Times Past

There’s nothing ‘mousy’ about a librarian and a skunk

‘Suddenly a skunk appeared. The men grabbed their six-shooters and blazed away at it.”

Many readers of this column know that Liz Krieger, my wife of 48 years, served as a children’s librarian in our county library system for more than three decades.

In 1966, Liz left a career as a high school history and government teacher. Discipline problems in an inner-city Oakland high school seemed overwhelming. She decided to follow her librarian mother’s advice and get a master’s degree in library science.

With some reluctance, she told friends and family that she was becoming a “mousy librarian.”

I disagreed with Liz’s description of her future profession. My own children’s librarian had been anything but mousy.

Katharine Bixby Hotchkis was the grand lady who presided over the children’s room of the Long Beach library during my early years as a reader.

Mrs. Hotchkis introduced me to the books of Genevieve Foster, such as “George Washington’s World,” “Abraham Lincoln’s World” and “Augustus Caesar’s World.” These richly illustrated children’s books confirmed my grandmother’s and Mrs. Hotchkis’ teaching that history could be a lively, compelling read.

When I read about Cicero’s execution and the fall of the Roman Republic in “Augustus Caesar’s World,” a light flashed inside me: I knew that I wanted to study history for the rest of my life.

My librarian personally embodied a lot of history. The Bixby family once owned a good deal of coastal California. In 1888, the Bixbys founded what would become the city of Long Beach.

Mrs. Hotchkis was the person most responsible for saving the historic Rancho Los Alamitos and los Cerritos adobes as city owned properties for future generations to enjoy.

She was my grandmother’s bridge partner, so I was less intimidated than my friends by the formidable lady who presided over the Children’s Room on the ground floor of the Long Beach Public Library in the center of a park adjoining Ocean Boulevard. I’m certain that she was a volunteer, but she clearly was in charge.

Mrs. Hotchkis would share her experiences of traveling to historic sites with groups of children. One day, a young boy related an “exciting moment” on his family’s road trip: “We even ran over a skunk and it smelled up our car!”

That’s when Mrs. Hotchkis told us about her own encounter with a skunk.

When Mrs. Hotchkis was 15, she accompanied her father, Fred H. Bixby, on a 500 mile horseback and motorcar tour of the vast land holdings of Flint & Bixby and Company. These consisted of a stretch of ranches from San Benito County to Long Beach.

The group of riders had spent the night at the Dutton Store and Hotel in Jolon near Mission San Antonio. They rode onto the lands of the Nacimiento Ranch, now Camp Roberts, during cattle branding time. There were lots of “real vaqueros,” each carrying a Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver at his waist.

Mrs. Hotchkis said “that poor skunk didn’t stand a chance, but the smell on our clothes was putrid.”

No children’s librarian like Mrs. Hotchkis could be “mousy.” And my 5-year-old’s image of the profession remains intact more than 65 years later.

You can help your local public library and get some great buys on books by attending the 32nd Book Sale organized by the San Luis Obispo Friends of the Library. The sale takes place at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Ave., Thursday through Saturday. Times will be: Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. (Members only, with memberships sold at the door); Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.