The current High Point Public Library at 901 North Main Street opened to the public 30 years ago this month—on March 2, 1992, with an open house and dedication of the new building on March 15. The Library underwent an expansion and renovation in 2010 and continues to add more activities and activity spaces. In today’s blog about the library’s namesake, Neal F. Austin, Stephan Rantz explores Austin’s scholarship related to North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe.
One of the most frequently asked questions by patrons who wander into the Heritage Research Center just to look over our curious bric-a-brac is, “Who’s that?”
And they point to a sculpture that has always stood at the back of our reference desk —even when our department was located on the third floor: a plaster cast of a “comfortably” suited (some might say dowdy) man with an overcoat tossed casually over one arm and the other plunged into his pants pocket, as if he were turning over coins while lost in deep contemplation.
Then I answer, “That’s Thomas Wolfe.” If they looked further befuddled, I add for clarification “The author from Asheville, North Carolina.”
At 20 inches tall, the statue of Thomas Wolfe is certainly less imposing than the famous author who towered over almost anyone at six feet, six inches tall. Despite the recent film, Genius, in which Jude Law and Colin Firth portrayed the writer and his equally famous editor, Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe remains a relatively unfamiliar author these days. Though lauded for the depth and passion of his writing, he has become increasingly unpopular, perhaps as much for his unbridled and florid style of writing as for his unfortunate racial quips.
The question not a single visitor has ever asked is, “Why does a historical collection in High Point have a statue of an Asheville writer on their desk?”
We have a statue of Wolfe, as well as a few other artifacts, because they were collected by the library’s namesake, Neal F. Austin, who served as the director —or “chief librarian” as he was called back then— until 1992. He was also a scholar who wrote A Biography of Thomas Wolfe, about which he claimed, “I wrote that Wolfe book every night after 9 (p.m.) when we put the kids to bed, for two years.” (The High Point Enterprise, February 23, 1992)
While Austin realized that he had RGF (Resting Grumpy Face), he felt obliged to explain that he was actually a real people person: “I’m really not (grumpy). I just look that way,” he told an Enterprise reporter in 1992, who explained that Austin hoped his sometimes-stern demeanor didn’t “obscure his affection for people.” I must say that when I met him shortly after I was hired in 2000, I didn’t notice anything gruff about his demeanor whatsoever. He just marched right into the Heritage Research Center and introduced himself. I had no idea who he was, and he quickly explained that he used to run the library and that he loved meeting all the new employees. He was genuinely warm and easy to talk to, and I remember thinking how wonderful it must have been to have worked for someone with such enthusiasm. [It goes without saying that under Mary Sizemore’s directorship, I need not wonder anymore.] Austin was very proud of this library —having had the distinction of overseeing the construction of the last two consecutive libraries in High Point.
Neal Austin at an event in 1989, unveiling the plans and model for a new High Point Public Library building.
Coincidentally, Austin was born the very same year the first library opened in 1926. This was also the same year that Wolfe started writing a book that would become his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. While our library grew from the work of the local Woman’s Club, Austin was an Oklahoma boy, educated at the University of Oklahoma where he developed the first library for its School of Journalism. He moved to High Point in 1952, having previously been the chief librarian for the Union County Public Library System. He was High Point’s chief librarian until his retirement in 1992, for which he received a Long Leaf Pine award from the NC State Library’s director of library services.
We are very fortunate that he was such a good scholar of Thomas Wolfe’s and heeded Wolfe’s most famous adage so that he wouldn’t go home again. That little fringed surrey was retired, to High Point’s good fortune. Austin felt at home in High Point and spent the rest of his life here. He was quoted as saying that he didn’t know if he had a lot of good sense or blind luck in coming to High Point. He became entrenched in the life of the city: Toastmaster’s Club, Elks Lodge, Rotary Club, and High Point Friends Meeting, not to mention various professional associations.
Well-known local journalist Bobbi Martin reported to the Enterprise that there were a number of recurring themes at Austin’s retirement dinner: Strength of character—leader—steward-- a dream he didn’t let go—persistent-- sense of humor—caring-- lives the Golden Rule. (The High Point Enterprise, August 18, 1992)
From Austin, I learned that our setbacks can become our greatest strengths.
After having met him, I never would have guessed that he was an amputee or a lung cancer survivor. He claimed that while his amputation kept him from experiencing many things as a boy, it also gave him a deep love of reading [and, thus, a long and distinguished career with books] just as his slow cancer recovery made him more appreciative of life and relationships.
Neal Austin, pictured in The High Point Enterprise in 1953 with the Library’s collection of rare books.
In a similar vein, it may be said that the Heritage Research Center has changed since Austin’s day. The focus of our collection has migrated over the years: early edition Wolfe books, as well as other literary works and journals by North Carolina authors have all been sold for other collectors to cherish and care for, and their funds have been used to purchase anything from digital microfilm readers to more extensive genealogical reference works. While I was sad to see the fictional side of our collection leave, the Heritage Research Center has been made stronger as a genealogical resource for the community.
Our positions in life are often created for us by supersession. Call that destiny or fate, or simply serendipity; every person and object belongs somewhere. And, whether person or object, they each have a story to tell. After all, that’s what archives are for.
To see more of Neal Austin’s life and career in High Point, see these items in the High Point Museum’s online catalog: https://hpmuseum.catalogaccess.com/people/830 .
To see more of the High Point Public Library, including the old library building on South Main Street and construction of the current building, browse these photographs:
Stephen Rantz is a Research Associate in the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library. Contact him at 336.883.3637 or email@example.com.