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BY THE BOOK

THE STORY OF PAULINE ROBINSON'S LIFE IS A REAL PAGE-TURNER.

part 1 of 2
Thin and frail, Pauline Robinson lay down on her couch. She would have liked to read a book to pass the time, but her cataracts made that all but impossible.

The difficulty was irritating; there was still so much she wanted to read, and at her age, time was passing faster than ever. She was scheduled for operations to correct her vision problems. Tonight, however, there was nothing to do but wait for her husband to come home.

Howard was attending a meeting at the Park Hill library. On this night, February 15, 1995, the Denver Public Library commission was going to announce its decision on the name for a new library at the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street. Pauline Robinson was one of the names on the short list, a recognition of her four decades of service with the DPL, where she'd been the first black professional hired. But there were other names, famous names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Wellington Webb, and they had their supporters, too.

On the coffee table at her side was an autobiography she put together after friends nominated her for the library honor. A photograph of her taken in 1942--the year she graduated from the University of Denver--stared up from the cover. Inside was the story of what had brought a poor, skinny girl from the black farm settlement of Gay, Oklahoma, to this point in her life. It was all there in black and white...neatly typed remembrances and carefully clipped newspaper stories and photographs of Pauline at the various libraries where she had worked, usually surrounded by children and reading a book.

The living room of her small, neat brick home in northeast Denver also reflected the life she lived. The trophies for bridge championships, including her Life Master's certificate. The photographs of the children she and Howard raised--all relatives; there had been none of their own.

But mostly it was a life reflected in the books that lined the shelves, only a fraction of the volumes she and Howard collected through the years. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a warning of what can happen when otherwise intelligent people give in to their fears and prejudices. Classics like War and Peace and Lady Chatterley's Lover. The history and culture of African-Americans, from Roots to Up From Slavery: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Cookbooks. Bridge books. These days she was interested in books about mathematics. If only her eyes would cooperate.

She had just turned eighty the month before. Still, while age and illness had knocked her body down, they had not quenched her thirst for knowledge. That was her heritage and that would be her legacy, whether they named a library after her or not.

It didn't really matter to her. At least, not as much as it did to Howard, the gentle postal worker who had been her support for more than fifty years. And not as much as it did to her friends and fans attending the meeting to make sure that no "hanky-panky," as Howard put it, robbed her of the tribute.

Certainly, it was an honor to have been nominated and then moved so far through the process. But for her, the reward had always been showing children the magic of words on the printed page. By the thousands the children had come to her, sometimes cold, sometimes embarrassed, always hungry to learn.

Like Pauline when she was a girl.

Charlie Short sat down in the living-room chair as his grandchildren gathered expectantly around him on the floor. Six-year-old Pauline moved close. She loved listening to his voice and watching his face when he was telling one of his stories. She thought he looked like Santa Claus with his long white beard, snowy hair, blue eyes and light skin.

Her father, James S. Short, was outside working in his fields of cotton, corn, beans and peanuts. When he came in, the family would eat and then the kids would have to buckle down to their studies, but for now they were free to close their eyes and let their grandfather paint pictures in their minds of times past.

This afternoon's story was about when Charlie was a boy in Texas in the years before the slaves were freed. His voice was soothing, matter-of-fact, as he launched into his tale.

His mama, "your great-grandmother," was a house servant for the master of a cotton plantation. The master was also his father. He'd had eight sons by his white wife, and one, Charlie, by a slave woman.

Now, a master having children by his female slaves was not uncommon. But what was unusual about this master was the decency--albeit under the dark cloud of slavery--with which he treated his black son.

In those days it was against the law to teach blacks how to read and write; after all, an educated man is a man who dreams of freedom and finds a way to obtain it. But Charlie's white half-brothers went to school, and they were allowed to teach him what they learned. Charlie drank in the lessons like a man rescued from the desert drinks water. Gulping knowledge down, unsure of when the next opportunity would come.

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