A Life: Virginia Close, 1921 - 2012; ‘More Than Once We Saw Her Speak Truth to Power’
Virginia Close is shown in the Norwich town office in a 2007 photograph. (Chad Finer photograph)
The late Virginia Close, a former Dartmouth College reference librarian, who died this fall at 91, is shown in an undated photo. (Family photograph)
Jon Garrow, of Vershire, rolls personal pizzas before the dedication. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)
Norwich — Virginia Close was said to be Baker Library’s most precious resource.
As Dartmouth College’s consummate librarian for more than 65 years, Close’s colleagues said she kept students and faculty grounded, and there were many over the years who leaned on her for support.
“I still hear from some of the students that worked with me and Virginia,” said Patsy Carter, a colleague and 46-year friend of Close. “They had so much respect for her. Even the faculty depended on her heavily for research, even after she retired.”
Former colleague Robert Jaccaud said Close’s ability to find the most fitting material was impeccable.
“It was not unusual for her to spend hours researching a reference question, and I am sure that there were few instances (if any) that she did not find the answer,” Jaccaud wrote in an email. “I shall never forget her gentle spirit, warm heart, endearing smile, inexhaustible energy, insatiable curiosity, and her regular reply to the question, ‘How are you Virginia?’ ‘So’s to be!’ she always answered.”
Close, a Norwich resident for more than 60 years, died Nov. 1 at age 91.
As a staple within the Dartmouth community, she had a long history of taking on the burdens of others.
Dick Mosenthal, a former Dartmouth student and neighbor of the Close family, said Close was always eager to help him find materials to complete his college projects.
“She would say, ‘When do you need this by?’ and it would usually result in, ‘Well that doesn’t give us much time now does it,’ ” Mosenthal said, and added Close would stop everything she was doing to help others.
“Virginia had a knack of making your project seem like it was the most important thing that she was working on,” Mosenthal said. “Virginia was Baker Library.”
Even after her multi-decade career, Close continued to assist others.
Although some people envision retirement as life away from the day-to-day grind, for Close, retirement meant delving deeper into reference material — eventually publishing Eleazar Wheelock and the Adventurous Founding of Dartmouth College with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Geneticist Dr. Dick Hoefnagel — and preserving Norwich’s early hand-written town files.
“She helped preserve original documents and made the information more accessible,” said Nancy Osgood, president of Norwich Historical Society.
Norwich Town Clerk Bonnie Munday said Close would come into her office daily to undertake projects.
The preservation of town records started in 1996, three years after Close’s retirement, and involved transcribing faded handwriting off of marriage, birth and death notices, meeting records, deeds and other miscellaneous documents. Once translated, Close would type and send a copy of her work to the town for preservation.
“She knew that the less we opened the older volumes the better it was for the books,” Munday said, and added Close transcribed more than eight town record books.
Munday said Close continued to transcribe the records until three or four years ago.
“The town has benefited tremendously from her work,” Munday said. “I’m gonna miss her forever.”
Close was a constant in Norwich, often attending Selectboard, Planning Commission and Zoning Board meetings. It was said aloud at her memorial service on Nov. 14 that her opinions didn’t always side with the majority and given her quiet and undemonstrative demeanor, when she spoke out it was “often quite noticeable.”
Ralph Hybels, a Planning Commission member, read a statement aloud at the service on behalf of the commission, which was later published as a letter to the editor in the Valley News.
“When she was quiet, which was almost always, she was attentive. When she spoke, she was outspoken,” Hybels said. “More than once we saw her speak truth to power; her natural diffidence and the frailness of her small frame belied by the conviction of what she believed to be right, good and true.”
One of Close’s nieces, Ellen DesMeules, said the statement prefectly caputured her aunt’s character.
“She often stood up for people who were reluctant or the underdog — those too cautious to speak up. She was not afraid to speak up,” DesMeules said.
DesMeules spoke of her aunt as self-effacing, honest and forthcoming. She said her aunt grew up in a family that “lived a very simple life.”
Close was raised alongside her brother, Thompson, by their father and mother, Thomas and Bertha. While her mother stayed at home, her father worked for New England Telephone. Born in Worcester, Mass., in 1921, Close and her family relocated to White River Junction when her father’s job moved north.
Close attended Hartford schools and went on to pursue bachelor and master’s degrees in history, as well as a bachelor’s degree in library science.
While at Baker Library, Close climbed the ladder, eventually becoming head reference librarian and bibliographer and editor of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin. She was awarded an honorary master’s degree in 1986.
Close’s friends knew her as a softball and hockey player.
Longtime friend Shirley Grainger-Inselburg said Close was a “lover of breakfast.” She said her and Close would meet at sunrise at restaurants to enjoy a morning meal and “talk politics;” she commented on how delighted Close would’ve been to see President Obama reelected.
“She adored good food,” Grainger-Inselburg said, citing lobster bisque as a favorite.
Close, she said, never really slowed down.
“Regarding her last years when she was still living at home, I was absolutely flabbergasted to find her still painting the walls. I would see her down on the floor, refinishing the floors,” Grainger-Inselburg said. “She was truly remarkable.”
Though she never married and bore no children, few questioned whether Close lived fulfilling life.
“I was sitting in the faculty stands for the umpteenth time — having worked here nearly as long as she has — when she was awarded an honorary degree at commencement; and on no similar occasion have I heard so heartfelt an ovation,” Professor Emeritus Laurence Ingram Radway wrote in a tribute. “All who knew her will testify to her professionalism, modesty, swiftness … and patience in the service of dummies.”
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Tuesday, Nov. 27 edition of the Valley News:
Dick Hoefnagel was the co-author of Eleazar Wheelock and the Adventurous Founding of Dartmouth College. A story in yesterday's Valley News, and a previous obituary for Virginia Close, misstated his first name.