Dedication celebrates legacy of beloved teacher Lawson

It may have been fitting that, amidst the fast-paced hubbub of the July 20 weekend -- marked by the Lake Fest and celebration of Culver's Woodcraft Camp's centennial -- a beloved local teacher whose own manner was quiet and subdued, but markedly impactful, was honored at the Culver-Union Twp. Public Library.

Specifically, the Rita Lawson Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection was dedicated July 21 at the library, bearing the namesake of the late longtime Culver Community School teacher and library board member, who passed away in December, 2010.

Introducing the dedication ceremony was library director Colleen McCarty, who noted Lawson had "ready every book in her hometown library" as a youth, and explained the library board had sought a fitting memorial for her and decided "a stand-alone science fiction collection would be just that."

She added Lawson's daughter, Abby, helped design the space for the collection.

McCarty said the Culver library has "quite a good (science fiction) collection" for a library its size, noting that collection was augmented by volumes donated in Lawson's name. She said the dragon figurines currently displayed in the upstairs lobby of the library came from the Lawson family as well.

McCarty quoted a Facebook comment in response to notice of the dedication, from June McDonald of Culver, "This is an awesome tribute to an amazing teacher."

Lawson's husband, fellow longtime Culver Community Schools teacher Latham Lawson, who McCarty introduced as having been on the library board at the time of the building's expansion and renovation in the early 2000s, said Rita "read a book a day" and sometimes more, growing up. He said he first met her while in college at Indiana State, where he said, "If I wanted to find her, all I had to do was find an open book!"

Latham also described Rita's increasing love of the science fiction and fantasy genres, recalling the early days of her tenure on the Culver library board, when she "came home stunned...that the library has almost no science fiction books," a situation she quickly set out to remedy.

"She saw the need for young minds to find young ways to get into young thoughts," concluded Latham.

The Lawsons' daughter, Kelly Berger, shared memories of her mother's passion for reading and being -- along with sister Abby -- part of a "captive audience" as young recipients of Rita's literary enthusiasm.
"She always seemed to know just the book for you," added Berger, recalling some of the childhood favorites her mother introduced her to.

Rita herself was a particular fan of the works of Madeleine L'Engle and Susan Cooper, though Lloyd Alexander's "Black Cauldron" series was her favorite, said Berger.

"She loved to read, herself, and loved to help other people love to read," she added.

Library board president Jim Hahn thanked the Lawson family for donating much of Rita's personal science fiction collection, which he said "should be the envy of Indiana libraries."

Barbara Winters, a close friend of Rita Lawson (whom she called "a passionate, passionate teacher"), recalled meeting her through a friendship she developed with Latham when both Latham and Winters were teaching at Culver High School. Rita, a stay-at-home mother at the time, aided Winters in typing many of the manuscripts for Winters' Master's degree papers.

In the 1970s, the two became involved in the local Teacher's Association -- Rita as president and Winters as vice president -- where they became closer friends.

"Rita is older than me," joked Winters, noting Lawson was born in September and Winters herself in November. "I was never the oldest teacher in the school corporation; Rita was. I decided to retire the same year she did or I'd be the oldest teacher in the school corporation!"

Once retired, the two spent each Thursday together on shopping trips, though Winters said they "mostly ended up at Barnes and Noble (bookstore)."

"We had fantastic conversations during those eight years," added Winters. "If our husbands ever wanted to come with us, we both had to think of reasons they couldn't!

"We really had become best friends," she concluded, "and I really, really miss her."

Library staff member Polly Thompson Wolf noted she met Rita Lawson through her role in ordering science fiction books for the library. Lawson, she said, would find gaps in the various sci-fi series and request replacements.

Wolf said $1,640 had been donated to the library in Lawson's name, though she believed more had come in since. Around $500 has been used so far to add books to the science fiction collection.

The Lawson family, she explained, donated over 400 books from Rita's private collection, all of which have been cataloged and are on the shelf now at the library, with book plates identifying them as such (and whether they are fantasy or science fiction titles).

She also announced the library will launch a science fiction discussion club Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. starting in August. The group will begin with the first book in C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, she noted, and future discussions will center on the first book in any series discussed, in hopes readers may continue reading into the series. She also said if a movie has been made of a book discussed, it will be shown as well.

"Even if you thought you'd never read (a science fiction book)," she said, "we have something for everyone."

The Friends of the Library, represented by president Charlotte Hahn -- who called Rita Lawson "a wonderful asset" -- presented the library a copy of Orson Scott Card's "The Lost Gate" book for the collection.

McCarty also thanked the library staff, and particularly Cindy Good for coordinating the event, as well as Andrew Baker for promoting and videotaping the event, along with Sean Doty, library maintenance man, for helping assemble the collection with help from staff member Jim Faulkner. She also thanked the library board, Friends organization, and Lawson family, noting the Lawson science fiction collection now has some 1,500 titles.

The dedication concluded with an official ribbon cutting by Latham Lawson.

A video of the dedication event may be viewed on Youtube via a link at the library’s Facebook page.