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Personal Best

Tell me I’m wrong.

As American culture devolves into downright tribal behavior, human tragedy tends to be seen in one of two ways: a) dropping everything in order to help or b) shrugging it off with the observation that “they brought it on themselves.” Or when a plane crash and the deaths of more than two hundred and fifty people is seized as an opportunity to criticize a president unconnected with the event. I was reminded of a story told by my old friend Bonnie Lou Naifeh, who once worked as a public librarian.

Bonnie was then married to a fellow architecture student at the University of Oklahoma, Skip Hill. Bonnie worked at the Bethany Public Library in the western suburbs of Oklahoma City, a forty-five minute drive from the O.U. campus in Norman. She came home one day distraught from an encounter with one of the library patrons.

Bethany, you should know, is also the home of multiple conservative Christian colleges and is itself an exceptionally conservative community. This was the 1960s, though, so we should not have been surprised when Bonnie was chastened by library staff for the length of her skirts or her use of makeup. But the job was in a public library.

On the day in question, Bonnie had staffed the check-out desk and was stamping books and sound recordings of one patron. Since one item was a recording of American opera singer Beverly Sills, Bonnie offered some conversation to the patron. Coincidentally, Miss Sills had been a guest on the late-night variety show of Johnny Carson, the “Tonight Show” in its third incarnation. Among other things Carson had discussed with Sills the difficult topic of her daughter, who was born profoundly deaf and could therefore not appreciate her mother’s art form. “Isn’t that a tragedy about Beverly Sills’ daughter?” Bonnie offered the library patron standing above her. Without a moment’s hesitation, the patron responded “Oh, well, she’s Jewish, you know.” Stunned and silent, my friend Bonnie understood the possibilities of the patron’s perspective: To some Christians, Miss Sills would be seen as a “Christ killer” and justly punished with a child unable to hear.

Bonnie said that she’d cried during the entire forty-five minute drive home to Norman, devastated by the encounter with a perspective that was hard to believe had survived into the mid-20th century. This happened about 1969.

Well, its now the early 21st and I’m not certain things have improved all that much.

iowafire

This postcard reminded me that parts of the Agincourt story—large parts—remain to be told. The back of this card (which was never mailed) reads simply: “1907. Family of 7 burned at Ponca.” Several questions come to mind, like Who would take such a picture and why? and What’s the story behind the fire? 

Ponca, Nebraska is a few miles northwest of Sioux City, near the bluffs of the Missouri River. That may, indeed, be the “Big Muddy” in the left distance. From the clothing shown, the weather seems chilly, but it certainly isn’t winter—at least like we know it here in North Dakota. Yet the family of seven might still have been victims of a poorly tended stove or fireplace. The ruins suggest a modest house, so how could the family not have escaped?

Given the human condition and the fact that we can often be well below our personal best, what number of stories might grow from this deceptively simple artifact?


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