“The best part of Kentucky Fried Chicken is the mashed potatoes and gravy. And the best part of the mashed potatoes and gravy is, of course, the spork.”
I explain this to Richard, my boss at the library, with great relish. He peers at me through his dirty glasses with a look I know all too well. “A spork? What’s a spork?”
I sigh with impatience. “Everyone knows what a spork is, Richard. It’s, like, half spoon, half fork. A spork. Obviously.”
Yup, there’s the look, no mistaking it now. “Everyone knows, hmmm? Then prove it to me.”
It’s the quintessential Richard challenge: prove it.
And I, a 17 year old library student worker, love nothing more than to try to prove it. So, Richard wants me to prove to him spork is a real word? No problem, I can do that.
I dig through dictionaries, encyclopedias, cookbooks, and reference volumes until my eyes cross. And, as Richard has taught me, I not only document all my research meticulously (one of Richard’s truisms: patrons don’t just need an answer, they need an answer they can support.) but keep notes about what gaps there are in the library’s collection and what volumes we need to have updated. (another Richard truism: research is always more than one question at a time.)
But a week passes and I can’t turn up a single use of the word spork. (This is before the Internet, my friends).
“I can’t find it,” I concede to Richard. “But that doesn’t mean anything. Colloquialisms are acceptable -”
Smirking, he holds out a dictionary of flatware. There’s a picture of spork all right but underneath the picture is the caption “Ice cream fork.”
“But – but -” I try to protest.
“Remember this part, youngling,” Richard says, “just because everyone says something doesn’t make it so. There are answers in this world. You just have to keep looking for them.”
When I graduate from high school later that year Richard’s present for me is a delicate sterling silver ice cream fork. For the next 16 years, I will cherish this present above all others and, when my life gets bleak, I will sometimes pull it out to remind myself of Richard’s words: there are answers in this world.
Richard Azar was the director of the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library for five years. He hired me to work in the library as a student worker in 1994 when I was 15 years old. Richard was my first supervisor, my first mentor, the first adult outside my family who saw and then encouraged something interesting and fierce in me. Words cannot express the driving force he was in my life during my adolescence: how he opened my world and my mind and always, always, made me work for the answers. He gave me great books to read, world literature and American pulp, he talked to me like an adult, he always expected the most from me, and he gave me what I know now is the most important gift you can give a teenager: through his unapologetic, flamboyant, and joyous eccentricity he helped me feel less like an alien from another planet.
Richard taught me that libraries exist for their patrons, that we buy books we might think are crap (“Another stupid cozy mystery?” I’d whine) because “we’re in this for them, not for us.” Richard taught me that we never add for abridgments for children and teens because “they deserve the whole story too, you know.” Richard let me get hands-on in every aspect of the library I showed an interest in: accessioning, billing, interlibrary loan, weeding, creating displays and reading lists, collection development, answering in-depth patron reference questions – I had experience in all that and more by the time I was 18 years old. He never said something was out of my reach or understanding. He trusted me with responsibility, pushed me in new directions, and believed that I had something worth contributing to this world. He was the kind of boss, the kind of librarian, the kind of person, I wanted to be.
Simply put: I wouldn’t be a librarian today without Richard. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him.
I wish I’d told him that. I hope he knew that.
Richard left the world this past Sunday and now it’s a much duller and more pedestrian place. We are poorer because we lost Richard Azar. I am poorer.
On Monday when I heard the news I left the service desk and called my parents. Talking to my mom about it, I couldn’t stop the tears. “There’s only one thing you can do for Richard now,” she told me, her voice soft. “Wipe your eyes and go out there and be the best librarian you can be.”
That’s just what I’m gonna do.
Find the answers in life, youngling – that’s what Richard would say to me, what he always said. So I’m going to do that too.
And I’m gonna have my sterling silver ice cream fork alongside for it.
(If you have someone in your life like Richard, I suggest you take this very moment to tell them thank you for all they’ve done for you. I wish I had when I had the chance. And if you want to read more about Richard, another tribute from a former employee, check out this memorial written by Thayla Wright, another one of my former mentors, and the current director of the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library, which will always be my first library home.)