Margaret Dickson, 1915-2007

A remembrance of a rare lady

Secret History

by Jack Neely

I first knew Margaret Dickson, who died last week, as a client. I was 13, and had a paper route in an odd neighborhood most folks didn't know about. It was between noisy, commercial Kingston Pike and posh Lyons View, but it didn't have much to do with either of them. It was a neighborhood of small, old houses on a wooded hillside. Rich people lived somewhere up at the top, but down here it was easy to pretend they didn't exist.

Few paid much attention to appearances; most kept quietly to themselves. There usually wasn't anybody on the street but me and my bike; I rarely saw anyone in the front yards. A country family at the bottom of the hill glowered at me, burned leaves and garbage in their yardâ"you could get away with it because the police never came back hereâ"and paid their bill, when they did, in dirty loose change.

It was a dense little neighborhood, and the big, open space of the golf course nearby was a like a forbidden beach.

I rode my bike, an old black Schwinn Typhoon with saddlebag-type baskets. Adult athletes may need 21 speeds, lycra, and a water bottle, but, sufficiently motivated, a 13-year-old kid can carry 40 pounds of newspaper around town on a one-speed. I tended to ride pretty slow, slow enough to spot shiny white objects in the ditch along Staub Street. I would gather golf balls in my pockets and sell them, for a nickel apiece to a friend of mine who played golf.

Most people on my paper route greeted me with distraction, annoyance, or an efficiently businesslike manner designed to encourage me to scram. People never expect a teenage kid at the screen door. I sometimes interrupted loud family arguments and half-whispered discussions that would end suddenly when they noticed me at the door. I wondered if some of them were criminals on the lam.

I never surprised Ms. Dickson. She was always welcoming and gracious, as if she were expecting me, and offered me a glass of iced tea. She seemed happier and more comfortable in her house than most of her neighbors. She also seemed more curious, asking me questions about what I'd encountered on my strange route this time.

I didn't know what she did for a living. Once a month, when I pulled out my thick route book, dismally green and awkwardly large, too big for any pocket, not big enough to hold at the hip like a textbook, I didn't inquire about people's background, their parentage, their profession. I was a kid, and she was just my favorite subscriber.

I was a regular at our neighborhood branch of the public library but knew nothing of her reputation downtown, as the master of the Children's Room at Lawson McGhee, a reputation that would soon boost her into the office of director for the whole Knox County library system.

Nor did I know about her unique connection to that golf course. It was why she lived there. You don't always think of librarians as golfers, but Margaret Dickson's father, Jimmy, was Cherokee Country Club's first golf pro. Some credit him with designing the course that's there today. He and his wife were from Scotland, at a time when golf was still thought of as Scottish, and its presence in Knoxville represented something like ethnic diversity.

Margaret grew up there on Midland Avenue in the Roaring '20s, playing golf. Her thrifty father designed her a set of clubs that could be augmented with longer shafts as she got taller.

The golf pro's daughter turned out to be a pretty bright kid, attended UT and got her masters in library sciences from Columbia. She taught school in Florida for a couple of years, an obituary detail that surprised some of her longtime colleagues. For a time, when the library was a city service, she drove the Bookmobile to areas not reached by the library's branches, the first woman to do so. It took some nerve, because the Bookmobile driver sometimes encountered hostile resistance. As late as the '40s, she once told me, some parents in the rural parts of Knox County opposed the presence of the Bookmobile. They were skeptical of books, concerned that they might give their younguns dangerous ideas.

She became best known, though, as the head of the Children's Room. She read to children, and listened to them, and sometimes quoted them. â“She had high standards,â” longtime librarian Carol Goris recalls. â“She had great respect for children and thought they should be reading literature.â” She banned, for a time, Nancy Drew books; she thought her young patrons could do better than that.

Before 1970, Lawson McGhee Library was on Commerce, near St. Mary's, the Catholic elementary school. True to her roots, Margaret Dickson was Presbyterian, but by some accounts, the library today employs a higher percentage of Catholics than you'd expect because of her inspiring influence on the kids who, fleeing school, jammed into the Children's Room from St. Mary's School, across the street.

During a leadership crisis in the late 1970s, she became the library's interim director. She'd reportedly been asked to take the job before, but had declined it. To some, it seemed almost redundant; she'd been the library director's most influential advisor for years.

Many wished, when her time was up, that she would stay. â“She didn't like politicking,â” says Goris, adding that she was honest and straightforward in ways that some found offputting. â“She'd tell the truth, whether you like it or not.â” She was perhaps the most capable candidate for the library's top office at the time, but she preferred to return to her children.  

Out of the library, she played golf and took care of people. She was known to offer special care to the sick and dying, sometimes inviting them to stay with her in her house. However, she didn't take much care of her house. She had difficulty arranging to be at home to meet workmen. â“She was so devoted to her work, she almost let her house fall down,â” says Goris. Regardless, she remained in the house she grew up in, the house where she lived for almost 90 years, until fairly recently.

She was a member of a peculiar committee known as the Old Library Board, a vestigial and partly blood-based remnant of the progressive Victorian-era board which founded the public library in Knoxville in the 1880s, but now mainly just has governance over a small fund devoted to improving the library. Its influence is slight, but it presents an opportunity for its members to get together once a year and talk about the library's prospects. And Margaret Dickson came, every year. She came at the last meeting, in May, at 91, alone with her walker, hunched over and moving very slowly but always smiling and always sharp, greeting the other board members by name and interested in hearing the latest efforts to fund a new main library.

Some people claim to have a hard time getting to the downtown library because of parking, or scary homeless folk, but somehow Margaret Dickson could always make it, at whatever age she found herself.

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