Once upon a time there was a city of steel and glass, nestled into the crook of three rivers, that was known for its commitment to song and story. One fateful day in June, the city lost its master storyteller, a woman of wit, skill, and passion, described by one of her students as “a cross between Katharine Hepburn and an extremely forceful tornado.”
Or, as the scribes did tell it:
Dr. Margaret Mary Kimmel died on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, after a brief illness. Her impact on Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as well as on the profession as a whole can hardly be overestimated. During her tenure at the School of Library and Information Services at the University of Pittsburgh, where she served as Chair for nine years, she taught, advised and mentored numerous current and past CLP staff members.
Active in the Association for Library Services to Children, she was both a past president and a recipient of the ALSC Distinguished Service Award. Locally, Dr. Kimmel was one of the founding members of Beginning with Books and also served as an advisor to her good friend Fred Rogers.
Dr. Kimmel’s active service to the Library took place between 1994 and 2001, when she served on the Board of Trustees. As a tribute to her contributions and to create a lasting legacy in her honor, a scholarship was funded in her name in 1995 by a Life Trustee of the CLP board.
This scholarship is available to employees of the Library and ensures that her impact will continue well into the future. Over the years dozens of CLP staff have been able to meet Dr. Kimmel during the scholarship application process with 19 being chosen as scholarship recipients thus far*.
Her loss was keenly felt by the other members of her guild, many of whom had learned their art directly from her, and they were sorrowful. But they were joyful, too, for the sake of the gifts in her teachings and example. And therefore, they determined, they would assemble their memories of the learned storyteller on pieces of invisible paper, and fashion them into a vessel of air that could travel the known worlds with news of her passing, and her legacy.
Some spoke of her capacity for kindness and compassion:
I first met Maggie Kimmel not long after I’d been hired at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, some 23 years ago. It was something of a tumultuous time for me — a new city, a new job at a large organization, accompanied by a somewhat chilly reception from a number of quarters.
Those were different times and this was a different place.
I went to one of the first meetings I was assigned to and, on entering the room, I introduced myself to those I didn’t know. Maggie was one. In our initial exchange, she asked if I was the new head of the Humanities Department.
Needless to say, though the answer was no, we liked each other right away.
Throughout the years, Maggie would act as an informal sounding board and frequently gave the most grounded, cogent advice on how to deal with things, day-to-day. Her humor was quick, sharp and generous, and how very much she cared about the Carnegie Library, in flush times and in lean, was never far from her mind and our conversation.
Though we were not real friends, we were colleagues, which was apparent from the very moment I met her, and I will be forever grateful for that.
A smile, a nod and a few words of encouragement — so rare, so treasured and so helpful. Thank you so much, Maggie.
I’ll be sure to pass it on.
~ Don Wentworth
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main
I have a some very vivid memories of Dr. Kimmel from my time in library school. Even though I wasn’t in the school media or children’s librarian track, I did get a chance to take a storytelling class with her while I was there. She had an amazing talent for storytelling, and I learned some valuable lessons from that class. She was also chair of the school when I was going through, and at the time my father was dying of cancer (and so I was missing a bit of school time with trips to Cleveland). She was extremely supportive and understanding, especially when I had to miss classes for his funeral, and provided a shoulder to cry on upon my return.
I feel sorry for those librarians who didn’t have a chance to have her, either as a professor or a mentor in this field.
~ Maria Joseph
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – LYNCS
Dr. Kimmel rode by on the sidewalk, as my 6-year-old daughter and I stood in line to enter the blow-up “Very Hungry Catepillar” at the 1st Extravaganza (2000). I said to my daughter, “Look — you know her. She told the story of ‘Stone Soup’ on Mr. Roger’s.” Dr. Kimmel overheard this, turned around and came back to meet my daughter and shake her hand.
While standing by the elevators in the parking garage at Main, Dr. Kimmel parked in the handicap spot & rode her cart out of her van. “Hello Dr. Kimmel,” I said. She looked at me with that glint in her eye and said, “To you, Jackie, it’s Maggie!”
Having been the Chair of SLIS during my graduate days, I found Maggie to be down-to-earth, approachable and the master of all storytellers. Rest in peace.
~ Jackie Mignogna
Coordinator of Conservation, Preservation and Access
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main
Others testified specifically to her gifts as a teacher and storyteller:
Maggie Kimmel was my instructor for most of my classes on the Children’s Librarianship track at SIS from 1998 to 1999. She was a powerful storyteller. Her recollections, heart-rending or humorous, of her experiences providing library service to inner city children were inspiring. I’ve had many teachers over the years but only a few whose image and voice I carry with me; Maggie Kimmel was one of those. Her vehement condemnation of flannel boards and the word “cute” when used to describe a children’s book still resonate. Her passion and commitment to providing all children with the best books and best library service will be sorely missed.
~ Patte Kelley
Department Head, Children’s
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main
I thought of Dr. Kimmel as one of Sleeping Beauty’s three good fairies. She was little, round in a cozy kind of way and topped with a lovely, white, whipped cream fluff of hair. She drove a motor-powered wheelchair, fast. I never saw her out of it. It seemed as if it and she were all of a kind.
Dr. Kimmel told a story once about a time she traveled to a school as a storyteller. She said it happened long ago, to a place in the Midwest, perhaps, a school, a poor one. She said she told a story to a classroom of kids about a boy in a jungle who was scared, so scared to be alone in the dark in such a wild place. The birds were loud, the shadows were long, the dark pressed in. The jungle cats eyes glowed green through the vines, and the little boy could hear them sneaking, sneaking closer. Their talons against the jungle floor…hairy-legged spiders watching with their hundred eyes, snakes sniffing him with their tongues outstretched, uncurling toward him, the mist settling sticky on his back and arms…. So the little boy did something his Ayah, his nurse, had told him to do. He grabbed a stick, and in the sand under his feet, he drew a circle all around himself. And the little boy could sense the jungle cats draw back, the spiders and snakes recoiling, and the darkness turning from a scary, mean vapor to a comfortable black blanket. Inside his circle, the little boy fell asleep, safe under the stars, twinkling down through the vines and red flowers.
It was the kind of story that Dr. Kimmel had told a lot of times, she said. I forget the name of the story, but that particular one wasn’t the point. What followed was. After Dr. Kimmel returned from her visit to the school, she got a call. A little boy who had sat in front of her in that school had heard her story that day and gone home. Later that night, his baby-sitter had a heart attack. The little boy found a piece of chalk in the house, drew a circle around the babysitter, and sat, holding her hand, for two days, before they were found.
Dr. Kimmel told us that the school called her and told her what happened to their student. She flew back to the school and talked to the boy. The little boy’s belief in hope and magic and protection from fear helped him to persevere through a frightening and horrific experience. The power of story carried him through.
In 2007, we were learning html and gaining “competencies” for state education processes in the school library program at SLIS. Dr. Kimmel was old-school. Her little blue eyes behind those glasses snapped ferociously when we had to confess we hadn’t read a book on her syllabus. She never felt that she could emphasize enough the power of story, and she expected us to read until our eyes bled.
I’ll always remember trying to get closer to her in that long rectangular space — that space that didn’t fit her. She belonged in a round griot’s hut, where those lucky enough to get physically close to her could fully experience her voice, her face, the golden alchemy of her words. She brought me to tears in class so many times she called me her “Crier.” Thank you, Dr. Kimmel, for your old-school artistry. Thank you for the grace with which you kept the ancient art of storytelling a part of training librarians. Thank you for bringing us into your magic circle, holding us there and teaching us how to go forth, draw children in, and draw our own.
~ Sheila May-Stein
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Hill District
Dr. Kimmel was a force. Having her for storytelling could be intimidating, with her national reputation and way with words — it was like having John Kennedy or Barack Obama for oratory. When I presented my story I couldn’t look at her. I just couldn’t. But then I had my interview for children’s librarian at the Beechview location of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I told “A Small God,” and I saw a knowing look pass between her and the others judging my mettle.
She always seemed so stern, although I’m sure it was with a twinkle in her eye. As a student I was convinced that Maggie never liked me (and I could never call her that to her face — it was always Dr. Kimmel), but when I talked to some of my fellow students, some that I was sure she favored, they all said the same thing.
I was honored to be included at her retirement party and doubly so when she told me she was interested in reading the reviews I did for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and School Library Journal.
I’m in awe of the boards she was on, the work she did for children and the disabled throughout our region and the car/truck/whatever she drove out of the parking garage when I’d pull out before or after her.
I’m sure Maggie is telling the angels about the rowdy boy who asked her how the puppet knew his name when it told him to sit down during her performance and about the statue of baby Jesus that perfectly arched across the stage when it was forgotten during a Christmas performance, as well as her many other fascinating and comforting stories. Their luck.
I saw her last at a Best Book for Babies committee meeting this spring. She was her usual robust and very gracious self — she laughed a lot, offered strong opinions and left all the other committee members believing – hoping – she’d be here forever. And in a way, through her stories, her influences, her — force —, she always will be.
~ Tina Zubak
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main
One well-told tale conveyed not only the scope of what she had done and who she had been, but also offered the key to keeping her legacy alive:
Maggie Kimmel loved books. As a founding member of the now defunct non-profit Beginning with Books, she worked tirelessly to get good books into the hands of young children, and chaired a committee that annually identified the Best Books for Babies.
As a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Library and Information Sciences, she taught her students over the years about the rich history of children’s literature, how to tell a story so that listeners would hang on every word, and how to evaluate children’s materials (including her vehement opinion that “cute” was not a viable assessment of a book’s worth).
Personally, she had a distinct fondness for romantic suspense authors like Nora Roberts, Iris Johansen and Elizabeth Lowell, among many others, though of course she also kept up with new titles for children and shared her opinions on the good, the bad and the ugly with great enthusiasm.
Maggie even wrote a couple of books herself — Magic in the Mist and For Reading Out Loud. But for all of her love of literature, what Maggie really cared about was people. Whether improving the lives of countless kids by training children’s librarians or advocating for improved medical services for the disabled, Maggie used her considerable personal power and charisma to make the world a better place.
Carrying on that work in her memory may be cold comfort to those who will miss her, but it’s the finest tribute we could offer. Just don’t forget to slip the occasional light reading into your schedule too.
~ Lisa Dennis
Coordinator, Children’s Collections
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
And so, with hopeful hearts, the storytellers released their tribute to the four winds and returned to their work, determined to not only remember what they had learned, but also to honor their teacher and friend by following her example, both audibly, in song and story, and silently, in the work of heart and hand.
We will resume our regular publication schedule on Monday, June 30th. Friends, colleagues, and others who have personal or professional memories of Dr. Kimmel to share are invited to their own stories and recollections in the comments section.
*Many thanks to Lisa Dennis for allowing us to reprint this passage, which originally appeared elsewhere.