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a Bibliophile’s Bibliophile

By John Troesser

The 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.

Bill Stein at his desk
Bill Stein at his desk

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 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 or Colorado 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.

Bill Stein's Desk
Mr. Stein’s (uncharacteristically neat) desk.

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.

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 County.

Talking Tombstones

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.”

Bottle preserve of 1868, Columbus Texas
Wry History

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 case.

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 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 supernatural ease.

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 out.”

- John Troesser
December 12, 2008

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