DirLead, days 3 & 4

Day 3 of the DirLead meeting was filled with more great experiences. Cheryl Gould led us through activities in change resilience and conflict resolution.  Four of us had a memorable walk in the woods at the end of the day, followed by an outstanding dinner at the Double Musky.

Change is endemic in organizations. Technology and society change continuously, and libraries must embrace continuous internal improvement to serve our evolving communities. At Ketchikan Public Library, we are in the middle of a strategic planning process to assess community needs and plan for changes in the next 3-5 years. But, in an organization that requires the use of complex systems, policies and procedures in order to function, and with limited funding and personnel, how does a director reduce staff stress and encourage experimentation?

Being clear about the library’s mission and avoiding mission creep, helps. A library is a service organization, and most people who work in libraries are extraordinarily service-oriented. “How can I help?” is what we all say each day, every day. This is a great thing, as long as each staff person keeps the mission in mind.

What is that mission? To empower people to find and use informational and recreational resources within and outside the library, and to experience new ideas, cultures and activities through programs and events. The empowering part of it is most challenging, since in a consumer economy people’s expectation is often that a library will provide things for the asking.  But what libraries provide is not things, but power—power to learn, power to experience, power to grow.

In the afternoon, we explored conflict resolution with an exercise in perception. Two people stand in the same place, but back to back, and see completely different things. Neither is wrong. When two people disagree about a policy or project, both perspectives are important and valuable in resolving the conflict. There are times when this is not easy, and directors need to overcome their own fear and emotion to set an appropriate example for the people around them.

During a break a group of us explored the possibility of working together with Anchorage Public Library on a project to serve small businesses in our communities. We agreed that reaching out to local businesses to ask what kind of help they could use would be a good first step.

The lobby, looking up!

Day 4 was the final day of the meeting, ending with another excellent lunch by Alyeska. That morning we went around the table to talk about each library’s accomplishments and challenges over the past year. It was impressive!

Afterwards we broke up into interest groups. I was with a group interested in exploring the digitization of local Alaska newspapers. Most of us keep local newspapers in microfilm, but microfilm readers are difficult to repair and maintain, and expensive to replace. There are many challenges to digitization—most notably copyright and the cost and staff time needed—but not digitizing is creating its own challenges. State Librarian Patience Frederiksen is leading us on a committee to explore this further.

Fairbanks Public Library Director Melissa Harter drove several of us back to Anchorage that afternoon (thank you, Melissa!). An uneventful flight back to Ketchikan the next morning ended my first DirLead meeting experience. It was a privilege to meet such an extraordinary group of colleagues, and I look forward to our next meeting at the Alaska Library Association Conference in March 2018!

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DirLead, day 2

DirLead is a group of directors of the twenty largest public libraries in Alaska. There is a DirLead listserv to exchange information and ask/give advice among members, a meeting at the annual Alaska Library Association (AkLA) Conference in late winter, and this annual meeting at Alyeska.

Yesterday was the first full day of our leadership workshop, led by librarian Cheryl Gould. We learned about styles of leadership and ways to more effectively communicate with our staff, governing bodies, patrons and community.  Cheryl conducted the training with humor and verve. The most memorable part of the day for me was the improvisation activities in the afternoon.

I am not good at improvising. When I give a presentation I almost always have a carefully crafted script, honed over a few weeks and practiced over and over again. I give a lively and passionate presentation, but I need the script.

So the improvisation activities Cheryl gave us took me way out of my comfort zone.  Making loud, funny noises—having to make up loud funny noises, in fact—was a little nerve-racking, and my mind got in the way. It was not easy to let go, and in fact I did not let go, not really. But it was interesting to go through the exercises, and to think about how letting go was a good thing not only for improv, but in working in an organization.

“Let go and let God,” resonates with me. I am normally very self-contained. In fact, Marvyn, a friend of mine in college, once told me that the thing he liked best about me was that I was so controlled. “Really?” I thought. “That does not sound at all attractive.” Although I am not a religious person, the idea of letting go and letting things settle themselves—or trusting other people to get things done—has the charm of novelty.

Today the workshop continues with sections on managing change, conflict and accountability. The group of us will at the same time be getting to know and trust each other. Looking forward to another interesting, exhausting day!

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DirLead, day 1

Yesterday I voted at Fawn Mountain School—my first election in Ketchikan—and then headed to the airport. I was waiting for the airport ferry when a woman with a kind face said to me, “Are you the new library director?” “Yes,” I said and she said her name was Tina. We had a lovely conversation while we waited. On the ferry I ran into Evelyn—we were both going to Anchorage for meetings. At the airport there was a line of people with fish boxes at the counter—I waited my turn and then went through security. It was only a few minutes before they called the flight, and we quickly boarded. It was the milk run, so we stopped at Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau before landing in Anchorage. Until we got to Juneau the plane had a lot of empty seats and it was roomy and comfortable (aside from a very unhappy toddler from Ketchikan to Wrangell).  The Juneau to Anchorage flight was full but brief, and we landed a little earlier than scheduled.

In Anchorage I got my bag and then met Melissa and Christie outside the terminal. Melissa rented a van for the trip to Girdwood, about an hour away. What a beautiful drive! The mountains were impressive—yellow with fall leaves near the bottom, and snow on top. The Alyeska Resort is impressive as well, nestled into the mountains and all dark wood inside.  We checked in and a few hours later had a congenial dinner at the Aurora Bar and Grill, all 17 of us Alaska public library directors. We got acquainted talking about local elections and politics, and library issues (of course!).

Then to bed, and up again this morning for a day of leadership training. It begins!

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Hurricane Marilyn

Twenty-two years ago this week, I was living in St. Thomas, working at the Ralph M. Paiewonsky Library at the University of the Virgin Islands.  For the 2 ½ years that I’d lived on the island, I’d heard horror stories about Hurricane Hugo, which hit the Virgin Islands in 1989, devastating the island of St. Croix.  I’d read first-hand accounts of survivors in the book, Hell Under God’s Orders.  “Thankfully,” people told me, “We are not on the usual path of hurricanes. Before Hugo, we hadn’t had a direct hit since 1928. You missed the big one.”

I had a supply of bottled water and nonperishable food, just in case, and considered myself lucky to have escaped Hugo.  But in 1995 Hurricane Iris came close enough to knock out power for a while, and Hurricane Luis, a Category 4 storm with a well-defined eye and the symmetrical shape of a buzz-saw, moved across the Atlantic toward the northern Leeward Islands for several days, before shifting just enough north to miss St. Thomas.  Everyone was preparing for Luis, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when it went north. Many people sent their disaster supplies to St. Maarten, which was heavily damaged by the hurricane.

Before the storm

The next week at a University faculty meeting, the usual subjects were discussed.  Just before the meeting adjourned, someone said that there was a small Category 1 storm, Marilyn, which was heading north—how would the University let everyone know if classes were affected by it?  An administrator was reassuring, saying that any change in the University’s schedule would be announced on local radio stations.  But no one was very worried—the big one, Luis, had missed us.

The morning of September 15, we went to work, hurriedly covered desks, stacks and equipment, then went home to ride out the storm.

About 1pm, the V.I. Water and Power Authority (WAPA) shut off the power as a precaution—if a storm did hit it was safer not to have live wires on the ground.  I put tape on my windows and plastic on the furniture, moving as many items as possible to an interior room with no outside windows. My landlord and his family moved from the top floor to a vacant apartment below mine.  They invited me to stay with them for the duration, but I decided it would be better to stay with my stuff.  I had a Coleman lantern, a battery-operated radio, a flashlight, and a book of Sherlock Holmes stories to read.  I also had a hurricane tracking chart that the Virgin Islands Daily News had printed a month before.

All through the afternoon and evening, the winds first gusted and then settled down to a steady roar.  Every three hours, the local radio station would announce the coordinates of the storm’s eye—I put a corresponding dot on the tracking map, with the date and time.

The radio station was taking calls from people and answering what questions they could.  A woman called and said that her phone was only working intermittently—if her house started to crumble and there was no phone, how could she let emergency services know to come and help her? The answer was stark. “Understand,” they said, “No one can go out in this. If your house starts to crumble, get into a closet or bathtub with cushions around you and accept that you will be there for several hours.”  “I’ve heard enough,” I thought, and switched off the radio.

Around 11pm, I heard loud banging on the floor above.  It sounded like something heavy was rolling, and I remember thinking that the picture windows must have blown out.  If the ceiling was going to cave in, the bed frame might provide some protection. I got under the bed and drew the mattress down at an angle to shelter me from that side.  Water was coming down from the ceiling.

I don’t remember what I felt when the eye of the storm passed over the island—I was so drawn within myself that it was hard to realize what I was hearing or not hearing.  I finally fell asleep about 2am.  I woke up several hours later, went into the living room, and looked out the window at a beautiful blue sky and a ruined landscape.

My red car is just in front of the door to my apartment.

“Worse than Hugo,” my landlady Dolores said. My outside door had swelled shut and I was temporarily stuck in the apartment. My apartment had one window blown out (sucked outward, it looked like; there were just a few shards of glass inside), an inch or so of water on the floor, and thousands of tiny leaf pieces stuck to the walls.  But upstairs the roof had gone, and all the interior walls and furniture had been blown against one outside wall.  My landlord and his family had lost everything.

It was a long, arduous recovery.  Homeowners up and down Estate Sorgenfri got together the first day with chain saws to cut away all the telephone poles and trees that had fallen across the road, and by afternoon cars were able to get to the main road to town.  A policeman walked down to ask if anyone had been hurt; my landlord asked him what things were like in town. “Very bad,” he said.  Ron and Dolores were wonderful. For example, one night shortly after the storm Ron knocked on my door about 2am. “My mobile phone has got a signal—if you stand at the road you should be able to call your folks to let them know you are OK.” So I did—calling my father who then passed word on to the rest of the family.

It was three months and three days before the house was mostly repaired and electricity restored, many months after that before we had phone service, and cable TV had still not been restored when I left the islands 18 months later.

Hurricane Irma hit St. Thomas last week–a far more powerful storm than Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. The people of the Virgin Islands are strong and resilient, and will recover from this as they did from Marilyn, Hugo and earlier storms.

Virgin Islands Strong!

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Bill Von Rissen

Family history

William “Bill” Von Rissen, our paternal grandmother’s uncle, is the subject of much family lore.  He was born in Cincinnati on the 21st of February, 1888, and as a young man was a clerk and a teamster (that is, he drove a team of horses).  In 1912 he married Lillian Pruitt.  They adopted a son and named him William Von Rissen, Jr.

The movement to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages began in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to solve the problem of alcoholism in the home and workplace.  The Prohibitionists were finally successful nationwide in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale of alcohol except for medical and industrial uses.  In the succeeding 13 years, until the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, many people got rich making bathtub gin and smuggling liquor in from Canada and elsewhere, to satisfy the nation’s craving for alcohol.  They were called ‘bootleggers’, purportedly because illicit liquor was sometimes hidden inside the seller’s boots.

Uncle Bill Von Rissen was a bootlegger during Prohibition, and well known on the west side of Cincinnati.  We did not realize how well known he was until about twenty years ago. Grandpa Tully and our Aunt Jane had taken Grandma Tully to the hospital for an outpatient procedure. While they were in the waiting room they talked about a book they had both read about George Remus, a notorious Cincinnati bootlegger.  But they couldn’t remember his name.  “I know it begins with R,” one of them said. An elderly man who was also in the waiting room said, “Are you talking about old Bill Von Rissen?” No, no, Aunt Jane said, looking around to see if Grandma had walked in—Grandma was a little sensitive about the source of Uncle Bill’s money.

One day Grandma had opened up about him—just a little. She said that when she was a little girl, Uncle Bill would store bootleg liquor in the basement of his house on Grand Avenue. Uncle Bill would smuggle it in from Canada, using a Star automobile with a false floor under which the booze would be hidden.  “Help your Uncle Bill bring in the pop,” her parents would say, and they would all lug the cases downstairs.

Surprisingly, there is very little mention of Uncle Bill in the newspapers—so evidently he was successful! There was a series of articles about his wife Lillian and their son, William Von Rissen, Jr.  In May 1931, Lillie was arrested for possessing whiskey—79 pints of it, “said to be the best liquor seized by police in years,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.  But the charge was dismissed in June when it was discovered that the affidavit authorizing the raid on the Von Rissen home had not been signed.

The day after the dismissal, Bill and Lillie’s son William was arrested by Federal prohibition agents on a charge of possessing and transporting liquor. William was doing so, however, at the behest of Judge George Tebbs, who had directed him to take the liquor seized from his mother’s home to a Cincinnati hospital. According to a June 27, 1931 Enquirer article, “Federal agents had been “urged on” to make the seizure of the liquor from the young man by police who were “sore” because the case against the mother had been thrown out of Court by Judge Tebbs due to a defect in the affidavit.” The case against William, Jr. was subsequently dismissed.

Lillie Von Rissen passed away in 1938, and Bill Von Rissen passed away in 1958.  Their son William lived until 1991, and we remember him for his lakeside property in Delhi.

1926 Star Scorpio, by DeFacto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Irene Von Rissen

Family historyIrene Von Rissen is our first cousin, twice removed—our paternal grandmother’s first cousin on her father’s side.  She was born in 1897, in Cincinnati, to John and Rose Von Rissen.  She worked as a bookkeeper, an inspector (of what we do not know), a beauty shop operator and a clerk, and died at the age of 86 in 1984.

Why write about Irene?  Irene was married in February 1916 to 35-year-old William Collins, a railroad engineer.  They separated in April and divorced in July.  The July 21, 1916 Cincinnati Post article about the divorce is worth posting in full:

‘Most Liberal’ Husband Wins Divorce Decree

Wm. F. Collins, 35, of 1409 Pleasant-st., was referred to as the most generous husband who had ever appeared in the Court of Domestic Relations Friday.

Collins testified in the divorce suit brought against Mrs. Irene Von Rissen Collins, 18, of 1505 Linn-st., that he married on Feb. 25. He said that on Feb. 23 he gave his bride a check for $50 for wedding clothes and on Feb. 24 $150 for a wedding cloak, another check for $840, one for $75 for more wedding clothes and a check for $205 for wedding and engagement rings.

Gives Blank Check

He further testified that on Feb. 28 his wife asked him for $10 and he presented her with a signed blank check, which she filled in for $50.

On March 9, he said, he gave his wife a check for $4500, which she asked him to put in another bank on a time deposit.

He said his wife packed up her clothes and left him April 4, leaving a note.

Collins said his wife remained away from home until 1 or 2 a. m., stating she was taking music lessons.

Collins testified that on the day his wife left she sent a moving wagon around to his home and carried off the pianola he purchased her as a wedding gift.

Note Refers to Piano

Mrs. Collins refers to a pianola in her farewell note. It reads as follows:

“Do not try to find me, as it will be useless, as I have gone for good. Please pay Aunt Lillie, as I need the check. I took only what belonged to me. Do not say one word to Aunt L. or Uncle W., [Lillie and William Von Rissen—more on them in a future post.—P.T.] as they haven’t anything to do whatever with this. I am leaving on my own accord. I cannot live with you any longer. I am taking the piano, as it is mine. It was given me before I was married.”  “IRENE.”

When summoned to court Mrs. Collins appeared with an eye blackened and one shoulder and an arm in splints, injuries she sustained in a motorcycle accident Sunday.

She told the Judge she spent $2500 of her husband’s savings in “buying clothes and having a good time.”

Collins was granted a divorce on the ground of neglect.


According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, in 1915 (a year before Irene and William’s marriage):

  • Men made an average of $687 a year (women about half that).
  • The average house cost $3,200.
  • A new car cost $2,000.
  • A loaf of bread cost 7 cents.
  • Women’s shoes cost $7-$10.


Irene went back to her maiden name, and lived with her mother Rose (her father John died in 1917 at the age of 42) on Linn St. until she married Paul Devanney, a plumber, in the early 1940s.  The only subsequent newspaper mentions of Irene are society notices when she visited relatives in Clarksburg, Indiana, and her obituary in 1984.

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The Death of George Theetge

Family historyThe first three stories in this series were about our mother’s ancestors.  But our father’s ancestors had more of a reputation for lawlessness.

Family lore is that our paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Percy Theetge, killed a man in the early 1900s, then fled to Kentucky for many years, returning to Cincinnati in poor health. His wife Mae had remarried after declaring Percy dead years before, but took him in when he returned.  Dad remembers his great-grandfather Percy living in a room in Mae’s house.

So naturally I started searching for information about Percy Theetge.  There were a few articles about him in the 1920s, concerning car theft and an attempted robbery.  And Percy did disappear for a while in the early 1900s—Mae listed herself in the 1910 U. S. Census as a widow. But there was nothing about Percy being involved in anything as serious as a murder.

But there was murder in the Theetge family.  In late October 1893, Percy’s father George was gunned down by his neighbor after a long-running feud between the two.  The Cincinnati Enquirer reported the murder in great detail and with little sympathy for the victim.

George Theetge

George William Theetge was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in 1845 to William and Eve Theetge.  William and Eve had at least seven children who survived to adulthood. George was the oldest son and became a carpenter like his father.  In 1864 George married Sarah Elizabeth Hoffman and they eventually had eight children, Percy being the second youngest. They moved several times between western Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and Petersburg, Kentucky.

Holding Grudges

George Theetge had a history of holding grudges, and from time to time this led to violence.  In July 1879 a simmering feud between George Theetge and Andy Leonard, both workers in a Petersburg, Kentucky distillery, led to a near-fatal fight.  The previous year in another altercation between them, Theetge had wielded a knife so savagely that the blade had stuck an inch into a wooden board that Leonard had held in front of him as a shield. The fight was broken up, but the hatred remained.

In the 1879 incident, reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Theetge and Leonard ran into each other on a Petersburg street. John Feely, a local teamster, stepped between them to break up the fight. In fury, Theetge stabbed at Feely, striking him in the arm and abdomen.  Feely was dangerously wounded, and it was feared he would die.  Theetge was forcibly taken to his home but left after a few minutes, taking with him a knife and pistol.  He found Leonard, who had armed himself with piece of lumber four feet long, four inches wide and two inches thick. Before Theetge could fire, Leonard struck him in the head with the two-by-four several times, until, according to the Enquirer, “Theetge’s head resembled a piece of pounded beef more than the head of a human being.” It was assumed that Theetge would die. Leonard was quickly charged with assault, but just as quickly acquitted.

Theetge, in the meantime, miraculously recovered from his injuries, and was arrested for the attack on Feely.  However, although Feely was expected to die, he was recorded as living with his wife and children in the census of 1880.  There is no record of George Theetge ever being convicted of the attack on John Feely.

The 1879 fight was one of a series of violent incidents involving Theetge, which culminated in his death in 1893.

“Deadly Was the Awful Combat”

From the Cincinnati Enquirer, October 31, 1893.

In 1893 George Theetge and his family were living at Cullom’s Station, in the Riverdale section of Cincinnati near the Indiana border. One of their neighbors was William Zurweller.  Theetge and Zurweller had previously worked together at a local rolling mill, and there was bad blood between them.

On October 30, George Theetge passed Zurweller’s house on his way home.  He threatened Zurweller’s children, saying that he would kill them and their father too.  The children went inside and told their father, and Zurweller got his revolver and went out to confront Theetge.  Theetge also had a gun which he tried to fire.  But when the gun jammed, he used it as a club and repeatedly struck Zurweller in the head with it.  Zurweller responded by firing six bullets into Theetge at point-blank range.  They continued to grapple with each other until Theetge fainted from loss of blood.  Zurweller returned to his home, and Theetge died on the street before several onlookers. He left his wife Sarah and eight children.

The Enquirer noted that Theetge had gotten into several ‘scrapes’ at his previous home in Petersburg, attacking Doc Tully (no relation that we know of) with an axe and in return being shot in the arm, and in a separate incident shooting at one of his own sons with a double-barrelled shotgun. After that incident, he was forced to leave Petersburg and moved to Cullom’s Station, just eight months before his death.

Wearing the Burial Suit

William Zurweller turned himself in almost immediately, and was tried and acquitted in George Theetge’s death.  Sarah and the younger children were left destitute, so much so that a friend of the family, Tom Conway, gave them a suit of clothes in which to bury George.  In a final sordid twist, a few weeks later Conway saw John Theetge, one of George’s sons, wearing the suit.  According to the Enquirer, “[t]he matter has aroused the bitterest feelings down in Riverside and there is inciting talk heard. If the son is given a coat of tar and feathers it will be no surprise to the denizens of that part of the city.”

The Evil That Men Do …

The coverage by the Cincinnati Enquirer was extensive and very much in the ‘yellow journalism’ style of the era.  It is all very entertaining to read over a century later, when all who were directly affected are long dead. But it is sobering to think of the family life of Sarah and the children, with a husband and father who was so filled with rage and hatred.

George died at the age of 48, and given his history it is amazing he lived as long as he did. Most of his children were grown or nearly grown when he died.  For good and for ill, his legacy lived on in them and their descendants.  Percy and his younger brother Albert got into several scrapes of their own, including car theft and attempted robbery.  But they are not recorded as having committed the kinds of violent acts their father perpetrated. So while certain habits persist through generations, families do evolve over time—and it is hoped for the better.

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