The Dictionary Project

Since 2006 First City Rotary has partnered with The Dictionary Project to give a dictionary to every third-grader in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The Dictionary Project is a non-profit based in Charleston, South Carolina, with a mission to help students become “good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” Many Rotary Clubs throughout the country participate in this program, including my former club in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here in Ketchikan, Rotarian Al Rockwood has coordinated the program for many years. His enthusiasm and passion for encouraging literacy are infectious. I accompanied Al and other Rotarians last spring to present books to third-graders at Houghtaling and Fawn Mountain schools. It was an amazing experience! The kids knew about the program and were excited to receive their own dictionary. We passed them out, explained briefly how they work, and asked the students to look up a few words. The dictionary has sections in the back with maps, a list of U.S. Presidents, the Constitution, and other interesting information; we showed them these. Finally we talked a bit about Rotary and the Club’s work in the community.

This week, dictionaries are being distributed to third-graders who are home-schooled, through the Fast Track and Pace programs. Next week we will begin delivering the dictionaries to local third grade classes. Many thanks to the teachers, school administrators and others who assist us with this project!

The Rotary Four-Way Test of the things we say and do, is on a book plate in each dictionary:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build good will and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

This philosophy of respect, good will and community engagement has been at the core of Rotary since it was founded in 1905 in Chicago. Now there are over 34,000 local Clubs world-wide. In addition to local community service projects, Rotary also supports international efforts such as the fight against polio, clean water initiatives and youth exchange projects that promote greater understanding between people in different countries.

By providing students with a tool that will help them as they learn to read, and then use that skill to further their education in all areas of life, The Dictionary Project helps children become literate, informed, engaged citizens.

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Library Confidential

From Alaska Statutes:

AS 40.25.140. Confidentiality of Library Records.

(a) Except as provided in (b) of this section, the names, addresses, or other personal identifying information of people who have used materials made available to the public by a library shall be kept confidential, except upon court order, and are not subject to inspection under AS 25.110 or 40.25.120. This section applies to libraries operated by the state, a municipality, or a public school, including the University of Alaska.

(b) Records of a public elementary or secondary school library identifying a minor child shall be made available on request to a parent or guardian of that child.

The right to free expression is one of our core values, as set forth in the first amendment to the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

An essential counterpart of freedom of expression is the freedom to hear, read, and experience what has been expressed. Libraries exist, in part, to provide access to books, music and video from a variety of perspectives, and representing many points of view. And through library programming, it is a place where free expression in a civil environment can flourish. All this makes it possible for citizens to learn about the issues facing our community, country and world, and make informed choices.

What about the Internet? Doesn’t it do the same thing, and much more comprehensively? It certainly provides access to an astonishingly large amount of information and perspectives. But the very size and complexity of the Internet is a barrier for many and for others, computer equipment and network access are unaffordable. Still others prefer reading print books, magazines and newspapers. Libraries level the playing field for all, allowing people to access information, recreational and artistic works in the format that works best for them.

Why are libraries committed to keeping users’ records confidential? Because users sometimes want or need to access material that is controversial or sensitive, or may be construed that way. If libraries did not guarantee confidentiality to our users, it would have a chilling effect on their accessing information that may be very important to them, but is also very personal.  Libraries exist to bring together people, ideas, information, and all kinds of cultural and artistic expression. Confidentiality provides a safe atmosphere in which to do so.

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Strategic plan update

The Ketchikan Public Library is preparing a five year strategic plan, with input from staff, patrons, the Library Advisory Board, Friends of the Ketchikan Public Library, University of Alaska-Southeast-Ketchikan, and City and Borough officials.  The purpose of the plan is to focus our efforts and resources to better serve the people of Ketchikan.  The work of library consultant Nina Malyshev has been invaluable in creating a plan that truly encompasses the changes affecting our community, state and country, and how the Library will respond to those changes.

Here’s how it all started: In August and September, the Library conducted a Community Survey. 599 people took the survey, and gave us many valuable suggestions about how the Library could be better. We compiled the results of this survey, and posted them on our Strategic Planning website:  A brochure with survey results summaries is available at the Library.

From October 24-26, the Library developed its strategic plan, based on results from the Community Survey, a more detailed Library Staff Survey, and input from a variety of constituencies. We were led by library consultant Nina Malyshev, a librarian with many years’ experience working in libraries and consulting with them. In fact, Nina led a strategic planning process for Ketchikan Public Library 10 years ago, when plans were underway for the new building.

The first evening, we had a public reception to announce the results of the community survey and to introduce consultant Nina, who described the strategic planning process. The next day, 18 engaged, enthusiastic people representing many constituencies came together for a day of discussion, brainstorming and prioritizing suggestions from the surveys and from the participants. We started by talking about issues affecting the country, the state and Ketchikan itself, and how the library might address those issues. We then reviewed the survey suggestions, and prioritized a list of general goals and specific objectives to meet those goals.

Thursday morning, the last day, a small group of us—Nina Malyshev, Rebecca Fama, Michelle Lampton and I—pulled together the work of the previous day into a draft plan. After some polishing, the document will go to the Library Advisory Board, and City Council and Borough Assembly.  Then we begin implementation in January, 2018.

This process has been a revelation! I knew this was an active, cohesive and creative community, but the enthusiasm of the Library staff and Friends, the often poetic expression of thoughts and feelings by participants during the day-long session, and the care taken to craft a clear, detailed, realizable yet aspirational strategic plan, impressed me profoundly.  Ketchikan is a uniquely vibrant place to be!

(So the lights went out about a half hour ago—a transformer blew in the area, according to KPU. I’m sitting here with my headlamp, finishing this post, when I hear what I think are gunshots.  Who would shoot a gun in the middle of a blackout?  Then I looked out the window. It wasn’t gunfire at all—it was fireworks!  All the more spectacular because they were not competing with any other lights.  Bravo!)

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Uncle Jack

Our mother’s Uncle Jack was a cut-up. During holiday get-togethers he would bring all of us kids (and there were lots of us) down to the basement, turn out the lights and tell us scary stories, bellowing and making us scream until his wife, Aunt Phil, would yell down the stairs, “Be quiet, Jack! You make more noise than the kids!” We loved it, and him.

Uncle Jack was born John Charles Ritter on November 2, 1913, the oldest child of Charlotte and John E. Ritter. He married Philomena Ferrara in January 1936. He joined the police force in the late 1930s, and spent most of his career with the vice squad. Uncle Jack handled a lot of interesting cases which were covered in the local Cincinnati newspapers.

The first newspaper mention of Uncle Jack was in 1939, when Patrolman John Ritter attempted to capture a prowler in his backyard on Milton Street. Unfortunately the man got away. During World War II, he worked vice, arresting suspects for indecent or disorderly conduct and illegal gambling—breaking up several marble and pinball games in cafes and drugstores. In 1941 he was hit in the nose by a suspect’s head when a bystander pushed the suspect into him, and was injured badly enough to require treatment by the police surgeon.

In 1942 Patrolman John Ritter and his partner easily captured three would-be robbers who were locked in the Wigwam Restaurant on Hamilton Avenue by employees and customers.

In 1943 Uncle Jack arrested a woman, Vilman Jackson, of West Eighth Street, for telling fortunes.  For $1, she told him that his wife would divorce him that year, he would be offered a good job, and he would receive a large sum of money. “She also said that a man and woman, who, she suggested, were the shades of Ritter’s parents, were visible to her. When Ritter told her that his parents were living, she declared the spirits those of his grandparents.” (The charge was telling fortunes for money.  Uncle Jack’s mother, our great-grandmother Ritter, told fortunes herself—reading tea leaves and cards for family and friends. But Grandma said the gift would desert her if she accepted money for it.)

In 1944 Uncle Jack was promoted to detective, and began working on a greater variety of cases. In October of that year he arrested a women for bigamy. She was accused of being married to four men, but admitted to only two husbands, “neither of whom were soldiers.”

Through the early 1950s there were few mentions of Uncle Jack in the paper. Then in 1954 there was this charming piece by Al Schottelkotte—older Cincinnatians remember him as a long-time news anchor at Channel 9:

“Searching for clues after the holdup at a loan company office in the Bell Block Thursday afternoon, Detective John Ritter found a pair of gloves on a desk. When employees said the gloves didn’t belong to them, investigators thought that the bandit must have left them behind. The clue exploded, however, when a lunkhead reporter by the name of Schottelkotte asked if anyone had seen his gloves.”

From the late 1950s on, Uncle Jack was involved in more high-profile cases. In 1960, he captured James Patrick, a bad check artist who had been operating in Dayton, Indianapolis and Louisville since his escape from an Alabama prison farm in 1952.  And later that year, Uncle Jack arrested two young men, Donald Anderson and James Wilson, accused of swindling a number of elderly women out of their life savings, in Cincinnati and Davenport, Iowa.

After 1963 there are no more mentions of Detective Jack Ritter, so he may have retired from the Cincinnati Police Department about then. For a while he worked as head of security for the First National Bank of Cincinnati. In the family, Uncle Jack and Aunt Phil are much beloved—Uncle Jack for his sense of fun and Aunt Phil for her kindness (when she couldn’t remember our names she called us ‘Honey’). Uncle Jack died in 1994, and his wife of 58 years, Aunt Phil, died in 2004.

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Green Street Teaching and Learning Center

After over a decade of providing educational and arts programs for children in the North End of Middletown, Connecticut, the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center is closing in 2018. Green Street has been an important part of the revitalization of Middletown’s downtown, and a vital link between Wesleyan University’s community of privilege and Middletown’s poor and working class families.  This link is mutually beneficial, providing Wesleyan students with invaluable hands-on experiences in developing programs and working directly with children, and children benefiting from the programs and from engaging with eager, creative undergraduates.

Green Street is also a way out of the ‘bubble’ that so often separates campus life from that of the community around it. When I worked at Wesleyan I thought this was due to where the campus was in Middletown—at the top of a steep hill from Main Street up to High Street. As many of us knew from walking down to have lunch at one of Middletown’s many restaurants and then having to walk back up again, the hill is a physical barrier between Wesleyan and the rest of Middletown.  Then, interviewing at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, I heard about the Willamette ‘bubble’. In Salem there is no physical barrier between Willamette’s campus and the city, and yet a similar sense of apartness exists there.

The tendency of a campus to focus inward is understandable—it has its mission and plenty of issues to deal with in accomplishing it. But every campus is rooted in a place—a community.  Both the campus and the community are enriched when they are actively engaged with one another. And an engaged university provides its students with powerful examples of volunteerism, social responsibility and the value of rootedness.


Johnson School on Green Street

In 2013 Sara MacSorley, Director of Green Street, contacted the Middlesex County Historical Society looking for pictures of the Johnson School, a long unused building which was renovated for Green Street.  I was on the Board of the Society and Sara gave me a tour of the building, enthusiastically describing their programs and plans for the future of the Center.  There were families everywhere, and classes taking place upstairs. It was a magical place.  Sara went on the publish Super Cool Scientists, a coloring book that celebrates women in science, and developed a number of innovative programs for Middletown’s children and families.

About a year ago I left Middletown to start a new job and a new life in Ketchikan, Alaska, and only recently heard about the plan to close Green Street. The news was dismaying—Green Street is locally well-known, and a physical manifestation of Wesleyan’s commitment to engaging with the community. The work of the Center, providing educational enrichment and support to children in the North End, remains important—the need will not end with the closing of Green Street. I hope that Wesleyan will find a way to continue to support the work it began at the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center.

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Thoreau Turns 200, or, Off the Grid, Day 2

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this past July 12. Thoreau was one of my earliest literary loves.  When I was 18, in 1977, I went to the Militant Bookstore near the campus of the University of Cincinnati and bought a used copy of Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings. (At the time I thought the bookstore’s name was funny—if you were really militant, you would not advertise the fact! Now I think it was a cynical attempt to attract mainstream folks—like me—who wanted to walk on the wild side a little.) I still have the book.

I devoured Thoreau’s writings, but was particularly drawn to Walden and his essay Life Without Principle. That first year I gave copies of Walden to family and friends that Christmas—they were gracious but amused by the gift.

A few years later I left home and moved to New England, and Walden Pond was one of my first stops. I remember stopping at a Howard Johnson’s for breakfast and being self-conscious about my lack of a New England accent. Afterwards I went to Walden. It was a beautiful spring day, and there were a few kids at the boat house. I walked around the pond, and as a train went by nearby I remembered Thoreau’s ode to trains:

“Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.”

We have not gotten off that technology train since.

Speaking of which, as of this writing, I am still without Internet and cable TV at home. I am waiting for a call from the company to hear when they can send a technician.  Being without TV is not so bad; with my long-neglected DVD/VHS player I can make do. But no Internet (not even on my phone) is tough.

After visiting Walden Pond, I drove to Cape Cod, sold the car and got an apartment and a job in Hyannis. My intention was to work just enough to live frugally, spending the rest of my time reading and writing. I had no TV or telephone (I kept in touch with family with a weekly call from a pay phone).  I lived that way for a few years, scaring my parents: “You’re all alone there, with no TV? You’re not getting involved with one of those cults, are you?” I was not.  I am not naturally a joiner of groups, and cult life did not appeal to me. I was a regular at the public library, which was just down the street from the motel where I worked, and I bought books when I could afford them. I read a lot, but the writing did not come easy.

Then I broke up with a boyfriend and, to forget him, took classes at Cape Cod Community College.  I told myself I could quit anytime, but I didn’t. I went on to get my associate’s degree in the liberal arts, and proceeded from there.

Looking back, going to school was kind of a giving up.  I gave up the belief that I could live a Spartan, solitary life, devoting most of my time to learning and creating on my own. I gave up being off the grid.

But what I gained! I learned that I could be accomplished in school and in my career. I learned to love being a part of a community—of students, of colleagues, and ultimately of neighbors and friends.  Being on the grid has made my life immeasurably richer.

And, this evening I am on the technological grid again! Internet and cable restored, and all’s right with my world.

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Off the grid

Yesterday there were a dozen or so participants in the #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) kickoff party at the Library—the large meeting room was busy, but quiet!  Michelle Lampton, who brought NaNoWriMo to Ketchikan, has done a wonderful job organizing and publicizing a month’s worth of activities and writing resources.

I promised Michelle that I would blog my way through the month as a NaNo Rebel—writing an essay a day instead of the Great American Novel. (If a Great American Novel is in me, it has not revealed itself.) I got home from work yesterday, filled with enthusiasm and raring to do research for my Nov. 2 post. I was also excited to watch Game 7 of the World Series, having developed a collective crush on the Houston Astros.

Alas, none of this was to be. At home there was no Internet and no cable TV, so no World Series and no online research.  I called KPU, my internet provider, and they said that a neighbor in the same building called in earlier—the whole four-plex was out.  A KPU technician will be out tomorrow (that is, Thursday) morning.

What to do in the meantime? I organized a few dozen newspaper clippings about a family member, for a future post (Uncle Jack deserves a well-thought-out piece and that will take some time), and then searched my DVD collection for something to watch.  I selected Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson, from the early 1990s.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple has been played by many actresses, each very different from the others and most quite different from the character as Christie wrote her. Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple was a stout-hearted, sturdy English spinster, with a wonderfully wooly but supportive man as her Watson. Rutherford was not particularly true to Christie’s Marple. But she was great fun to watch, an English force of nature who carried all before her.

Helen Hayes also played Miss Marple, a little too knowingly, I felt. Hayes’ Miss Marple would not have been content to live in St. Mary Mead—she would have moved to London as a young woman and had a long, clandestine career in government.

Joan Hickson is a perfect Miss Marple. She is just doddering enough to be a believable as an elderly lady in a small English village. Her muttering to herself and seeming uncertainty through most of the story is absolutely perfect, as is the sudden shift when, at the end, she identifies the murderer. We sense, then, the steel trap beneath, just as it snaps shut. I don’t know that Hickson is quite Christie’s Miss Marple, but she is a unique and memorable version of the original.

(Apropos of nothing, Joan Hickson had a small role in the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film, Murder She Said, in 1961. It took me a minute to recognize who she was, and then I was thoroughly delighted!)

I am keeping my fingers crossed that I’m back on the grid this evening.  More tomorrow!


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