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.
The 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 Bernard Shaw
Bill conducted business from his office in the Nesbitt Memorial Library
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
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
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
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.
Despite 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
Displayed 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
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 Mike
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
This obituary began with a quote from George Bernard Shaw and it’s
fitting that it should end with one:
“A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes
December 12, 2008
| Columns | Texas
Towns | Texas