Richard Hart

[Age 99] The longtime humanities department chief at the Pratt Library worked to encourage aspiring writers.

March 17, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Richard Hart, humanities department chief at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, died Tuesday of complications from old age at Roland Park Place. The former Charles Village resident was 99.

Recalled yesterday for his encouragement of aspiring writers and patience with library patrons, he wrote poetry and had a scholar's interest in Edgar Allan Poe. He was also the author of a biography of the library's founder, Enoch Pratt.

Mr. Hart was born in Baltimore and raised on Harlem Avenue. In newspaper interviews, Mr. Hart said that he coped with periods of adolescent bad health by reading. With $20 in his pocket, he signed on as an apprentice aboard the freighter Quaker City and sailed for Europe shortly after his 1925 graduation from City College. For several years, he was a merchant mariner, and he survived a violent hurricane aboard the tanker Muskogee in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1930 he became a reference department page at the old 1880s Pratt headquarters on Mulberry Street and attended the Pratt Institute School of Library Science in New York. In 1931, he became a literature department assistant and was named head in 1940, a post he held until 1973, when he retired and his section had become the humanities department.

"He was a completely self-educated man," said Faye Houston, a retired Pratt staff member who later became head of the department he led. "It was a point of pride with him that he had accomplished what he did without attending a college or university. His knowledge was enormous, and he was very much a part of a scholarly library tradition. He could care less about the library bureaucracy."

A 1946 profile said, "Mr. Hart has helped many of the budding authors of the city, offering counsel, market lists, author's agent files and consolation in generous measure." The profile also called him "the liaison officer for Baltimore's literati."

Poet and teacher Clarinda Harriss said Mr. Hart "nurtured my love for poetry" and "gave me my start in getting published."

She also recalled his presence at the library, where he freely dispensed his personal observations on literature.

"He never bothered to hush his voice," she said. "It was his place. It was his house."

Colleagues recalled that he voluntarily worked a 5 1/2 -day week so he could spend a portion of Saturday directly supervising the staff and working with patrons. The schedule also gave him the opportunity to have lunch at the old Marconi's restaurant, where he invariably ordered seafood bonne femme, or the Woman's Industrial Exchange, where he had the buckwheat pancakes.

"He was a believer in a sound mind and a sound body," Ms. Houston said. "He took long hikes and swam regularly."

In a 1973 Sun profile written upon Mr. Hart's retirement, he was described as a "librarian, writer, reader and conversationalist" with "a quick, intelligent glance which is constantly sizing things up. But whatever it is, the impression is immeasurably fortified when he opens his mouth to speak. Richard Hart speaks in paragraphs."

In 1946 he married the former Evelyn Linthicum, who became the librarian at the George Peabody Library on Mount Vernon Place. She died in 1985.

"They made a great team, a kind of punch and counterpunch," said Richard Macksey, professor of comparative literature at the Johns Hopkins University. "He knew the library backward and forward."

After his retirement Mr. Hart gave a lecture on H.L. Mencken and was chairman of the 1980 Mencken centennial committee.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. April 27 at the Pratt's Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St.

Mr. Hart leaves no immediate survivors.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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