I’ve always loved reading. When I was young, I found refuge in the library.
Everything about it was comforting and exciting ━ the stillness of the scene juxtaposed with the life brimming from the pages. I never knew what I’d discover just around the corner.
So, it’s only fitting that I met Mr. Oliver Gilmore at the Wharton library.
A few years ago, I was scanning the titles at Friends of the Library during my lunch break. The memory is hazy, but I overheard a conversation between an elderly gentleman and the volunteer.
When he left, the woman told me that despite his age, Mr. Gilmore was trying to learn how to read. I said, maybe I can help.
After graduating high school, I served as a literary intervention specialist for first grade students and though I was no expert, I remembered the strategies.
I gave the volunteer my number along with a note, asking Mr. Gilmore to call me. Sure enough, my phone rang the next day and we scheduled to meet later that week.
When the day came, I took a break from the newsroom and made my way to the library. I signed us up for a study room, which would become our haven twice a week for several months.
‘With the setting sun peaking through the window, Mr. Gilmore would tell me stories about his family and life, how he hid his illiteracy.’
Progress came slowly, but when he got the hang of it, Mr. Gilmore was off like a rocket.
It’s an apt metaphor for his reading skills. Mr. Gilmore loved astronomy, which challenged me; he was never interested in books on his reading level and I often struggled to get creative, adapting elementary reading techniques for a man in his 80’s ━ a sharp spitfire who was uninterested in Dr. Seuss and other books that help us make strong connections between sounds and words.
Mr. Gilmore didn’t need rhymes; he jumped in head-first. And I was in awe of his tenacious spirit.
Most hours we spent together were filled with conversation, the two of us sitting in that study room with books sprawled on the table in those late afternoons. With the setting sun peaking through the window, Mr. Gilmore would tell me stories about his family and life, how he hid his illiteracy.
With sorrow, he recounted similar stories with an overarching theme: he and his late wife would go to museums and she would read the placards to him. Mr. Gilmore always felt regret that he could never read anything himself, but cherished his wife’s help and the time they spent together.
Finally, one day, he decided, enough. Mr. Gilmore was going to learn how to do something that so many of us take for granted. Though he sometimes fumbled, he was determined to read.
‘So many new doors opened for Mr. Gilmore at 86 years old, and I was honored to simply show him the keys.’
I saw that there in the study rooms. It was palpable ━ the excitement and the frustration, the joy and the exasperation.
There was such gratitude between the two of us. He allowed me to be there, walking with him on such a vulnerable and exciting journey of discovery. So many new doors opened for Mr. Gilmore at 86 years old and I was honored to simply show him the keys.
But our paths would diverge in 2015, when I moved to Denver for my own adventure.
I still remember the last time we met ━ the joy in Mr. Gilmore’s eyes when I handed him a DVD boxset of “Cosmos.” I joked, “Make sure you turn on the subtitles and read along!”
When he laughed, the room felt lighter.
With the help of his son Dean, who fully supported his father’s goal, Mr. Gilmore would write to me in Colorado. Though sometimes hard to distinguish, the letters always spelled out tenacity. Soon, I moved again and we lost touch.
When my husband and I relocated to help launch The County Gin, I knew I wanted to reconnect with Mr. Gilmore. One night a few weeks ago, I looked him up and made a mental note to call the next day. But the next day never came.
‘I can imagine Mr. Gilmore now in an elaborate library, covered top-to-bottom in books. I’ve always said, that would be my heaven, too.’
Yesterday, Jessica shared the news of Mr. Gilmore’s passing.
I got in touch with a family friend and asked him, “Do you know if he kept at it (reading)?” His response was, “(Mr. Gilmore) showed me his books with a big smile.”
Even though I can feel the tears well as I type this, I can’t help but smile, too; it’s a bittersweet grin, tinged with both pride and regret. But mostly, my heart fills with gratitude.
I can imagine Mr. Gilmore now in an elaborate library, covered top-to-bottom in books. I’ve always said, that would be my heaven, too.
And Jessica’s words ring out in my head after sharing his story ━ “What a wonderful thing to carry with you.”
It’s true. I’ll carry Mr. Gilmore’s memory with me; I won’t forget his excitement and tenacity, even when I fumble over life’s narrative.
Above all, when I pick up a book, I won’t forget the most beautiful lesson he taught me: never take the beauty of discovery for granted.
I hope you never do, too.