Enemies of Reading

A few words by way of finding a home for Miss Frances Berri, formerly of Durango, Colorado

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 12/10/21

Frances Berri came to be my "ward" when I bought a large quantity of books and papers one day about 30 years ago.

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Enemies of Reading

A few words by way of finding a home for Miss Frances Berri, formerly of Durango, Colorado


I am seeking here today some responsible person with a good heart who is willing to "adopt" the memory of a young woman who died suddenly in 1932. If "adopt" is not quite the word, perhaps "inherit" would do, or, more formally, "assume custody" for the memory of this young lady. The most tangible forms of that memory are her senior year high school yearbook from 1929 and her hometown newspaper's obituary of her, published in March 1932.

The young lady's name was Frances Berri and according to the Durango News, published in Durango, Colorado, for Friday morning, March 4, 1932, she was born on July 5, 1911, in that town. She graduated from Durango High School with the Class of 1929 and then went on to the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her friends named her "Tillie" and she was widely known, liked and respected.

She had a "host of friends," the newspaper says," and "wore ever a cheerful smile and in school affairs always done her part." According to "The Toltec" (her yearbook) she was a member of the social committee of the newspaper, the White Caps swimming club and the tennis team. She also took part in the Christmas pageant and was scribe for the Teelawauket Chapter of Camp Fire Girls.

Her copy of the Toltec yearbook is filled with amusing, sweet, very 1920s-slangy comments about her classmates and teachers. Given the time distance from when she wrote those words, they now seem touchingly poignant. In the class predictions section, she wrote that she'd "be personal secretary to a millionaire one day and then marry him." Unfortunately, that was not to be.

After high school she went to college in Boulder and lived in a rooming house on campus. She studied at the university for a few years but in her junior year, on the morning of Friday, March 3, 1932, she woke up appearing "pale and wan" and was encouraged to go back to bed while a doctor was summoned to the boarding house. Her family was contacted when her condition worsened. By Saturday morning, March 4, she seemed beyond recovery. Later that day she died. No reason or diagnosis was publicly given. Her mother was not able to arrive on the train from Denver until Sunday. She brought Frances back to Durango on Tuesday.

The Wednesday afternoon funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church and burial was at Greenmount Cemetery, Lot 54, beside her one-year-old baby sister, Beatrice, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Years later, Frances' father and mother would join their daughters on the family's shared headstone. A son, Theodore, survived.

Frances Berri came to be my "ward" when I bought a large quantity of books and papers one day about 30 years ago. I don't remember where. I am an antiquarian bookseller when I'm not writing. Besides books, I also acquire anything printed that is interesting, historical, offbeat or beautiful (but not art prints). In that way, I acquired Miss Berri's yearbook. I was amused by her sense of humor, as shown by the comments she wrote in her yearbook's margins. I was also charmed by the 1920s kids' slang she used. That was a very pleasant experience. I determined to mention those things when I put it up for sale.

Then I opened the envelope tucked inside her yearbook. It contained her obituary. I was deeply touched at once, saddened as though someone I knew had died. I suddenly felt protective of her. Over the years I've had to throw away lots of photographs or ordinary yearbooks or newspapers as worthless in the sellers' market. But not this little clutch of pictures and words about this very particular person. Just a kid, and an ordinary one at that, but I felt an inexpressible urge to preserve these little proofs that she'd once lived and roamed the earth as we do. So they've sat on the edge of my desk for 30 years.

But now I'm old enough to be concerned for little Miss Frances Berri's future. I have no idea where her next home will be. Perhaps an archive somewhere, a library, or at least into the protective custody of one of my readers who will take care of her memory until a more permanent residing place is found. Out west, in Durango, might be best, but life has its twists and turns.

Please email me. If more than one person wants to take over the curation of these items, I'll need to know something about you and figure out a way to decide. Thanks. HG