Thelma Morris was waiting outside the door of her apartment in Kendal when I arrived. Over dinner in the Kendal dining room, we made the sort of conversation that veers bravely into the philosophical but steers clear of irrelevance. Throughout dinner and our interview afterward, Thelma often apologized for digressing, but her introspection and retrospection, assiduously and almost lovingly articulated, are precisely what makes her compelling.
She said, “[Philosophy] comes, I suppose, more appropriately and naturally to me now than it would have — I thought I was philosophical back then [in college] but I’m not sure I even knew what that was all about.”
Thelma spoke repeatedly of her quest for “a liberality of spirit,” which seems to have defined and directed her life. This was a theme in our conversation.
Morris grew up in New Haven and then studied English literature at Oberlin from 1950-54. She became a librarian and eventually moved to the Cleveland area to work at the Cleveland Public Library in the Social Sciences department, where she remained for over thirty years. She moved to Kendal one year ago.
Business libraries became Morris’s specialty after college. But after working in this field at Harvard, the University of Washington in Seattle and in the city of Cleveland, she sought a “richer mix” in the Social Sciences department.
She told me she discovered that “each of my jobs had been that much narrower in subject matter and focus than I realized I was comfortable with.
“The business world wasn’t the place that enlisted my deepest interests and sympathies,” she continued. “In a sense, it was too narrow a world.”
The same quest for diversity motivated Morris to become a librarian in the first place.
Her ambition had been to “get a PhD and become a professor at Smith or Wellesley. I realize now what a small world that might have been.”
However, Morris’s father was also a librarian, which means that “it was ‘the path of least resistance’” for Morris.
She added, “[it was a path] which turned out to be, in my case, a path that just opened up enormously once I got started on it.”
Morris offered one anecdote that demonstrated just how that path opened up and how she was able to “be a bridge” in her community.
“The Huff Riots in Cleveland happened while I was there,” she said. “That was the early Civil Rights unrest. A lot of the ghettos in Cleveland were burned or badly decimated by gangs...who felt that the system was simply not working for them...Some of these angry young [African Americans] would come in, and I think that they always felt that the library was a ‘safe place’...These were young kids who would come up and say, ‘I want everything you’ve got on slavery.’”
Morris continued, “[I’d] show them the material on slavery. Well, what they really meant is ghetto life. So [they said], ‘No, this is old stuff, I want the new stuff.’ And you’d learn how to ask questions without making them sound as if you were putting them down...And once they began to feel that you were not going to pull a white middle class act on them, it made a difference. So there were many little odd ways — I don’t mean to make it over dramatic, because it wasn’t...but it took some doing.”
Morris’s reflections on Oberlin College seemed to be entirely relevant to the student body of today — although Morris refers to her generation as “the quiet generation.”
“Our life was going to be a little more predictable than your experiences after Oberlin may be,” she said. “You folks are probably going to have two or three disparate careers whereas we may have aligned ourselves with General Motors and retired from General Motors—there won’t be that kind of institutional continuity.”
Nevertheless, Morris believes that Oberlin College of the early 50’s and Oberlin today share a similar spirit — that of “an intellectually stimulating and questing student body, very much engaged in the world.”
“Sometimes the desire to change the world is writ large on their foreheads,” she said. “But generally I think there’s this pragmatic underpinning, too, that says that ‘changing the world’ is a hollow phrase unless there’s something very specific and very focused below that.”
But it took Morris some time to grow accustomed to her Oberlin alumna status.
“When I first graduated from Oberlin I felt insecure because I knew
that I was not quite as smart as all of those smart people who had graduated
with me,” said Morris. “Only after many years had passed did I find
out that I, in my own way, was able to make just as much of a difference as
those smart people who went straight to New York and straight to the top. There
are many ways in which you can find a life that fulfills, and it’s not all