Cary Library Celebrates a Retiring Lady of Letters

Cynthia Johnson

Cynthia Johnson

By Jane Whitehead

Cynthia Johnson wanted no fanfare to mark the end of her three decades’ service at Cary Library, most recently as Assistant Director. No speeches, no presentations, she pleaded. But colleagues stealthily plotted an elegant, low-key Regency-themed tea party that took place in the Administrative offices on Thursday, October 30. (The theme was a salute to Johnson’s authorship of 15 historical novels set in the British Regency period, from 1811-1820.)

Among the guests who gathered to eat scones and wish Johnson well were all four Directors of Cary Library with whom she has worked; Bob Hilton, Carol Mahoney, Connie Rawson, and current Director Koren Stembridge, together with current and former staff, Library Trustees, patrons, and members of the Cary Memorial Library Foundation and the Friends.

Recently retired Cary librarian Elizabeth Dickinson presented Johnson with a handsome scrapbook filled with pages created by colleagues and friends. The volume reflects her wit, kindness, sense of humor, athleticism (she swims and runs every day), writing, style (think Burberry raincoats and Mont Blanc pens), and her years of service to Cary Library from her arrival in 1983 as Reference and Young Adult Librarian through two stints as Head of Reference Services, and two periods as Assistant Director. In all these roles, said former Library Director Carol Mahoney, Johnson proved herself “the consummate professional librarian.”

On October 30, 2014, Cynthia Johnson retired after 31 years of service in various capacities at the Cary Library. On hand to celebrate with Cynthia were all 4 library directors with whom she has served.  From left to right, Koren Stembridge, Connie Rawson, Cynthia Johnson, Carol Mahoney, and Robert Hilton.

On October 30, 2014, Cynthia Johnson retired after 31 years of service in various capacities at the Cary Library. On hand to celebrate with Cynthia were all 4 library directors with whom she has served.
From left to right, Koren Stembridge, Connie Rawson, Cynthia Johnson, Carol Mahoney, and Robert Hilton.

To the surprise of no Cary Library insiders, Dickinson appeared in a raccoon mask and tail. Raccoon references also peppered the scrapbook. A page headed “Cynthia’s Retirement Reading” featured spoof titles including Day of the Raccoon, and Raccoon on a Cold Slate Roof. Teen Librarian Jennifer Forgit explained that on a winter evening in 2004, a patron at one of the internet terminals gave a cry of alarm as a raccoon fell out of the ceiling, where a tile had become dislodged.

“Wearing her suit and high heels, and not a hair out of place, Cynthia captured it in a recycling bin and took it up Belfry Hill to release it,” said Forgit. “Raccoons have been showing up in her office ever since then,” said Stembridge. “Cynthia’s so well known for being a lover of nature that the staff have endless fun redecorating her office every time she goes away – there’s always some tableau, with animals in costume.”

Jane Eastman, Johnson’s long time colleague on the Reference desk, also witnessed the raccoon ejection. “Cynthia will tackle anything – she’s very dauntless!” said Eastman. Eastman, who retired in 2003, but still works occasional hours in the Library, recalled challenging queries she and Johnson fielded in the pre-internet era. “Do you have a video on making rubber gloves?” “How many stoplights are there in Rio de Janeiro?” “What’s the electrical code of Las Vegas?” From Johnson, said Eastman, she learned two essential qualities of the public reference librarian: “to listen well and have endless patience.”

“Cynthia set a high bar for the rest of us to aspire to,” said Stembridge, noting that Johnson’s “deep research capability” and boundless curiosity made her an excellent match for the intellectually demanding Lexington community. Cary’s impressively broad and deep adult book collection is “really Cynthia’s creation, after all these years,” said Eastman. “She would think about things that people needed to know about, and if she could find a book that would meet the need, she would get it.”

Another part of Johnson’s legacy, said Eastman, is the Lexington Authors’ Collection now housed in the Periodicals Reading Room. Building on a small collection started in the late 1960s, Johnson has gathered over 500 volumes by people who live and work in town, from Nobel Prize winners to first-time novelists. “It’s a great way to demonstrate what a diverse community Lexington is,” said Johnson, noting that the collection spans subject matter from “religion to radar to Shakespeare to politics.”

“I’ve been in denial about Cynthia leaving,” admitted Forgit. “I can’t imagine the library without her,” she said. Calling Johnson “the first real mentor of my adult life,” Forgit recalled how tactfully Johnson had made her realize that she needed to upgrade her fresh-from-campus sartorial style, by asking her to re-write the Library’s dress code.  “She is amazingly good at leading you gently into the light,” said Forgit.

In a conversation in her airy office a couple of weeks before her retirement, Johnson was keen to deflect attention away from her personal history and focus instead on the “outstanding organization” that has been her professional home for decades. Over the years, she said, Cary Library has been “blessed with wonderful directors who hired great staff and let them do their thing while quietly orchestrating possibilities in the background: Bob Hilton set the gold standard for the collection with his bibliographic knowledge and expertise; Carol [Mahoney] built us the building, Connie [Rawson] heard the community when they said they wanted programming, and Koren  [Stembridge] is the most fabulous yet, identifying community talent and showcasing it here so that Cary remains at the heart of the community in so many ways.”

The library was also the heart of Rockford, Illinois, the prosperous manufacturing town where Johnson grew up. “My mother always took us to the library,” she said, describing her family as “bookish to a fault.” “We had complete sets of Thackeray and Walter Scott, and you never knew that Dumas wrote so many books,” she said. As a girl, she devoured biographies of American historical figures, historical fiction, and on a snow day when she was in high school, discovered Jane Austen. “That was my true love,” she said, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice still stands as her “all time favorite” novel, closely followed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Growing up in a house full of books and no television, with parents who read the Wall Street Journal rather than the Rockford Register Star, Johnson said she often felt “totally isolated” from her schoolmates. Ahead of their time in many ways, Johnson’s parents rode bicycles, kept a compost heap, did their own yard work, and drove a foreign car, the first in town. Johnson’s father, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who learned his skills treating scarred Battle of Britain pilots in England and leprosy patients in India, “felt firmly that you should leave a place better than you found it, and he instilled that in all of us,” said Johnson, the eldest of three children.

After majoring in English and French at Wellesley College, where another Illinois native, Hillary Rodham, headed the student government in Johnson’s freshman year, Johnson took a Master’s in Library Science at Simmons College. Her first full-time job as a librarian was a four-year stint as Reference and Young Adult Librarian at Memorial Hall Library in Andover, Massachusetts.

Although Johnson enjoyed her time in Andover, she returned to the world of academic scholarship, taking a master’s degree from Northwestern University in 18th-century English and French literature. On completing the degree, poor academic job prospects made her give up the idea of continuing with doctoral studies, but she had polished the research skills that would underpin her success both as reference librarian and writer.

“They do say you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to sell a book without an agent,” said Johnson. But her experience shows that persistence and knowledge of the publishing industry can sometimes lift a manuscript out of the slush pile. Johnson wrote her first novel in the early 1980s, as a diversion from the stress of job-hunting. When she tried to sell it in 1988, she received polite rejections from three publishers before approaching Signet: New American Library.

Cynthia Johnson’s publicity photo as Evelyn Richardson. Cynthia has published fifteen Regency Romances under her pen name.

Cynthia Johnson’s publicity photo as Evelyn Richardson. Cynthia has published fifteen Regency Romances under her pen name.

After losing the first copy of the story, Signet asked her to send it again, then called her at the reference desk at Cary to offer her a two-book contract. The Education of Lady Frances, published in 1989, was the first of fifteen Regency romances written under the pen name Evelyn Richardson. (The pseudonym is a nod to English novelist and diarist Fanny Burney’s most famous heroine, Evelina, and Johnson’s maternal grandmother, whose name was Richardson.) Johnson’s “Regencies” have been praised by Booklist for their deft incorporation of historical details and “superbly nuanced characters.”

Johnson’s current writing projects are a “fictional biography” of the scandal-prone Swiss-born painter Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) that she has been working on for five years, and the first book in a trilogy of “Regency Historical” novels. The distinction between the “Regency” and the “Regency Historical” genre is very fine, explained Johnson: the latter being slightly longer, with “more sex.”

As she moves on from full-time work at Cary, Johnson looks forward to writing more, skiing more, and learning to travel at a more leisurely pace. “I just want not to be rushing from one thing to another,” she said. But Cary is a famously difficult place to truly retire from, as attested by the many former librarians, including Eastman and Dickinson, who regularly make encore appearances when needed.

“We’re not going to let Cynthia go!” said Stembridge, laughing. “She’s still going to stay connected and we’ll benefit from her institutional knowledge and her years of experience. This is her library, and she won’t abandon us completely!”

 


 

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11/24/2014

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