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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

For Delta Librarian, The End

After decades of doing battle with illiteracy, poverty, racism and the elements in Mississippi, Ronnie Wise is walking away.

September 23, 2006|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND, Miss. — It's not easy to escape the Delta. People have been writing songs for 100 years about how hard it is to escape, especially this part of the Delta, where the crushing poverty and the heat storms and the ghost towns get hold of you and won't let go.

Some used to hop a train out, but the trains don't stop here anymore. Some worked their way out, but jobs have gotten scarce. Few dreamed of escaping through books. Then Ronnie Wise came along.

How many have learned to read because of Wise? He lost count long ago. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He doesn't care. As director of libraries for Bolivar County, one of America's least literate places, where 41% of 40,000 residents can't read, Wise keeps his mind on what needs doing, not what's been done, which might be why he looks so cranky.

He glances out his office and spots someone headed toward Fiction, meaning another reader will soon discover the picklock words of Flannery O'Connor or Joseph Conrad, another person will soon escape the Delta, using one of Wise's libraries as the point of departure. Such is the hope, anyway, that's given shape to Wise's last 30 years.

It's a long time for anybody at one job, 30 years. For Wise it feels like 130, because he's spent most of it fighting arsonists, bureaucrats, censors, racists, tornadoes, apathy, poverty, thieves -- and mold, that insidious green carpetbagger. He used to enjoy a good, clean fight, but less so lately. Lately, the hours have felt like days, the days like compressed eternities.

But eternity ends today. Come 5 o'clock, Wise is taking early retirement. For once it's his turn to escape.

No one knows just why Wise is retiring, or what happens next, to this part of the Delta or to him, and that might be another reason he looks so cranky. Every escape, after all, is an anxious and secretive undertaking.

Then again, Wise always looks cranky.

People just don't realize the stress of a Mississippi librarian's life, he says. People don't understand what it takes to keep those front doors open -- or what's at stake if you don't. Reading, Wise believes, is life. Illiteracy, therefore, is death. He witnesses its stranglehold every day. Shopping at the grocery store, standing in line at the bank or post office, he's constantly accosted by strangers trying to conceal their secret behind the same lie. "Excuse me," they say. "Forgot my glasses -- could you tell me what this says?"

People call him a librarian, and he surely looks like a librarian, with his sedentary frame, thick eyeglasses, fastidiously trimmed hair and goatee. But, deep down, he feels like something else, something more. He feels like the Sisyphus of Mississippi. He feels like a superhero in one of his beloved comic books, even though he fights the forces of darkness with little more than night classes and meager grants, and he loses more than he wins; 30 years of that would make even Spiderman cranky.

So thoroughly has Wise devoted himself to crusading for literacy, to creating a book-lined fortress in the middle of the book-starved Delta, that everyone around here figured he'd die among his books. "Just felt like it was time to close this chapter of my life," he tells them all with a tight smile.

A nonexplanation, which keeps questioners at bay. Precisely as it's meant to do.

Wise doesn't like to talk about his reasons, or his feelings, especially when it comes to his 10 libraries, which he loves like the children he never had. Some things go beyond words, even for a divorced 55-year-old librarian who's dedicated his life to the furtherance and cherishment of words.

He'll admit this much: He's done with the Delta. Born in Memphis, Tenn., raised in Webb, Miss., he's never lived anywhere else and he's ready for a change. He hates change, clings to his 1986 computer and keeps phone numbers in his checkbook because he refuses to figure out his cellphone, but today he's making the biggest change of all. Leaving the Delta. He's proud of his home, and desperate to escape it, and the contradictions about him only start there. Kind and rude, eloquent and reticent, he's an altruistic loner, a misanthropic do-gooder, a study in inscrutability straight out of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner.

He's a literacy crusader who's hard to read.

But there's a strange look in his eye today, a faint gleam that suggests this day could be different. Maybe, before 5 o'clock, with nothing to lose and no consequence if he offends anyone, Wise will stop concealing his secret. Or at least drop a hint as to why he's leaving.

Such is the hope, anyway, that gives shape to his Last Day.

*

He used to love his job. Even back at the start, when he first got hired to drive the county bookmobile. It was 1976, three years after he'd graduated from Delta State, and though he earned peanuts, he felt important, because every time he piloted his cargo of novels and Bibles through the cotton fields, people with no running water and not enough to eat would come racing out to meet him.

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