Saturday, October 4, 2014

Where are my Hall of Fame Friends? Where is Mildred Laughlin?

I want to tell you a story of a woman who inspired me, pushed me, supported me, encouraged me to become the educator I am. I want to tell you of the shameful treatment her memory has suffered at the hands of the OSDE.

I first met Mildred Laughlin in Iowa City, when my husband was teaching at University of Iowa, in the same department as Mildred: Library Science. Bob was the information science guy, Mildred was the children’s literature and library services expert.

She had taught in Oklahoma, at Kennedy Elementary in Norman, for one, before she moved to Iowa. In Iowa City, she was homesick. I’m sure the brutal winters (and we had some horrible ones during that time! One night was minus 75 degrees, windchill) were part of the reason she decided to come home to Oklahoma, and to OU. She encouraged Bob to consider OU, and as it turned out, we all moved to Norman together, in 1979. For her, it was a homecoming. The return of a library legend. She was enfolded into the school library community with open arms. For me, it was a joy to see how beloved she was.

She helped me get my first job in Oklahoma: afternoon librarian at Eisenhower Elementary. After five years of teaching, in two states, this was the first time I would teach in the same university town I called home. A real luxury! My new principal was Judi Ford Barber, a legend in the making. My colleague, Bob Kidd was also destined for greatness. They would join Mildred in the Hall of Fame.

I watched Mildred build the children’s  library program at OU…I was there at the beginning of her amazing Festival of Books, where she invited world-renowned children’s authors to come and visit. She made sure I met these authors, sat beside them at dinner, hosted their visits. She made sure I left with autographed copies of their books. This was magic. The Festival grew and grew. I remember one year I saw Kyle Dahlem (another Hall of Fame eductor!) attending, after her service for OEA. I was reminded she, too, was a school librarian. I’ve decided all the best people are!

Mildred got a contract for a series of books about using children’s literature in classroom instruction. She told me she couldn’t possibly do this project without me. We both knew she could! She asked me to write the introduction to our book, and I did. It was beyond bad, but Mildred never said a word. She submitted our book, and the editor ripped my introduction. Mildred and I talked, we planned, and I rewrote. What a powerful teacher she was…letting me stumble and fall, supporting my efforts. I never forgot that.

Her beloved husband, Bill, died. She asked Bob to be a pallbearer. I remember at the service at the cemetery, she held Bob’s hand.

She told a story on herself about visiting the cemetery, going to Bill’s grave and talking to him, visiting. Telling him what she was doing, and how much she loved him. Once his headstone had been place at his gravesite, she discovered she’d been talking to the wrong grave, a stranger, not Bill. She laughed about her mistake, and hoped the stranger didn’t mind her talking to him.

On her retirement, we were all invited to a huge luncheon. Teacher after teacher, librarian after librarian, stood and told Mildred and the rest of us what she meant to us. How she inspired us. Why we loved her.  You’ve heard ‘not a dry eye…’ Well, there wasn’t. Mildred was a towering figure of professionalism, encouragement, dedication.

Forty six years she committed herself to education. From Kennedy, where her favorite story was about a child who ran up to her in the library, in the middle of his research project to exclaim, “Aren’t bibliographies FUN?” Through her detour to Iowa, to her coming home to Oklahoma. She changed the face of children’s librarianship. Her generosity gave so many of us opportunities to be published, to grow as professionals.

Her legacy includes educators who still echo her words: “Don’t worry about a lost book. It’s in the hands of a child.” Librarians all over the state, and the nation, think about the lessons she taught them as they work with young readers. We all ask ourselves, “Would Mildred be proud?”

Mildred fought a life-long battle with cancer. She saw her daughters grown; she met grandchildren. Finally, though, cancer was too much. When she returned to her home for that last time, we tried to find ways to help, to remind her of how much she meant to us. Friends created a visiting schedule…we’d bring dinner, sit and talk, have a good time together, and remind Mildred how much we loved her, how important she was to us.  Until the very end she was hopeful, and she buoyed our spirits. Until the very end.

I tell you the story of my friend to tell you she is enshrined in the Oklahoma Educators Hall of Fame. She deserves to be there…she got there before my friends, Judi Ford Barber, and Bob Kidd and Kyle Dahlem. Her portrait was hung in the long hallway to the State School Board Room. One of many legends in our field.

When I walked down that hall, her portrait always stopped me…her face hovering like a halo out of the black background and her dark blouse…she seems to glow with that internal light we all knew…I would stop myself every time from actually touching her face, her cheek. Instead I would pat the frame of her portrait and tell her I loved her. That I was still fighting for kids and books. That I hoped she was proud of me.

I would also greet other friends: Judi, Bob, Kyle, Nancy O’Brian, John Clinton (my son’s orchestra teacher), Freda Deskin (a new friend), Sandy Garrett (she gave me my first National Board check), Fred Wood (we worked on several projects together). I made eye-contact with them all, and rededicated myself to follow their lead. The walk down that hall, under the gaze of those giants in education was inspiring and humbling. Everyone who passed them was reminded to do good work for the children of our state, to reach higher and work harder.

Now those portraits are gone from that hallway. The overwhelming symbolism of these leaders, guardians of education, is gone. Now the hallway is bare.

Supposedly, a new exhibit will be installed: Student art work.  My friends’ and heroes’ portraits have been summarily moved to another part of the building. Now, as the School Board walks to their meetings, they will no longer have to look my friends and colleagues in the eye and promise to do what’s right for our children.

The symbolism of children’s art in the hallway is also ironic. As the OSDE has presided over the dismantling of choice and electives and art and music and social studies and recess, all in the pursuit of test scores, do they not see the cynicism of their choice to celebrate art? Celebrate art by putting it back into our schools.  

I can’t help but wonder if our current administration just felt intimidated by having to face the very best educators in our state every time they walked down that hallway. 

Why NOW, with months left in their failed administration? Why NOW?

I fully expect the new Superintendent of Schools to restore the Hall of Fame to its rightful place, as sentinels to the work done for our kids.

Shame on them.  


  1. Lovely reminder of how much Dr. Laughlin influenced school libraries by teaching so many of us.

    1. She means so much to so many of us. Every member of the EHOF does. This is just wrong. I need to see her face, her smile when I walk back to that room.