According to someone who knew her well, May Virginia Kunz Valencik, the head librarian of the Allentown Public Library from 1942 to 1963, was “half cyclone and half woman.”
Seemingly constantly on the move, she had no problem mowing her lawn with an old-fashioned hand lawn mower or hand washing her dishes as she watched from her kitchen window in South Mountain . She was often up while it was still dark, walking with her little dachshund before work.
His real passion was the Allentown Public Library, then known as the Allentown Free Library, located at 9th and Hamilton streets.
Long before arriving in Lehigh Valley, she had worked in several libraries and obtained graduate degrees from Columbia, Cornell, the New York School of Social Research and the University of Chicago. She had also worked with the Works Progress Administration in rural Kentucky.
Taking over the task of chief librarian on June 17, 1942, Valencik wasted no time in what a later generation would call “networking.”
She has become an active figure in the Pennsylvania Library Association. When speaking to lawmakers on trips to Harrisburg, she always wore a distinctive hat. “They can forget a face, but they cannot forget a hat,” she reportedly noted.
Apparently, to show off his plans for the future of the library, Valencik decided to focus on a big event for National Book Week which would be held from November 15 to 20 of that year. In fact, it would be the last National Book Week until 1950.
America having entered World War II less than a year earlier, the theme chosen was “Books in a World at War”. It was apparently a popular draw for the public.
“Thousands of people visited the book exhibit at Allentown’s Free Library during the week,” the November 20 morning call noted.
“Each visitor received a guide to the show,” Books in a World at War, “with an introductory note on” Weapons for Freedom, “by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a comprehensive annotated list of 450 volumes of the show. “
The books have been classified into groups under titles such as “United States”, “Allies” and “Our enemies”. The subcategories included “the home front”, “the workforce front” and “the youth front”. The library was decorated with colorful posters showing oversized books and the growth in book printing and design.
There was plenty of entertainment available to the residents of Allentown that evening.
The Rialto Theater offered Frederic March and Veronica “peek-a-boo bangs” Lake in “I Married a Witch”. Lake, at the behest of a government fearing that young Rosie the Riveters would follow her fashion trend of long hair and catch it in the machines, was later to cut it, as a result of which her film career plummeted .
The Colonial had Victor Mature and a rising starlet named Lucille Ball in a war-themed musical “Seven Days Leave”. And those hoping for something a little more active might want to see Rose La Rose perform her burlesque routine at the Lyric, not yet at the Miller Symphony Hall.
But the big event was a dinner which was to take place from 6.30 am at the Americus hotel. Working closely with Martha Huddleston of Community Book Associates, Valencik had brought together six different authors from a wide variety of subjects, perhaps in the hope that it would appeal to the widest possible audience, contemporary writers who were making the news. .
It was eclectic. Two female authors were included. Helen Mears was a writer and journalist (1862-1981), whose last book “The Year of the Boar” was the result of her nine months in Japan in the late 1930s. She had recently published two articles on the same subject in the New Yorker.
The other was Margery Wilson, (1896-1986) a former Hollywood director, screenwriter and actress of the silent era whose last book “The Woman You Want to Be” was a self-help book of the day intended to teach how to the woman to be more independent.
The men included Charles Morrow Wilson (1905-1977). Originally from Arkansas, he has written extensively on the Ozarks. As a freelance writer he had published dozens of magazine articles on the tropics. His last book in 1942 was “Ambassadors in White: The History of American Tropical Medicine”.
No gathering of writers in 1942 would be complete without a war correspondent, and Christopher LaFarge (1897-1956) filled the bill. During World War II he wrote primarily for Newsweek, but he was also widely known for his novels based on his war experiences. He had also worked for some time as an architect.
Perhaps the most colorful writer that night was Charles Courtney. His book, an autobiography titled “Unlocking Adventure”, spoke of his career as the world’s most skilled legal safecracker. His fingers are said to be insured for $ 100,000. The Morning Call called him “real-life Jimmy Valentine” after a safecracker character by that name in a short story of O’Henry.
Among his favorite adventures was opening safes for hidden treasure on a sunken British ship carrying gold during WWI. Gold was found, but he was the only one living to tell about it. A popular radio show about his exploits added to his fame.
But perhaps the most prestigious guest literary figure who broke bread in the Americus that night was Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954).
Born in Boston, the son of an episcopal minister, he descended from a worthy line of New England to the Mayflower. Allen attended Groton Boarding School, founded by Endicott Peabody in 1884 (whose informal motto would be Peabody or Nobody) continued at Harvard with a BA in English and an MA in Modern Languages. In 1914 Allen worked for a while for the prestigious Atlantic Monthly.
In 1923 Allen was hired as an editor for Harper magazine. He remained there for the rest of his career, becoming in 1941 its editor-in-chief. And of all the writers who gathered around the table at the Americus on that evening of November 20, 1942, Allen is the one most remembered today. And not for everything he did at Harper.
In 1931 Allen published “Yesterday Only: An Informal History of the 1920s”. It sold over a million copies and made 22 prints and is still in print today.
Allen was apparently perceptive enough to know that the public recognized that the decade they had just lived was unique. Plus, he wrote it in a way the audience would like, factually but not boring. In doing so, he captured with his writing the spirit of the jazz era, without being superficial.
Some academics scoffed but many others praised the book. “Each account of [the 1920s] begins with Frederick Lewis Allen, ”wrote William E. Leuchtenburg, who also wrote about the same era. It was, he added, “a social history written in a style so vivid that academics underestimate its soundness.” They may have underestimated it, but they still asked their students to read it.
Historian Richard Hofstadter called Allen’s writing “concrete and alive” with a “firm sense of the relevance of the past.” The New York Times hailed him as “the herodot of the jazz era.” Allen himself was modest in saying only that “a contemporary history is necessarily anything but definitive”.
At the end of the meal, toastmaster judge James F. Henninger introduced Mears as the first speaker. She had written about Japan and had been there recently, so interest in what she had to say had to be high.
Its basic points were that apart from the big cities, the country was still largely rural, its people could not read or write and believed what they were told. She believed that the seemingly modern Japanese rulers were leading their own people into a desperate war.
Allen came next. He noted that it was the journalist’s age. Everyone should read not only the news about the war, but also the books and magazines about the war and its purpose “which completes the picture”. “Reading,” he said, “is not only a high privilege, but a national duty. We can be thankful that American journalism is as good as it is. “
At the same time, Allen said a few words in praise of fiction. “We can dream of a day when we can retire to a cabin in the mountains to write down the knowledge of man that’s in his head and let his imagination run wild.
Charles Murrow Wilson praised the good neighbor policy established in Central and South America. He noted that this is important and should be encouraged if the United States is to prosper in a postcolonial future.
Lafarge noted that the problem before the start of the war between isolationists and interventionists resulted from too narrow a reading. “Reading a single book is as dangerous or more dangerous than not reading anything” and it was important to read many books to have different points of view.
Cracker Charles Courtney shared stories that began with his first “job” opening his mother’s cookie jar. He spoke of opening Kaiser Wilhelm’s safe after it was returned to him in 1920 and opening the Czar of Russia’s jewelry box, “with Stalin like an impatient kibitzer” behind him. Margery Wilson offered a few final words on how women should present themselves with poise and confidence.
After dinner, many members returned to the library where the signing of the books was in order. Among the 400 who returned for signing were Mon. Leo Gregory Fink and Dr. George Ettinger, Dean Emeritus of Muhlenberg College, Chairman of the Library Board since its founding.
The evening was a triumph but bittersweet. In 1943, librarian May Virginia Kunz married Gus Valencik, a technical sergeant who was her longtime boyfriend.
It was not until April 1944 that she learned that he had died in Italy the previous September. Apparently she never remarried but continued at the Allentown Public Library until 1963. She died in 1988 in New York City.