Tough to lose two mentors in a six month period.
So about a generation ago, I was in town to apartment-sit for my aunt, as I often did. And as she was running through the usual list of reminders—where the emergency phone numbers were, etc.—when she said, a propos of nothing, “Do you know where the Newberry Library is?”
I had done some research there, so I said, “Yes.”
“Well, they’re starting up a book fair for this summer. Do you think you’d like to sort books? They do it Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”
I had actually planned to do other mad, crazy things in the big city, so I said “No.”
“Well,” she said, “I already told them you would.”
It was about ten years after that, ten Book Fairs later, that she noted that she was getting tired of working full-time running a Book Fair, and had so notified the Vice President for Development. “I told her to hire somebody,” she told me. “But I didn’t know whether or not you wanted the job.”
I said I didn’t know, either.
Ever after, she worked the Book Fair, coming in five half days a week to price until an inexplicable form of vertigo made her give it up around 2004. Even then, she came to work the Dredge and the July Book Fair, smiling money out of people’s pockets, until a more serious vertigo and another unexplained problem hit her in June. If you missed her this summer, that’s why.
In early November, she suffered an unexplained seizure, and shortly after that an unexplained swelling of tongue and throat which made breathing difficult and swallowing impossible. After four days of that, she was still ready to put on her shoes and come join us for a hot fudge sundae, if only all those IVs hadn’t been in the way.
Evelyn J. Lampe died on Thanksgiving Eve, after more than thirty years of trying to push Chicago culture in the direction of more books, more music, and more hot fudge. If they had had time to solve some of the mysteries of why her brain was misfiring, she might well have put in another decade.
“Nice ‘em to death,” was her advice for dealing with troublesome customers. Her attitude to pricing was “Well, it’ll be half-price on Sunday”. She decreed that the price of a book should be on the first white page inside, she set up many of the original categories, and she smiled a number of reluctant curators and administrators into admitting a second and then a third Book Fair might be a good idea. We’ve missed her as her role at the Book Fair shrank, but we shall go on…missing her.
Now ease in a bit closer, French-fried flan. I’m going to whisper so the adults can’t hear. If there was one thing Evelyn enjoyed almost as much as hot fudge sundaes, it was subversion, and what I am going to say is subversive. Over the years (27 of them) people asked Evelyn what sort of memorial she wanted at the Newberry to mark her time there.
“Oh,” she said, “Just put a plaque up on the loading dock that says ‘Lampe Landing’.” People laughed, but it was her answer every time they brought up the question.
Now, the cost of the plaque is nothing, or next to it: a little metal thing with four screws, nothing that has neon lights or sound effects. But it’s a bit of an unusual idea, and some would find it difficult to swallow. Money is helpful in making medicine go down, but I don’t believe you could bribe anybody around here enough to change their tastes in these matters.
So I don’t want you to try to buy a spot on the loading dock wall or force a plaque down anybody’s throat. What I suggest is that those of you who were planning a year-end donation to the Newberry increase the gift by, oh ten percent or fifty bucks or whatever feels right, and just add a note “I’m interested in Lampe Landing”. Make sure it’s an increase: they have records on these things and an increased gift always attracts attention. If you’ve never made a gift before, they’ll know that when you send in the note, too. Such things WILL make a difference. Even if the plaque idea doesn’t go through, the money could help catalog her collection of Edward Gorey items that are going into the collection, or buy hot fudge sundaes for the volunteers come July.
And if you don’t care to send in cash right now, in any case, go out and eat a hot fudge sundae for Evelyn. And in her honor, raise your spoon and say “Hey, where’s the cherry?”