Encore: How A Librarian Changed A Future Judge's Life

Sep 27, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 10:03 pm
StoryCorps / YouTube

In 1950s Arkansas, Olly Neal didn't care much for school. Then one day, he cut class, wandered into the library and stumbled onto a book by author Frank Yerby. The discovery changed the life of a teenager who was, in Neal's memory, "a rather troubled high school senior."

Years later, he told his daughter, Karama, at StoryCorps in 2009, he learned that the librarian — his English teacher — had quietly and generously orchestrated the effort to transform him into a big reader. Neal went on to attend law school and later became a judge, retiring as an appellate judge of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

This episode of StoryCorps originally aired in 2009; it published as an animated video earlier this month.

Produced for Morning Edition by Vanara Taing and Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. Today, we have an old favorite from the StoryCorps archives. Olly Neal is a retired judge for the Arkansas Court of Appeals. As a kid, he didn't really like school that much. At StoryCorps, he told his daughter Karama about the day he cut class and wandered into a library.

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OLLY NEAL: I was a rather troubled high-school senior at the time, about 16 years old. And I spotted this book that looked rather risque called "The Treasurer Of Pleasant Valley." On the cover was a drawing of a woman who appeared to be wearing something that was basically see-through, but the symbolism was really great for me at that age of 16. And then I realized if I read the book - two of my classmates - girls - were volunteering at the library. And if they saw me taking out a book, they'd tell the boys. Then my reputation would be down because I was reading books. And I wanted them to know that all I could do is fight and cuss.

And so finally it come to me - just steal a book. And so when I finished the book in about a week or two, I brought it back. And when I put it back, there was another book by Frank Yerby. So I thought, maybe I'll read that, too. So I took it under my jacket, and later I brought it back. And that was a - (laughter) God, there was another book by Frank Yerby. So I took it. And I think that semester, I read four books by Frank Yerby.

And several years, 13 to be exact, we were at a gathering at my high school for my class reunion. And the teacher who had been the librarian, Mrs. Mildred Grady (ph), was there. She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it. She said, first thought was to go and tell him, boy, you don't have to steal a book. You can check them out. They're free. Then she realized what my situation was - that I could not let anybody know I was reading. So she said that she decided that if a old boy would read a book, she and Mrs. Saunders (ph) would drive to Memphis and find another one for me to read. And they would put it in the exact same place where the one I had taken was.

And every time I took one out, they headed to Memphis to find another one. Now, you got to understand that this was not an easy matter then because this is 1957 and '58, and black authors were not especially available, number one. And number two, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known author. And number three, they had to drive all the way to Memphis to find it. And I credit Mrs. Grady for getting me in the habit of enjoying reading so that I was able to go to law school and survive. So that...

KARAMA: That's pretty cool.

NEAL: (Laughter) Yeah.

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KING: That was Judge Olly Neal talking to his daughter Karama at StoryCorps in 2009. Judge Neal is retired now, and he is writing a book. Their interview is archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others, at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.