MY TURN: Learning, helping led to a good life

For years there has been a running debate about whom gets credit for first uttering the words, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

It’s a pithy and somewhat profound statement that has been attributed to the likes of P.T. Barnum, Mae West, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields, all legendary figures in American folklore. Other scholars believe it originated from the mouth of American author and humorist Mark Twain. Some say it came from the pen of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright and poet.

Leslee Niethammer, a longtime librarian and a veritable encyclopedia of literary trivia, must have known the real story, after all she had a double stake in the game.

Her first name, I soon found out the hard way in 1989 when she was hired as the new director of the Saline Area Public Library, was spelled in a most unconventional way – with three e’s and no “i.” Her last name was no spelling picnic either and regularly befuddled those who wrote stories about her as she guided a small town library into what would become a model for district libraries statewide.

Last week, at the age of 62, the woman who defied the staid librarian stereotype died of cancer, less than a year after being diagnosed with the disease. For those of us privileged to have known her, it was a cruel blow, cutting short a life that enriched a community, a profession, and countless friends and admirers.

An Ann Arbor native, Niethammer earned her master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan, using it as a stepping-stone to a library career that stretched nearly 40 years. Her zest for work was evident to the end, as she continued to fulfill her library director responsibilities to just days before being admitted to hospice care on March 4.

But that was her nature, as was her desire to volunteer for any good cause, almost all of which she embraced hand-in-hand with her husband, David Rhoads. The two were married 13
years ago in a park wedding that showcased the finest a small community has to offer in terms of homespun spirit.

It was during her freshman year at Hope College that Niethammer began conjuring thoughts of “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” It was an age-old question that had an obvious answer for Niethammer.

“I said, ‘I like books. I like people. Why don’t I become a librarian?’” she once told me.

Why indeed, which led her to transfer to Eastern Michigan University, where she would obtain her bachelor’s degree in library science. From there she landed a job with the county, enabling her to pursue a master’s in library science from U-M. In 1981, she attended an American Library Association conference in San Francisco where she learned of a job opportunity south of the border.

“These conferences have job placement centers, so I was sifting through some of the notices when one caught my eye in particular,” she said for a profile piece I wrote on her in 1994. “It was for a school librarian and it carried a San Francisco address. The salary was $9,000, however, which I thought was ridiculously low for a job in a city like San Francisco. But my curiosity was piqued.”

Upon applying for the post, Niethammer discovered that the job was in a different city by the bay – La Ceiba, Honduras, to be exact.

“The school was run by the Standard Fruit Company for the children of their American employees,” she explained. “They offered to send me down there for a week to see if I liked it.”

She did, staying there for a year before returning to the States to get married and then move to Boston, where she was hired as a reference librarian at the Cambridge Library.

“In many ways it was just as big an eye-opener as was Honduras,” she said. “Cambridge was my first job where I had a lot of contact with the public and, needless to say, it was pretty intriguing at times.”

In 1989, she was chosen to lead the Saline Library into a new era, one that banked on the “information superhighway” that was transforming learning across the educational spectrum. Within a few years of accepting the job, she was given the task of overseeing a multi-million-dollar building project, moving the library from a quaint downtown building into a spacious “state-of-the-art” facility adjacent to the school campus.

While the new building was 16,000 square feet of glitz and gleam, the old library had history on its side. It had been a furniture store, a church, a mortuary, a convalescent home, and a hospital before becoming a haven for book-lovers of all ages.

For Niethammer, it was a building full of “fond” memories.

“We have our stories, unfortunately not all of them could make it into print,” said Niethammer, whose staffers were asked to roust more than just bats from the cozy confines of the old balcony.

“There was one time when we had to break up a ‘rendezvous’ in the balcony after the noise just became too much,” she said with a smile, declining to note whether the “romance section” was located on the second level.

The new building – perhaps with that episode in mind – has just one story. Now, it also is missing its most important feature, a do-it-all director who made an impression that will be treasured for generations to come.