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Monday, December 13, 2010

Who was Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth?

I visited with representatives of the Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Foundation this week about their efforts to transform the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library, and I think we had a frank and productive talk.
Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth
as a Tivy Senior, 1921
This photo is in my book.
For those who don't know who Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth was, she was a graduate of Tivy High School (Class of '21) who was remembered by a classmate as having a "ladylike" disposition. She trained to be a teacher, taught school for a while, and in the mid-1920s married a local boy, Howard Butt. He was a grocer.
In 1967 the couple gave the community a library, in honor of their two families.
While I only have anecdotal evidence to support the following claim, I believe it to be true: Mary Holdsworth Butt remained a teacher long after she left the classroom. It's my opinion she guided the building of the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library as an extension of her love of teaching, especially her love of teaching reading.
I've heard second-hand that she continued to teach students to read long after her family's fortunes had changed and her classroom was no longer in Center Point, but was a dining room in a large home on Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi, with windows facing the bay.
The library here was a big project, and one which Mrs. Butt worked on personally. She was especially attentive to the children's reading area -- a place where I spent many hours as a new reader in the late 1960s -- and a part of the library, which, over time, has been displaced with misguided uses and programs. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, the changes to the children's reading area at the library "involved replacing what worked with what sounded good."
The library as it stands now is much less than it once was.
It started in glory, though. The dedication of the library was a big event for our community. Hundreds attended, including the First Lady at the time, Lady Bird Johnson.
Recently, while working on my book of historic photographs, I ran across a series of photographs taken that day. One theme unites the images captured that day: everyone is so excited, so happy. The library was an extraordinary gift to our community, of course, but from the images I can see the community had an understanding it was also a gift that would change the community. It was a transformative gift; it would make Kerrville and Kerr County better. I've included several of these rare photographs in the book, including one taken by my long-time friend, Raye Haney. They're wonderful photographs.
In the intervening years the library has faced many challenges. Some were dealt by the passing of time, and the aging of the facility. But other, more serious challenges have come from politicians who seem to misunderstand the importance of a library to a free and enlightened community. Some elected officials can't seem to make the leap from budgets to vision, or understand the concept that all of the citizens of the City of Kerrville are also, by definition, citizens of Kerr County.
But I've talked about that subject here before.  Several times.
I corresponded briefly with Mrs. Butt shortly before her death, sending some photographs from my collection of historical photographs of Kerrville and Kerr County, asking for help in identifying them. She was very gracious to me, and I wish I could have met her.  (And her mother-in-law, Florence Thornton Butt.)
The week she died there happened to be an evening social meeting of the Friends of the Library, where the library was opened up and patrons were there for a party. I remember asking that a wreath be placed by the door, and I remember looking from the second floor at the people gathered together in the library she helped build. I smiled at the appropriateness of the moment. The library was open and a gathering place, a hub for our community.
Perhaps it can be so again.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has held a library card at the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library continually since it opened its doors in 1967.  This column first appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 11, 2010.


  1. Great post, Joe! I especially love her attention to detail, like the quotes she had engraved all over the parking lot.

    Interesting fact: she did the same thing with quotes out on the H. E. Butt Foundation property where Laity Lodge is located. I have a 30-page document listing all of the quotes out there.

    (Also, I linked to this as a featured high calling community post today.)

  2. I'm so glad you shared this bit of history, Joe. I do some work with The High Calling, and am quite fascinated by the Butt family story.

    And Marcus -- I appreciated what you shared here in the comment box about the Laity Lodge quote plaques. Those were so meaningful to me. ~sigh~ ... I want to go back.

  3. And Jennifer we want you to come back!

  4. Joe:

    Great post.

    Also, it sounds like Mrs. Butt was of the mindset (and generation?) that did "what worked" and not just what "sounded good."

    Tangentially, check out this book by Jane Jacobs ( if you haven't already. It has a lot to say about the revitalization of Kerrville's downtown, and Jacobs was known for advocating "what worked" over the Utopian ideal of what "sounded good."

    OK...I'm preaching... ;)

    Best to you and your family this Christmas. We won't be there until late winter or spring.

    - Howard


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