June 6, 2014 by kittynh
I want to thank my good friend Ellie, who is retiring this month, for this terrific post on her mentor. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has to be one of the most beautiful in the United States, but this is a story about the beauty found within people. Rosalia Shriver was a woman that handled her lack of typical physical beauty with grace and intelligence. Ellie shares her memories of a woman that I am sure influenced many lives, and that is truly beautiful. Check out another wonderful post by Ellie other posts here. Also more on the Enoch Pratt Free Library here.
Right before I started the Masters in Library Science program at the University of Maryland, in the summer of 1976, my parents and I were in downtown Baltimore and decided to stop in the Enoch Pratt Free Library Central Library. My father wanted to see the art books, so we found our way to the second floor to the Fine Arts and Recreation Department.
The librarian on duty was a tiny woman, about 4’11”, and maybe 80 pounds. She was extremely helpful and when my parents totally embarrassed me by telling her of my library school plans, she acknowledged me with a bright smile that beamed from a face covered with tumors. My father was delighted with the books, and after a fun browse, we went on our way.
Fast-forward about 20 months.
Armed with my MLS, I took a stop-gap job (which lasted 37 years) at the Pratt Library in the Fine Arts and Recreation Department, and was formally introduced to that librarian, Rosalia Shriver. During my first week in the department, she noticed me taking bashful looks at her arms and face and gently said, “They don’t hurt, you know.” I was very embarrassed, but she wasn’t. “I have neurofibromatosis,” she explained, and gave me a short lecture on the disease. She demonstrated that the tumors on her face, wrists, and hands were soft and just part of her everyday life.
Rosalia was, oddly enough considering her condition, a smoker at a time when smoking was allowed in the lunchroom at work. She held her cigarette like a 1940s dame in a film noir. She always wore pearls and a cardigan. Her sense of humor was a bit sardonic, but very witty, and she was a wonderful storyteller.
Rosalia demonstrated the kind of tough graciousness that I have spent the rest of my working life trying to emulate. When men patronized her, she responded with a pitying smile. No one had to give her work; she just did the work she found. When a patron asked a question about Rosa Bonheur and she discovered there were no books on her, she wrote one and got it published. She was active in the community, went to lectures, cheered on her cousin Pam, the tennis player, and spoke often of her sister in England, with whom she was very close, but whom she saw only rarely. When I annoyed her, she let me know in no uncertain terms, but always with the amusement of someone disciplining a kitten.
In1980 the movie The Elephant Man was released. Most sources at the time listed Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man” as having neurofibromatosis, or NF, and the disease enjoyed a spate of interest from the media. The local chapter of The Neurofibromatosis Foundation, which Rosalia was active in, suggested to a local news station that they interview her, which they did, and the interview was accordingly aired. Since then, the diagnosis for Merrick has changed to Proteus syndrome.
Eventually, the disease, and maybe the cigarettes she held so stylishly, caught up with Rosalia. The tumors began to grow internally, especially in her lungs, and she became more frail. I used to comment that a strong wind would carry her away, and that’s almost exactly what happened. Still coming to work and gamely getting through the day, she was waiting for a bus and an unusually strong wind blew her down, breaking her pelvis. After her stay in the hospital, she went into a nursing home, and spent the last year of her life on oxygen. I would visit her occasionally, and she would be her sardonic and smart self, still discussing art and still participating in life as much as she could. When she died in 1987, I attended her funeral mass. Nine days later, her sister also died.
Rosalia was 59 when she died, exactly the age I am right now. I’m not sure how many people remember her at the library. I am doubtful that in 27 years anyone working there will remember me. I can only hope I have had as good an impact one someone along the way.