City that reads wants troops to read, too Thousands of books on their way to gulf

December 17, 1990|By Kathy Lally

The equivalent of two branch-libraries worth of books were sent flying off to Saudi Arabia, all because Nancy Hedrick decided to feed minds instead of stomachs.

Mrs. Hedrick is the Hamilton mother who went out for a pair of green socks to send to her son, a Marine stationed in Saudi Arabia, and came back to her modest frame house with a major book drive under way.

Her errand produced a gift of 150,000 books -- enough to fill two of Enoch Pratt's biggest library branches -- from people throughout Baltimore that was shipped off several days ago.

Mrs. Hedrick set out one day in early November to send 23-year-old Bill Jr. some books and regulation green socks, a simple enough journey but one that eventually had her at the heart of a slick multimedia advertising campaign.

While searching for the socks, she chatted with a Marine sergeant, mentioning how great it would be for some of the 500,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East to have the books she was sending her son. Mrs. Hedrick had heard heart-warming stories about people all over the country packing up cookies for the Americans waiting for war and peace in the desert.

"That feeds the stomach," she thought. "We need to feed the mind."

She got in touch with the Marines, who eventually sent her to the office of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke just as a Vietnam veteran with a knack for advertising arrived there with the same idea.

Patrick Sean Dolan, Baltimore County whirlwind, and Nancy Hedrick, Hamilton mom, proved an irresistible force. When word got out about their go-for-broke kind of mission, the books came pouring in.

Baltimore -- dubbed by the mayor "the city that reads" -- dusted off its shelves and opened up its heart. The 150,000 books donated are enough to give one each to more than a quarter of the Americans waiting in the desert.

The mayor designated branches of the Pratt Library as pickup points for the two-week campaign in mid-November. Stunned librarians watched the books begin pouring in.

Joshua Notowitz, a librarian who spends part of his time at the Reisterstown Road branch, remembers a donor who had emigrated from Russia 20 years ago.

"She said she knew what it was like to undergo hardship for the sake of freedom, and she wanted to write to those dear boys," Mr. Notowitz recalled. She sent a letter along with her books, as did many contributors.

One woman called the Roland Park branch to say she could barely squeeze her books into a pickup truck, said Devon Ellis, a librarian at the branch. Ms. Ellis routed her straight to the Fifth Regiment Armory, where the books were being packed into cartons.

"It really caught us off guard the way people responded," Ms. Ellis said. "And they brought good books. They didn't bring the junk from attics or basements."

The books were screened at the armory by squadrons of volunteers and a retired Pratt librarian, Annette Blank.

Out of respect to the conservative Saudi Arabians, the Defense Department had declared that no books with suggestive covers and no religious works could be sent. That meant no cleavage and no Bibles.

"It could be as steamy as anything inside as long as the cover didn't look that way," Ms. Ellis said.

A regretful Ms. Ellis had to turn aside "Pair of Hearts" because of the passionate couple standing on the cover against the background of a Mississippi riverboat. These are the kind of romances people read without knowing the author or the title.

"The woman has on a satin dress that was cut low -- very, very low," Ms. Ellis said. "She's tearing his shirt off. It looks exciting, and I'm sure the troops would love it, but it's not anything we could send."

It ended up on the library's book sale rack. You can get it for 10 cents.

Lots of spy thrillers went off without a hitch -- Tom Clancy and Sidney Sheldon were particularly popular.

"But nobody had any books on desert survival," Mr. Notowitz said.

Ann Smith at the Hamilton branch reported lots of barely read book-club books, and probably a few unread ones, sent to the forgetful who didn't send in the notice rejecting that month's selection.

The books came from everywhere: a couple of hundred from a Baltimore insomniac who whiles away sleepless hours with books; 1,000 from the Baltimore Customs Office, where Bill Hedrick Sr. works; 150 from an Eastern Avenue beauty parlor; 600 from the Rotary Club in Timonium.

They were packed and sorted by National Guardsmen, Hampden Boy Scouts, Booker T. Washington Middle School students, Solomon Schechter Day School children, Loyola College ROTC cadets and too many more to count.

Mrs. Hedrick was still astonished at the number when five city vans filled with 1,200 cartons rolled out on their way to a naval spare parts center in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and then to the Air Force base in Dover, Del., for shipment to the troops.

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