Clerk leaves St. Louis library $350,000

Sunday, May 22, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- George Kyle was a kind man and a creature of habit.

For 46 years, he meticulously manned the desk at the Carpenter branch of the St. Louis Public Library, checking books in and out, answering questions, organizing files, all for a modest salary that probably never exceeded $18,000.

The clerk was known to be frugal, bringing the same thing every day for lunch: a bologna sandwich on white bread, with two graham crackers he would break into quarters before eating and a thermos of milk.

So imagine the surprise at the public library when it was learned that Kyle, who died of heart and kidney problems at age 88 in 2003, had left a gift of more than $350,000 to buy books for the Carpenter branch.

Half will be children's books with book plates dedicated to his mother, Ruth E. Kyle. The other half, books for adults, will honor his father, George B. Kyle. An endowment has been created, and the interest will fund the new books, which will likely be added to the library in the fall of 2006.

"It was totally unexpected," said Rick Simoncelli, president of the St. Louis Public Library Foundation, who learned of the donation from Kyle's attorney.

And yet, in some ways, "it was typical George," said Diane Freiermuth, who worked with Kyle for about five years when she was children's librarian at Carpenter and is now deputy director of the library system. "The library was so much a part of his life."

Each day Kyle would wear dark slacks, a pressed, white dress shirt and a maroon tie.

With his wavy hair and dark-rimmed glasses, he was so distinguished looking and so familiar behind the desk that he acquired the nickname "Mr. Carpenter."

Lots of children -- whom the tall, thin Kyle towered over but enjoyed speaking with -- mistakenly thought he was in charge of, or even owned, the library. He knew children's titles as well as adult ones, and never tired of talking about them.

He served as the Carpenter branch's institutional memory. He was the go-to guy when someone needed to know something like what color the upholstery used to be, Freiermuth recalled.

Those who knew him believed he was a man of modest means. As near as co-workers, friends and a cousin can tell, Kyle made the money donated to the library by carefully investing his salary over the years. But based on the years he worked from the 1940s into the 1980s, he might never have made more than $18,000 annually, library employees said.

An only child who never married, he likely had some funds from selling his parents' house after they died, and he received some money from a deceased relative.

But mainly, he didn't spend a lot. He didn't drive a car, didn't travel far and lived alone in a little apartment -- with a kitchen so small it was hard to turn around in -- until he had to move into a nursing home before he died.

His passion was books, and he loved to talk about what he read, everything from the big bang theory to calculus.

"He knew the Bible better than I did, and my husband was a minister," said friend Eunice Anderson, 81.

She met Kyle when she worked for a year at the Carpenter branch shelving books. When Kyle retired, she and her husband, Stanley, would take him for dinner on Saturday nights and then to the grocery store.

He talked sometimes about moving from his little apartment to somewhere else, but, "He didn't want to leave his books," Eunice Anderson said.

Now many books at the Carpenter branch will forever be linked to him.

The Carpenter was one of the last libraries in the nation built with money provided by the Andrew Carnegie Endowment. When it opened in 1927, police officers for days had to help handle the crowds that wanted to visit the newest library.

These days, the south St. Louis neighborhood includes residents from many immigrant populations, including Bosnians, Chinese and Somalis. The library, renovated in 2002, has almost doubled from its original size. Some of the new books from Kyle's donation will be written in the native languages of the immigrants, said Cynthia Jones, regional branch manager.

Where once people mistakenly used to call the clerk Mr. Carpenter, now they likely will remember the generosity of Mr. Kyle as well.

"Someone will be talking about the Kyle fund now, invoking the Kyle name," Simoncelli said.


On the Net:

St. Louis Public Library: http://www.slpl.lib.mo.us

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