Chesterton Tribune

Harry Mark Petrakis: In praise of 'The Treasure House,' the community library

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Editor’s note: With the possibility that Westchester Public Library might lose its status as a community library, due to a proposal to consolidate libraries in Indiana, Harry Mark Petrakis, renowned author, and longtime Duneland resident, wrote the following on how important a local library was to him as a child.

Now, a senior citizen, he frequents the Westchester libraries and is reminded of his childhood when he sees youngsters here perched in the lounge chairs, reading in the sanctuary the local library provides.

Copies of his story will be available upon request at Westchester Twp. History Museum.



These then were my beginnings…

My father, a Greek Orthodox priest, immigrated to America from the island of Crete in 1916. He brought my mother and four of my older brothers and sisters to his first parish, a community of young Cretan coal miners in Price, Utah, some 45 miles from Salt Lake City. His tenure as a priest was a challenging one as he sought to serve and counsel the young men who lived in railroad cars and shanties and who worked and sometimes died in the dangerous mines of that time. When my father departed Price after two years, the local newspaper noted his contribution to the stability of the community by convincing the young Greeks to relinquish their guns on Saturday evenings before beginning their unbridled payday celebrations.

From Price my family moved briefly to a parish in Savanna, Ga. and then to a parish in St. Louis, Mo., where I, the third son and fifth child was born. When I was six months old, my parents made their final move to the Greek Orthodox parish of Sts. Constantine and Helen on the South Side of Chicago where the last of my family’s six children, a girl, was born. My father served that parish for 28 years until his death in 1951.

I have no memory of the city of my birth since Chicago was where I spent my childhood. We lived on a block of bleakly identical apartment buildings, occupying cramped and gloomy rooms. I could never understand why every bedroom window had to look out on the brick wall of the building next door.

The neighborhood in which we lived was a polyglot of immigrants from half a dozen countries. For the most part we Greeks existed harmoniously with the Polish, German and Italian immigrants since our poverty battered us into a rough-hewn democracy.

Greek was the language we spoke in my home, in church and in the parochial school where we took classes in both Greek and English. Our Greek and English teachers paced our studies to the merciless rhythm of the stick. If they did not beat us, they became melancholy. The English teachers struck us as a matter of contractual obligation but the Greek teachers, true to their passionate Mediterranean heritage, whacked us with fire and zeal.

In 1934, at the age of eleven, I fell ill with tuberculosis. If a family could not afford recuperation in a mountain sanitarium (in those depression-riddled years of the 1930s, few families could) the accepted regimen was confinement in bed. I started with a month in bed that became six months and, ultimately, encompassed two years. This was before the days of television and the exciting radio programs, “Jack Armstrong”, and “The Shadow” did not come on until evening. To occupy my hours I turned to reading. After exhausting the pulp magazines so popular at the time, I moved to books. In the beginning I read them intermittently and then, as my attachment to them grew, I devoured up to a book a day. Beyond discovering the thrill of stories, the books salvaged me from boredom and despair.

When I emerged from that illness, I returned to school, far advanced in literature and far behind in mathematics and science, subjects that held little interest for me. What continued to fascinate me were the thousands of books I had not yet read. The repository of this great treasure trove was our neighborhood library, the Blackstone branch on Lake Park Ave., located only a few blocks from where we lived. Blackstone was the first branch library built in the city of Chicago in 1904, the gift of a venerable lady named Isabel Norton Blackstone in memory of her husband Timothy Beach Blackstone.

I cannot remember the first time I walked through the portals of that magnificent building, modeled on a temple in the Athenian Acropolis, (built by ancestors of mine!) But it became a daily journey, sometimes after school and fairly often, I now ruefully confess, in place of school.

But it was always with anticipation and a quivering excitement that I passed through those thick bronze exterior doors filled with a solid copper core, doors I was told weighed 800 pounds. Proceeding through the glass and brass inner doors, I entered a large room adorned by a magnificent rotunda decorated with murals depicting angels and artisans. The artist, Oliver Dennet Grover, had also painted murals for the Columbian Exposition. The floor was inlaid with tiny squares of Italian marble mosaic while the reading room tables were glistening mahogany, holding bronze lamps with copper lampshades.

But all this imposing facade concealed the real bounty of the grand building, the shelves and stacks of books, thousands upon thousands of volumes.

I recall the palpable excitement I felt as I prowled the shelves searching for books to read. In a fascination fostered by my two year period of illness, I savored the touch and appearance of books. Most enticing of all, I loved the smell of new books that had not yet absorbed the human odors and still retained that pristine fragrance of ink and fresh paper.

Having selected a book, I’d retire to one of the corner reading chairs by a window and lose myself in the wonderland of stories. I recall yet the delight I experienced as I first read the novels of Rafael Sabatini, “The Sea Hawk”, and “Captain Blood”. Sir Walter Scott gave me the gift of “Ivanhoe”, and “Rob Roy”. I discovered Jack London and with heightened pulse read his “White Fang”, and “Call of the Wild”.

Through my adolescence and into my young manhood, the neighborhood library nourished and fortified me. By that time I had progressed from the adventure stories to the majestic novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and Herman Melville. For weeks after reading Melville’s “Moby Dick”, in my fevered musings I sailed with Ishmael and Captain Shab on the Pequod scanning the seas for a sight of the great white whale.

Although I checked books out, I particularly enjoyed reading them in the scrosanct environment of the library, where thousands of volumes encased me in a comforting cocoon.

I remember also the numerous librarians, some stern and others more genial but all of them guardians of the world’s legacy of knowledge. One librarian I remember fondly was a gracious, lovely lady named Charlotte Kohn, who knew and loved books and who became my guide and adviser to so many writers. Long after we’d moved from the neighborhood, Charlotte Kohn remained a dear friend to my wife and myself until her death.

There were also the faces of library patrons, blurred by the passage of time, becoming visible when my memory is unlocked. On rainy days, grainy faced old men bent over newspapers, their coughing sometimes grating in the silence. Young mothers and fathers with small, excited children opening the fairy tales in the Children’s Section.

The young boys and girls studying and, sometimes, pausing to whisper and giggle with friends until they were silenced by a stern glance or a word of admonition from one of the librarians.

Into my adulthood, after I had moved on to the writing of books as my profession, libraries remained an integral part of my life. In the late 1970s I served two years as Writer-in Residence for the Chicago Public Library, visiting approximately thirty libraries, from Rogers Park to West Pullman, from Garfield Ridge to Canaryville, speaking on literature or setting up Writing Workshops.

I learned from that experience how many people read books who also longed to write, from the holocaust survivor whose story was more fraught with horror than the story Bram Stoker told in “Dracula” or Mary Shelley related in “Frankenstein”, to the endearing grandfather who wanted to record the utterances (’Tupa’ for grandfather, and ‘ilky’ for milk) being made by a two year old granddaughter he adored.

All these memories took place many years ago. Now, having become an octogenarian who has lived for almost forty years in Porter County, when I enter my library in Chesterton, those early library memories return to me in a torrent of nostalgia.

When I see a young girl or boy absorbed in a book in some remote corner, I envy them the matchless excitement they must be experiencing if they are perhaps reading “Ivanhoe” or “Captain Blood” for the first time.

And I am reminded once again how, in the spurious clutter of contemporary life, beset as we are by the ubiquitous ring of cell phones, the hum of laptop computers and blackberries, the community library remains a matchless sanctuary, and a repository of knowledge, linking us to the riches of the past and helping define our dreams and hopes for the future.


Posted 11/6/2007