Popular retired librarian leaves $650,000 to Pratt

Bequest exceeds Sara Siebert's earnings over 34 years as library's head of young adult reading

January 31, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Enoch Pratt Free Library officials happily discovered the esteem one of their retirees held for the place.

At her death, Sara Siebert directed that more than $650,000 of her assets go to the library, a figure that exceeds the total of all the paychecks she took home in her 34 years as Pratt's director of young adult reading.

Siebert, an energetic and popular librarian who sought no attention as a donor during her life, left an estate of more than $2 million after her death at age 88 last year.

Having no survivors, she divided her assets among the Baltimore institutions she admired - the Pratt, the Walters Art Museum and the Broadmead Retirement Community in Cockeysville, where she spent the final years of her life. She also created a $600,000 trust for Goucher College, her alma mater.

"It's amazing. Librarians traditionally aren't paid that much," said Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden. "It's one of the largest single gifts we've received."

Colleagues recalled Siebert, who ardently preached that teens read the classics, as a petite woman who wore Ferragamo pumps and tailored suits. They compared her to film star Jean Arthur, with a blond bob. She regularly made visits - and held inspections - at branches in impoverished city neighborhoods. She insisted that staff members have quality books displayed and ready for any teen patron. She would discuss books with her staff and argue their literary merits.

"I remember the day I met her," said Deborah Taylor, the Pratt's school and student services coordinator. "I was a ninth-grader at Western High. She ran me all over the library, recommending one book after another. Other students came to be in awe of her because they had never seen anyone more passionate about books."

Siebert trained young librarians to match the right adult book for a young mind.

"She was a force," Taylor said. "She was always moving fast. She was always so adamant. Once she made up her mind, there was no changing it."

Years before her death, Siebert quit smoking and sold valuable tobacco company stocks her father had purchased. With those funds she established a charitable trust for Goucher College, which received more than $600,000 at the time.

"She was astute financially. She was a very wise investor and was prudent. She's giving it back to Pratt with interest," said her attorney, former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, whose wife Linda worked alongside Siebert for many years. "Her will was exactly and precisely what she wanted. She gave back to the institutions that made a significant difference in her life."

William Johnston, a Walters Art Museum official, recalled Siebert's enthusiasm for overseas travel on trips led by his institution's educational staff.

The day an art-study tour was announced, Siebert would walk to the Walters with a deposit, he said.

"The trips became a part of her social life," Johnston said. "She was a very peppy person who had an endearing quality of taking a real interest with those she was accompanying."

Born in Baltimore, Siebert grew up near Druid Hill Park. Friends said that her father, an attorney, taught her values of conservative money management. She lived with her parents at their St. Dunstan's Road residence in Homeland and later with her aged mother at the Carlyle Apartments on University Parkway. She then moved to Broadmead, where she became active in a residents association and helped arrange speakers.

She joined the Pratt staff immediately after her Goucher graduation and was protege of Margaret Alexander Edwards, who founded the library's young adult readers section. Edwards also left her estate to a trust to promote reading.

Pratt colleagues recalled Siebert by her nickname - "Bunny" - and compared her to the "Energizer Bunny." They said she was constantly in motion, but was not a good driver, prone to taking her eyes off the road while pressing a point in conversation. She was also a light eater.

"I'd look at her and say, 'Why are you only having a cube of cheese and a grapefruit for lunch?' said Taylor, her Pratt colleague. "She'd say, 'Because I intend to have two cocktails when I get home tonight.' "

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