Pollyanna Creekmore, 1920-2009

A eulogy for a formidable genius of genealogy and archival preservation

I feel obliged to say a word for the late Pollyanna Creekmore, who died early last week. She was 88 years old, older than I would have guessed, though some of her old colleagues thought she was older than that. She was a sturdy woman with white hair and a determined look it's usually better not to mess with. A fixture at the public library's Calvin McClung Historical Collection, where I spend a great deal of my time, she appeared to work there, and for years I assumed that she did. In fact she used to, but not—officially at least—after 1970. For 20 years before that, she'd been director of the whole collection, back when it was cluttered into one room at the much-beloved old terra-cotta Lawson McGhee Library on Vine Street. Later on, she was the official bibliographer at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. I knew her only when she was combatting her own retirement, solving obscure historical problems, working out answers the dead were probably confident they'd taken to the grave.

I rarely if ever saw her except in the McClung Collection, specifically in the reading room, the lovely old art-lined 1870s federal courtroom on the third floor of the Custom House, now the East Tennessee History Center. Unlike most librarians half her age, she was often afoot. She wore the forbidding mien of a substitute teacher who wanted to make it clear before the Pledge of Allegiance that she wasn't going to let you get away with whatever it was you were thinking about. She had no patience for pleasantries, no how-do-you-dos. Such trivial interaction was for the hoi polloi, the silly bankers and lawyers down on Gay Street.

A Scavenger

I've heard stories that Pollyanna wasn't necessarily the name she was born with, but that during her early childhood in 1920s Jellico she was such a cheerful little girl that everyone called her Pollyanna. She may have grown out of that. She grew up mostly in Knoxville, the daughter of Farragut Hotel barber Lewis Creekmore and his wife Dillie. She was not close kin to the other Creekmores who've been involved in the research of local history, and she was not much amused by common assumptions that she was.

She became a professional librarian with the best credentials, a University of Tennessee grad with her master's from Columbia. By 1943, she was working for Lawson McGhee Library, and was one of the lead researchers and writers of what's still the definitive book of Knox County history, The French Broad - Holston Country, edited by Mary Utopia Rothrock, published in 1946. Still in her mid-20s, Pollyanna wrote the three chapters covering the Civil War and Reconstruction, and did a good deal of the newspaper research and indexing for the rest of that book, still indispensable to historians 63 years after its publication.

They were the wild, untamed years for history archivists, in this city where hardly anybody saved anything deliberately. She was known to root around in the attics of city hall, scavenging, sometimes with permission. She saved antebellum records no one alive had ever heard of. Much of what she did she did on her own time, with her own money. Current McClung Collection chief Steve Cotham says Pollyanna used to drive to other libraries all around the region to make copies of material for Lawson McGhee's files.

She had particular interests, especially in the early settlement years, and in genealogy, an esoteric discipline in which she had some national reputation. I get the impression that genealogy was, to her, a series of interlocking mysteries, the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world, and she was always trying to work it all out. Much of the McClung Collection's reputation as a regional center for genealogical research came by way of Pollyanna. Cotham spent time last week getting in touch with the genealogical authorities beyond East Tennessee who might care to know about her passing.

I learned only recently that it was Pollyanna who convinced retired photographer Jim Thompson that his work might be of interest to future generations. Like a lot of artists, Thompson didn't necessarily exalt his own archives. During urban renewal's scorched-earth campaign of the neighborhoods on downtown's east side in the 1960s, the stacks of glass negatives in the original Thompson studio on Lowry Street appeared doomed with the building's demolition. Pollyanna wouldn't have that. With Thompson's permission, she borrowed a truck, got some volunteers and janitorial staff from the library, and carted them all out. Today the Thompson Collection is the best single source of historical photographs of Knoxville.

She sometimes alarmed or alienated people, including colleagues, with her gruffness. One colleague who regards her as a genius had the impression that her thoughts came to her faster than spoken words did, and she therefore found conversation frustrating.

On a typical day she didn't have the sort of expression that invited pleasantries, anyway, and I usually left her alone. Working in the reading room is a solitary pursuit. You get involved in a pile of books or a jumble of yellowing obituaries, and stop noticing there's anybody around you.

But once or twice a year, I'd become vaguely aware of an approaching presence. I'd look up and there would be Pollyanna Creekmore herself, not very many inches away, with no room for nonsense anywhere in the vicinity, waiting only for the acknowledgment of a glance. Whereupon she might demand, "What are you working on?" Or, worse, inform me of some deficiency in my last column. It took me a while to understand she wasn't being rude. Rudeness, like politeness, was beneath her. She simply knew she knew the library better than I did, and she knew I knew that, too, and she assumed, always correctly, that she could be helpful. I rarely invited an encounter, but never regretted one, and profited from most.

Information about the deep past was her business and I suppose her passion, and she seemed to find satisfaction in helping you find it, even if she wasn't paid. I couldn't help but notice there was, occasionally, a twinkle in her eye.