secret_history (2006-47)

Lucile Deaderick, 1914-2006

The legacy of an uncommon life

By Jack Neely

Until a friend mentioned it, I had missed the obituary, which seemed to be the only notice the local media took of Lucile Deaderick’s passing. She died early this month at the age of 92.

The historian and former library director was a mystery to me. I never met her in person. During the 15-odd years I’ve been poking around in Knoxville history, she was retired, withdrawn from the library and public life. In an earlier era, though, she was influential in the growth of the public library, and in the evolution of downtown; and she was the editor of Heart of the Valley . Published by the East Tennessee Historical Society in 1976 as a companion volume to the earlier county history French Broad—Holston Country , Deaderick’s book about the city is an indispensable source. 

My copy of Heart of the Valley is the worst-looking book on my desk. Its spine is broken. It’s dog-eared and coffee stained, its green cloth cover abraded like an old pair of jeans. It looks like a hand-me-down Latin textbook the week after finals. It’s a useful book.

A couple of years ago, when I had a question no one knew the answer to, someone recommended I give Lucile Deaderick a call. I was surprised to hear that she was still alive, and still good for a long Sunday-afternoon conversation.

It was like one of those dreams when you find out that Teddy Roosevelt is still alive, and he’s in the kitchen and wants to chat with you about the Treaty of Portsmouth.

I’m not sure I completely believed it was she. But she talked with me graciously and at length.

Most of what I learned about her personally, though, I learned just this month.

The daughter of a machinist, she grew up in Knoxville. At 15, she got a library job. She graduated from old Young High at 16, from UT at 20, and was then off to graduate school at the University of Illinois. By 23, she was back home, and director of the McClung Collection. In 1941, she co-authored, with well-known Tennessee historian Stanley Folmsbee, a paper called “The Founding of Knoxville.”

That year she moved to Chicago to work as editor of the American Library Association journal—on the heels of a close friend, New Yorker Olga Peterson, a Barnard and Columbia grad who had worked in the Knoxville library. It was a prestigious job, but the whole time they were in Chicago, Deaderick and Peterson had another plan in mind.

The two returned in 1948 to buy an 85-acre farm called, for reasons unexplained, Average Acres, in rural Hardin Valley. After taking a correspondence course in agriculture from Penn State, they ran an encyclopedic farm, with chickens, vineyards, some tobacco. They had a 600-lb. boar hog named Boris, a Hereford cow named Bernadette, sheep named Mary and Charles Lamb, after the English essayists, and sows named for female characters in Oklahoma! These two librarians with graduate degrees milked the cows and slopped the pigs themselves, but hired local men to do the heavy lifting. They won some blue ribbons for their pigs, of which Deaderick was especially fond. 

Neighbors may have struggled to come up with a word to describe the couple. The News-Sentinel did, anyway, when they ran a profile of them in 1957, headlined: “ Farmerettes Use Their Books to Escape Library Routine.”

Deaderick didn’t want to escape the routine altogether. She was for a time head of a library system in Lenoir City, then school librarian at Karns High, near Average Acres. She also did some teaching at UT’s Library School.

In late 1969, when the Knox County Public Library was short a director, they tapped Deaderick for the job. She accepted reluctantly, at first insisting that it be temporary. But she kept the job for almost nine years, a critical era in the library’s history. Deaderick worked with modernist architect Bruce McCarty on the new state-of-the-art Lawson McGhee Library. Later, as the McClung Historical Collection outgrew the old McClung Room, Deaderick worked to secure the marble 1871 Custom House for use by the library.

She never wore makeup. In horn-rimmed glasses and mannish pants, she cut a formidable figure; some recall her as “crusty.” Tom Whisman, who’s now in charge of Lawson McGhee’s business-research section, knew Deaderick longer than most—first when he was a student at Karns High in the mid-’60s, and later when she was his boss. He liked her, but says, “She was the kind of person who, if you crossed her the wrong way, would let you know.” 

In 1978, the McClung Collection’s head, William MacArthur, openly objected to an administrative proposal of Deaderick’s. Peeved, Deaderick fired MacArthur—or tried to. In what librarians remember as a “trial” involving lawyers, the two battled it out before the library board. By a vote of 5-2, the Board sided with MacArthur. Admittedly bitter, Deaderick blamed it all on “Republican politics,” especially friends of the then-youthful state senator Victor Ashe. “I feel I have been shafted by a bunch of politicians.”

She retired, at 64, to Average Acres. She and Peterson no longer raised literary cattle and pigs, settling for a dog and a rose garden. (Described in the daily’s obit as Deaderick’s “lifetime partner,” Peterson died some years ago.)

An irony of the drama and disaffection is that one of the strengths of Deaderick’s Heart of the Valley is MacArthur’s compact but comprehensive 66-page essay on the history of Knoxville. MacArthur, who had unrelated personal troubles, later died by his own hand.

Though she had talked about writing another book of Knoxville history, librarians say they don’t remember seeing Deaderick in the McClung Collection much after 1978. Longtime librarians say they’ve never met her. She did come into town in May of 2000, when the library dedicated the elegant second-floor corridor of the Custom House as Deaderick Hall. She appeared, and smiled for newspaper pictures. By then, she was suffering macular degeneration, and could no longer read.

Today, Deaderick Hall is a fascinating place, just below the McClung Collection’s main reading room. The old marble hallway is adorned with beautiful oil paintings by some of the best-known Knoxville artists of the last 150 years, like Catherine Wiley and Lloyd Branson. But due to a dysfunction in the design of the new History Center, it’s now strictly off limits to the public. Lucile Deaderick’s memorial is a secret gallery buried in the old Custom House. But her book’s still for sale in the gift shop downstairs.