Finding a career amid the stacks by
(46 Stories)

Prompted By Libraries

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     I grew up in America’s Model City. That’s not just my opinion, though. My hometown, newly constructed from a wheat field in 1942, was actually named America’s Model City in 1951 by the National Association of Home Builders.
     The Oklahoma town, named Midwest City, was the first city in America to be built according to an all-inclusive design put together before the first home was ever built. It would grow from a population of zero to nearly 60,000 people in just a few decades, but it’s “Original Mile” is still there, and it’s where I spent my childhood.
A literary anchor
     A central anchor of that original plan was the public library, something most towns don’t think about until decades after they’re formed, if that. I’m writing a book about that town now, and its theme is how the design and culture of Midwest City influenced me and so many of my friends as we transitioned from childhood to adults.
     For me, one of the biggest influencers was the Midwest City Library and where, in the original mile, it was located. I began feeling its impact at age 9, and it continued on through high school. In many ways, I’m still feeling the impact of it as I write this.
Eastside, Westside
     In 1952, when it was time for me to start elementary school, there were only two choices inside the town limits. One was Eastside Elementary, and the other was Westside. East Lockheed Drive, which was my street, was the dividing line for kids going to Eastside or Westside. I lived on the north side of Lockheed, so I went to Westside Elementary. My best friend Markey DeHart lived just across the street, so he went to Eastside.
     I’ve often wondered if I had lived on his side and gone to Eastside, whether I would have chosen writing for my career or pursued another path. That question may sound like a non sequitur (how could a career choice depend on what side of the street you grew up on), but there’s a reason I ask it.
An inspiring stopover
     Each day, Markey would walk east to school, while I walked west. It was only a four-block stroll either way, but my route took me right through the city hall plaza. In that plaza were city hall, the fire station, the police station, and the library.
     Now, maybe had I been prone to stop and chat each day with the firefighters, I might have developed enough interest to fight fires for a living; had I stopped to talk with the police desk sergeant, would I have become a cop? But I didn’t. Instead, my regular afternoon stops on the way home from school were to the public library. It was there that I developed an intense interest in reading.
Equine journeys
I clearly remember reading all of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books (The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, Son of the Black Stallion, the Island Stallion, etc., etc.) and I also remember being enthralled by Jack London books, especially The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But I also loved reading biographies, especially of early Western figures like Wyatt Earp. Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickock. And this was all while I was still in grade school.
From reading to writing
     It wasn’t long before I tried my hand at writing my own stories, not surprisingly
about dogs, horses, and wilderness adventures. Some of this growing interest in reading and writing was inspired by my mother’s teaching, I’m sure, and some by my dad’s creativity as a writer and sketch artist. But it was my own passion for imagineering, stoked by the Midwest City Public Library and its location halfway between me and grade school, that had even more to do with it.
Just so convenient
     Had I needed to go out of my way to get to the library, it’s a good bet I wouldn’t have troubled myself with doing it. After all, I did know that reading took some focused mental
energy while playing baseball or catching crawdads at the creek did not. But it was just so darn easy and fun to stop at the library on my way home from school and, once my fuse for reading and learning had been lit, there was no snuffing it out.
     I imagine that the designer who put that library smack in the center of the original mile might be surprised to learn the cultural and career impact it had on young people like me and several of my friends.
Another anchor
     Today, seven decades after grade school, I’m still reading and I’m still writing, and the passion for both is just as strong. I’m also living in a Kentucky town that values both so much that they have funded, built, and staffed one of the best smalltown libraries I’ve ever seen. Except, of course, for the one that turned me into a writer in the first place on the Oklahoma plains, so many years ago.
     As I sit in this new library and watch patrons come and go, I wonder if there are any other young kids who will be turned on by the alluring voices of these many writers who surround us and call out silently from the stacks.

How can a library chart your career path as early as childhood? No one was more surprised than me.
Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Wonderful story Jim about the library that made you the reader and writer and wonderful Retro admin buddy that you are!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I never knew about Midwest City. Very interesting, especially centering it around a library.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    That city planner had a great concept and ensnared your young mind to the benefit of all (at least, that’s this reader’s opinion). My husband always posits that a gym must be close by for a person to actually use it. Sounds like the same argument can be made for the library (at least for young people, not already “hooked on books”).

    Your planned community sounds very interesting, Jim. I wish today’s public servants were equally as enamored of libraries and freedom of thought!

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Betsy. My hometown sprang out of a wheat field in 1942 to service Tinker AFB which was born the same year. The city’s founding is a unique and remarkable story credited mainly to the one man who founded it. But Tinker’s is also remarkable. Today, 26,000 people work at that 7-square-mile aircraft maintenance base, the largest in the country. MWC is home to 60,000 residents.

  4. Jim, the library is the Mecca for a young person. It is a shame today so many are being shut down or transformed into funeral homes (Mn.) or office buildings. Oklahoma was the site for 25 (beautiful) Carnegie libraries. These libraries not only provided books, but aesthetic surroundings creating an aura of nourishment and spiritual enjoyment.
    I share your experiences and the Jack London dives into the threatening experiences in Alaska. Call of the Wild was expectational. The story of the dog, dynamite, and revenge still explodes in my mind. I also spent many hours reading about the Holocaust. At nights I reviewed them in my nightmares.

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