The whole nation took note when female sex guru Helen Gurley Brown died this week, as it did last month with the passing of beloved entertainer Andy Griffith. In June, there was even quite a ripple over the long overdue departure of mobster Henry Hill, upon whom "Goodfellas" was based.
Those and other deaths deserved attention, to be sure, but for me, no one left a bigger void than Kathryn Stephanoff, former director of the Allentown Public Library.
On Tuesday, The Morning Call had a story that observed how Stephanoff's impact went well beyond her 42 years at the library. She died last week at the age of 83 in Florida, where she lived since retiring in 2009. "A great lady," another renowned Lehigh Valley figure, the Rev. Daniel Gambet, was quoted as saying. He spoke of her intelligence, her "quick wit," and her various other contributions, such as serving on the board of the Harry C. Trexler Trust, an organization that is the source of much of what's good about the Lehigh Valley.
I have a special spot in my heart for libraries and librarians. Except for newspapers, of course, they transcend all other institutions. Nobody is more important to a civilized and advanced society than a librarian, and Stephanoff was my favorite.
I'm not alone. In 1989, Stephanoff was given the Pennsylvania Library Association's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, for her work in improving the Allentown library and libraries throughout the state.
I have had a few misgivings on occasion, such as when Stephanoff decided she'd had enough of the Three Stooges comedy show represented by the governmental operations of Emmaus, where she lived, and decided to run for mayor in 1997.
On that occasion, calling Emmaus a "citadel of strife," I expressed the hope that Stephanoff would not win. "She is far too decent and intelligent a person to be cast into the purgatory of Emmaus borough government," I wrote at the time.
This was the town that elected Bradford Timbers as a district judge, ousting a decent judge because he made the borough's wild and woolly police officers obey the law. Timbers, who had been the favorite flunky of then-Lehigh County District Attorney William Platt, soon became nationally famous when a few of his problems (booze, etc.) resulted in Reader's Digest proclaiming him to be "America's Worst Judge."
In an extremely rare development, I got my wish. Stephanoff was narrowly defeated by Winfield Iobst, who now is in his fourth term and who, it seems to me, has done a masterful job of getting the Three Stooges freak show under control.
That, thank heavens, gave her more time to accomplish other things, such as building library programs and working with the Allentown Academic Advisory Committee, appointed in 2000 by the state to deal with the Allentown School District disaster.
That committee, which also included Lehigh Valley businessman Elmer Gates and other accomplished individuals, soon clashed with the "Allentown Empowerment Team," handpicked by the source of the disaster, Superintendent Diane Scott.
The Scott team's approach to improving dreadful ASD scholastic ratings: Stop letting the most dismal nincompoops take scholastic tests. "Presto! Automatic improvement!" is the way I put it in 2001. Former gym teacher Scott, as I frequently point out, refused to spend a dime on books for a school library at the same time she had 18 football coaches on the payroll.
Stephanoff, Gates and others on the advisory committee favored finding ways for the district to do a better job of educating children. Gates caused near panic in the Scott contingent when he suggested that the district should shelve "non-academic" frills for flunking students so they could focus on reading and math.
Deprive the nincompoops of football and baton-twirling? Horrors!
By the way, the Scott faction argued that the system's nincompoops came from poor and disadvantaged families, so nobody should expect them to learn to read or add 2 plus 2. Stephanoff was living proof that such an excuse is bogus. She had come from a wrenchingly poor and disadvantaged family. "There isn't anything you can tell me about poverty," she told me at the time. "Poverty has its concerns, but that doesn't mean these children can't learn."
A few years later, my appreciation for Stephanoff and the culture she represented grew even stronger when I began to look at the library situation in Northampton.
Along with Allentown, the Northampton Area School District was in the scholastic toilet, based on the results of academic tests. In Allentown, at least, young people could take advantage of a library that steadily has made improvements.
With that in mind, the voters in Northampton's school district repeatedly rejected any increased funding for the town's library. At the same time, they approved the expenditure of $2.7 million for luxurious improvements to a school football stadium.
And then they wonder why it seems many of their young people don't seem to be going anywhere.
Sometimes, when it seems that the Diane Scott/Northampton/Bradford Timbers cultures are sure to prevail, somebody like Stephanoff comes along and gives us hope.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays