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Callahan's Legacy

Spider's Online Diary

8 May, 2006

© 2006 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

I just posted the following message on the Usenet newsgroup alt.callahans, with the subject-line:

The one responsible for this group

...not to mention my marriage and career.

Fill your glasses or mugs, my friends. This may not mean a lot to the rest of the world....but it means a Whole Honkin' Lot to me. And it means something to all of you, as well.

Jeanne and I were in America recently as last-minute guests at I-Con on Long Island, and after it was over I made a side-trip to Plainview, the town where I grew up, to try one last weary time to dig out the name of the woman who changed my life.

This time I got lucky.

Because this time when I got to the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library--eye-watering deja vu as I walked in the door--I kept on gently pushing until they finally let me go through into the administrative offices in the back, where I was fortunate enough to meet Evita Karlic. She is that institution's present equivalent of Radar O'Reilly, though far more lovely: the person who makes the place actually function.

I told her I wanted if possible to learn the name and fate of the children's librarian at that institution back in 1954. I explained to her that whoever it was had handed me, at age 6, the very first book I ever read in my life, ROCKET SHIP GALILEO (and also the first several hundred after that), and I hoped to thank her, since that had been my first step on the road to an uncommonly interesting and happy life.

Ms. Karlic was properly dubious: back in 1954 that library had been a tiny storefront in a shopping center (like a mall, without the mall) across the street from its present location, and its records had been typed....on manual typewriters. She tried a first-order computer search and came up empty. But she could see how much it meant to me, and she found nearly all of my 33 books in the library catalogue (which greatly pleased me), and she promised to keep digging.

A week after I got back home to BC, she e-mailed me the answer.

The moment I saw the name, it came floating up out of deep memory storage, and so did her face, and I suddenly couldn't believe I'd ever forgotten either. The woman who started me on my life path was a beautiful brunette bodhisattva named RUTH SIEGEL.

She didn't just hand me books. She asked me what I thought of them. Suggested others. Answered questions. Posed questions. Gently chivvied me into writing short book reviews for the children's section of the library newsletter she used to produce with a Gestetner. (If you don't know what that is, look it up under Torture Devices.) Awarded me first prize for Most Books Read every year. Awarded me first prize in a Come As Your Favorite Character competition one Halloween. (Kip Russell/Oscar from HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL.) By the time they finally thought to measure me, in second grade, they told me I was reading at the level of a college junior, and had me skip third grade. A lot of that was my mother's doing--but a lot was Mrs. Siegel's.

She will (thanks to Evita Karlic's kindness) be acknowledged and thanked by name in the Afterword of VARIABLE STAR, my forthcoming collaboration with Robert. (Out in September.) Had she given me any other book back in 1954, it would never have been written.

Ms. Karlic reports that Mrs. Siegel retired, covered with honours by a grateful community, in 1969 (three years before I wrote my first professional story, "The Guy With The Eyes"), and that she left here in 1995 (the year I published my 21st book, STARMIND in collaboration with Jeanne.)

I thank and salute and honour her. I wish I'd succeeded in my earlier attempts to learn her name, so I could have told her in person how incredibly much she mattered to the tall skinny kid. Perhaps by now, Robert and Ginny have told her. I hope so. But for her, today I would probably be one of the handful of wretched ex-folksingers who still wander the land with acoustic guitars in search of an audience with taste. If anybody out there knows any of her descendants or living relatives, I'd love to be put in touch with them.

She is one of the reasons why, much later, I caused one of my characters to say:

"Librarians are the secret masters of the universe. They control information. Never piss one off."

Because of Ruth Siegel, I became a science fiction writer...and that's how this newsgroup got started. Without her, none of us would have met. Dear God, I'd never have met Jeanne. Raise your glasses, please, ladies, gentlemen and regulars, and toast along with me:



--Spider Robinson