What If

Yesterday being the 208th birthday of Walter Loomis Newberry, a band of us from the library rode out to Graceland Cemetery to toast him on the occasion, and to thank him for the legacy that led to us having such a smashing Quasquicentennial. Yes, the truth is out: as Walter made his will, he was really thinking, “Someday, they’re going to have a wild 125th anniversary.” He was a man of vision, was Walter.

By the way, this was accomplished with the full cooperation of Graceland Cemetery, and I would advise you to check with them before you plan any anniversary celebrations of this nature. Graceland rather likes the idea, but would prefer to keep such parties separate from funerals: a little matter of manners, you understand. (If you don’t understand, you probably have no connection to anybody at Graceland anyhow.)

Now, the statement was made at the salute that Walter would have enjoyed being there, as a man who thought Chicago had a great future and as a man who liked gathering with an intellectual crowd. (He was contrasted in this regard with his wife, who far preferred Paris, particularly after Chicago burned down in 1871.)  I’ve always wondered. Sure, the Newberry is a great library and has a really spectacular Book Fair, but remember that this was all just a footnote to his plans for the future, which kind of involved grandchildren. His money was to go to build a library only if his two young daughters died childless.  Somebody said, in fact, that we ought to be toasting Julia and Mary Newberry too, since, after all, if they’d been a little more assertive on the dating scene, we might not have been raising a glass to their father in the first place.

Still, he’s had 125 years to get used to the idea, so instead of worrying about whether he enjoyed the salute (it didn’t rain) I’ve been worrying about the other what ifs in the story.

What if Walter Newberry had NOT died in 1868? He was so interested in education that he would doubtless have supported a library anyhow. But would THAT Newberry Library have been, say, on the campus of Moody Bible Institute? Eliphalet Blatchford, the man who took Walter’s money and made the Newberry into a reality, was also very interested in this religious training institution.  Might he have talked Walter into endowing a library there?

But Walter was also interested in the notion of a Chicago Public Library. He might, like his widow and children, have been out of town during the Chicago Fire. But he seems the sort who would have thrown himself behind the rebuilding.  Maybe his money would have replaced, or at least refurbished, the abandoned water tank we were using for a public library. (See, all these books came from England to start a new library—even though we never had an old one—and the City Council had to put them SOME place. By the way, the Council also had to pick someone to put in charge of them and found a man named William Frederick Poole who, some years later, would become the head man at the Newberry Library. So he and Walter might have had a chance to get together.)

Would Walter Newberry ever consider retirement? Like a lot of retirees, he could have found new interests.  He might have followed the scientific discoveries of his age, and turned his mind to, say, a Library of Science and Industry on the North Side, or a Library of Natural History. The Newberry Library and Planetarium? Or perhaps he would have gone further still, thinking in terms of, say, Newberry University.

I, personally, like to think he would have found a compromise among all these opposing currents. “I could,” he says in my fantasy, “Put books of all kinds up for sale at reasonable prices and use the money to support libraries all over the city.” It would take him a while to find places to rent the tables, and argue down those people who insisted on holding the sale in a tent, but by 1887, he could have sat back and watched the first Newberry Book Fair, and THAT would be the Quasquicentennial we’d be celebrating.

I heard that.  Stop snickering. If anybody doubts that the real Walter Loomis Newberry was the kind of person to deal in books, I can only add by way of corroboration the fact that—as far as we know without unearthing a keg of secrets somewhere—Walter Newberry NEVER bought a Kindle.

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