a Bibliophile’s Bibliophile
recent death of Bill Stein in Columbus,
Texas surprised everyone. Just a month away from his 55th birthday,
he always looked much younger than his actual age and his unbridled curiosity
made him appear younger still. |
| People meeting Bill
for the first time may have gotten the impression of a large teenager with premature
gray hair. His habit of draping himself over furniture like an invertebrate or
lying down on the library floor in the middle of a conversation was due to chronic
back pain. No disrespect was intended. Like a friendly Labrador Retriever, it
only meant he was comfortable in your presence. |
Man Who Knew the Three Sides of a Story
“If we can’t get
rid of the skeletons in our closet,
we might as well make them dance.” – George
Bill conducted business from his office in the Nesbitt
Memorial Library in Columbus,
Texas an institution that is far better than it needs to be. (Note
to the Columbus city council and citizens who seldom visit: you’re getting your
money’s worth.) At first glance it might easily pass for a typical Texas county
seat library but clues abound to its deeper purpose – that of Colorado County’s
historical/ genealogical repository.
If your family history includes Columbus
County, Texas the library can usually tell you where your history and
Colorado County’s history intersect. Bill Stein enjoyed these genealogical searches
(perhaps too much) and your search became his search until something was found
or you lost interest – whichever came first.
Historical detectives share
traits of police detectives and like a veteran police detective, there wasn’t
much that Bill hadn’t seen or heard during his tenure. We aren’t sure how long
Bill was in his position, but it’s been said that Bill went to school with Dewey
Decimal himself and the two exchanged letters for years.
If one believes
that everyone’s life is a book, then Bill Stein could be thought of as the index
to Colorado County. If you wanted a story verified, Mr. Stein could pull the story
up from two or three different sources and then tell you the unprinted story.
He presented you with the facts that were available and if you needed an opinion,
it was your job to provide it.
Mr. Stein’s (uncharacteristically
| The Anti-Bureaucrat|
Laurence Peter once described a bureaucrat as someone who said no to every request
and then set to work to find a reason to justify the refusal. Bill Stein was the
opposite. Your curiosity was your pass at the Nesbitt Library. Bill never asked
if you had “a need to know.” Bill assumed that if you had made the effort to arrive
at his threshold, you were entitled to the best answer(s) he could provide.
a desk that resembled a grammar-school paper drive on a windy day, Bill’s mind
was a steel trap. If some particular fact was forgotten in one conversation, like
a whale’s song, it was picked up six months later. Searching for a particular
book with Bill as a guide was an adventure. Actually, there was little searching
since he knew where everything was with pinpoint accuracy but after the volume
was found Bill was compelled to scan the index, copyright date and see when it
was last checked out.
The Nesbitt Memorial Library shelves are stocked
with books hand-picked from the best in fiction, nonfiction and Texana and the
newest volumes are conveniently kept in the front part of the library. A selection
that would gratify any university or big city library, the beneficiaries of this
collection are, of course, the residents of Colorado
A few years ago, Mr. Stein came up with the idea to raise money for the library
and increase awareness of local history by giving cemetery
tours. His extensive knowledge of Columbus’ past generations (not to
mention his tact and discretion) made him the ideal author to provide scripts
to volunteer actors who would portray various dead personalities Spoon River-style.
The concept might not have been original, but it was the richness and depth of
the program that made it exceptional. The enthusiasm of the volunteers and Bill’s
diplomatic demeanor (half MC, half circus ringmaster) made these cemetery
tours a statewide success.
When asked if these tours
will be continued with Bill gone, veteran librarian Susan Archuletta smiled and
said: “Absolutely. We want to be able to include Bill on next year’s tour.”
| Mr. Stein’s Droll
Humor Exhibited |
throughout the library are various odds and ends related to county history - all
having the wry stamp of Mr. Stein. A framed collection of 19th Century jail artifacts
dug up by a local boy while digging a driveway hangs in the reference room. An
ornate glass jar of 130 Year Old Preserves (a never delivered wedding present
from an ancient family feud) sits in crystallized splendor inside a Plexiglas
We were visiting Brenham,
Texas one day and a man asked us if we
were from Columbus.
We said no, but explained that we visited the library there on occasion. The man
(a Colorado Countian) said: “Oh, then you must know Bill Stein.” We replied in
the affirmative and the man followed up with the pride-filled comment: “That guy!
He’s got an IQ bigger than my social security number!”
Today the library
is in the capable hands of Susan Archuletta (a 20 year veteran) and Bernadette
March who joined the staff earlier this year. Our last conversation with Bill
was on his pleasure in finding Ms. March’s application – but this was counterbalanced
by his task of having to write letters of rejection to the many other applicants.
Bill always saw the other side of any situation.
Everyone has anecdotes
of conversations with Bill and we can only say that the one constant thread in
each and every conversation was the respect, both spoken and unspoken, that he
exhibited toward whoever was the topic of conversation.
Described by author
Cox as “The Walter Prescott Webb of Colorado County,” Bill could also
be called a Texas author’s best friend. He went to great lengths to entice authors
to appear for his long running Summer symposia and one could argue over who drove
further – the authors or the attendees.
With Mr. Stein, Columbus’
departed citizens have never really left but continue to add to the town’s collective
spirit. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if, when visiting the Nesbitt Library,
they find what they’re looking for with supernatural ease.
began with a quote from George Bernard Shaw and it’s fitting that it should end
“A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he
December 12, 2008