon as I’ve finished it. There are over nine hundred books on that list now. I almost believe I’ll deserve academic recognition if I can describe the movement that brought libraries to the Plains. And reach a thousand books.

A truck driver honks as he passes, startling me out of my daydream. I slow in time to notice the Historical Marker and swing off the road to read it, following the cattle truck into the turnout. Trying to ignore the stench of manure, I concentrate on copying the signage into my virgin notebook, aiming for fine penmanship to reflect the importance of my new venture, remembering how I once believed copying perfect cursive loops from the chalkboard would make me a grownup and prove I was smart. The marker reminds me the highway follows the Oregon Trail, taken in the 1800s by missionaries, soldiers, and emigrants in search of land, and 49ers in search of gold, which in fact follows trails established centuries earlier by Native Americans. All in pursuit of their dreams.

Embarrassed, the driver comes from behind his truck, zipping up his fly as he looks me over. “Just checking the tires,” he tells me, kicking a wheel to prove his point. “Okay, so I just took a leak.” He grins at my Phillies cap and wrinkled clothes. “What’re you doing? Running away from home?” Before I can answer, he tips his hat and admonishes me, “Don’t be a bookworm,” with a nod at my notebook.

I whisk through the Flint Hills, loving the rolling landscape and undulating grassy mounds, yet eager to get to the expanse of the flat ground of Western Kansas. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot. Even so, I turn off the air conditioner, roll down the windows, and let the sun beat on my arm, daring freckles to land there.

The dilapidated remains of a one-room schoolhouse appear on the horizon. The cupola is twisted, windows are broken, and the walls are missing a few planks. What must it have been like to go to school barefoot, to sit in those funny little wooden chairs, writing on the desk hooked to the seat in front? Would I have been the spinster schoolteacher, struggling to control kids of all ages, trying to impart a love of reading to unruly boys who’d rather be outdoors? Exhausted by gathering firewood and pumping water as well as by correcting grammar? Bad-tempered and frustrated at my loveless life?

That’s how people stereotype librarians too. Prejudice reigns. Cartoonists depict them as dour, tight-lipped, military police who protect their books as if those books would disintegrate if touched. Guarding those treasures as if each and every one of them were the Gutenberg Bible, created the very first time type bit into paper and gave us the magic of books. The stereotypical librarian has suspicious eyes peering over her bifocals and white hair twisted in a bun, wears orthopedic shoes, and always sees children, if not all people, as the natural enemy of books. Her entire vocabulary consists of the word, Shhhh.

The librarian who changed my life, Miss Thompson of the New Hope library, was the antithesis of the stereotype, generous in her enthusiasm for reading. She knew absolutely everything worth knowing. When my father took me one day and said, “My daughter thinks she might be afraid of spiders,” she produced Charlotte’s Web, which remains one of my favorites. A few years later, at my Chestnut Hill Carnegie library in Philadelphia, I’d been disappointed Nancy Drew books weren’t carried, learning only later they were considered “too formulaic in plot and predictable in style” to be considered literature. I was appeased only when introduced to the biographies of great women, such as Clara Barton, Jane Adams, and Harriet Tubman. To take the trolley, to discover what treasures waited at the library, was by far the most thrilling part of my childhood. The library’s offerings changed as I changed; the librarian knew the exact moment when I was ready to graduate to Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

It wasn’t until grad school that I got a sense of the power librarians feel in making suggestions to readers or in matching researchers with their resources. One cannot help but feel smart when handing over just the right book. “Smart is more important than pretty,” my father always told me. “Don’t think you’re so smart,” was my mother’s retort.

My father understood my obsession with finishing my PhD. “Your grandmother left Philadelphia for Kansas and gave up the opportunity to go to college,” he told me. “I meant to get a degree in journalism and be a member of the press rather than a pressman,” he said. “You, however, will get your PhD for all three of us. You’ll be the one to fulfill our dreams.”


Romalyn TilghmanROMALYN TILGHMAN was hired as Executive Director of the Association of Community Arts Councils of Kansas straight out of graduate school and was lucky enough to work with rural arts councils throughout the state. She saw first-hand how groups of (mostly) women encouraged culture on the Plains. From there, she went on to work for the National Endowment for the Arts as Regional Representative, eventually serving a territory that stretched over the Dateline, over the Equator, and over the Arctic Circle. For more than twenty years, she has worked as a freelance consultant in the arts – conducting strategic planning, initiating audience engagement projects, and assessing grant programs for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and private foundations. She has served on the boards of Americans for the Arts, Association of California Symphony Orchestras, and Western Arts Alliance, as well as on numerous national panels. She lives in Long Beach, California. To the Stars through Difficulties is her first novel.

Author photo credit: Rachael Warecki

Adapted from To the Stars through Difficulties, by Romalyn Tilghman, Copyright © 2017 by Romalyn Tilghman. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.


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