Puss in Books
Puss in books: How one cat transformed a whole town
He was just a stray kitten who ‘adopted’ a library in small-town America. But Dewey ended up touching the lives of everyone who met him – and brought hope to a region mired by recession. Vicki Myron, left, the library’s former director, tells his heart-warming story, which is to be made into a film starring Meryl Streep
[author] Vicki Myron
Last updated at 5:56 PM on 27th February, 2009
Dewey gives one of the library’s books his stamp of approval
January 18 1988 was a bitterly cold Monday. The night before, the temperature had reached minus 15 degrees, and that didn’t take into account the wind, which cut under your coat and squeezed your bones.
There were few cars on the road at 7.30am when I drove to my job as director of Spencer Public Library in Iowa, Midwest America. ‘It’s a mean one out there,’ said Jean Hollis Clark, the assistant director, who arrived shortly after me.
As usual, our first task was to empty the after-hours drop box. You find all kinds of things pushed through the slot in the outside wall intended for returning books – rubbish, snowballs, drink cans, firecrackers…
This particular morning, however, Jean heard something else. ‘I think it’s an animal,’ she said. I heard it, too, a low rumble from under the metal cover. When I opened the lid, it was as cold in the box as it was outside.
I was still catching my breath when I saw the kitten, huddled in the corner. I lifted him out.
He was so thin I could see every rib, so weak he could barely hold up his head. And so cold – I couldn’t believe a living animal could be so cold. As he looked into my eyes, I knew he trusted me completely.
‘He’s so beautiful,’ the rest of the staff cried as they arrived. ‘What should we do with him?’ asked one. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘maybe we can keep him.’
Here was a cat, left for dead, who had made it through the dark night. From the moment we found him, Dewey believed everything was going to be fine. And he made others believe that, too
We named him Dewey, after Melville Dewey (founder of the book classification system that is still used by most public libraries today). A week later, the story of his rescue ran on the front page of the Spencer Daily Reporter under the headline ‘Purr-fect Addition Made to Spencer Library’.
Dewey was indeed a fortunate cat. But Spencer was also lucky. That winter wasn’t just bitterly cold; it was one of the worst times in the history of our small town.
You may remember reading about the collapse of family farming – about the shift from small growers to large factory farms that stretch for miles without a farm worker in sight.
For most people it was just a story, but in Spencer you could feel the strain. Families that had lived in the area for generations could no longer afford their mortgage payments. Almost half the farms in northwest Iowa went bust in the 1980s. Unemployment reached ten per cent and the value of houses dropped by a quarter seemingly overnight.
Then into our laps fell Dewey. I don’t want to make too much of this, because Dewey didn’t create jobs, put food on anyone’s table or turn our economy around. But one of the worst things about bad times is that they drain your energy and taint everything in your life. At the very least, Dewey was a distraction.
But he was so much more. His story resonated with the people of Spencer. Hadn’t we all been shoved down the library drop box by the banks? And by the rest of America, which ate our food but didn’t care about the people who grew it?
Here was a cat, left for dead, who had made it through the dark night. From the moment we found him, Dewey believed everything was going to be fine. And he made others believe that, too.
Dewey with Vicki Myron in 2004
It took Dewey ten days to get healthy enough to explore the library, and once he did it was clear his interest was people, not books.
Rejection never deterred him. Dewey kept looking for laps to lie on, and things started to change. I noticed it first with the older patrons. One man, in particular, came in every morning and read the newspaper. His wife had recently died, and I knew he was lonely. I didn’t expect him to be a cat person, but from the moment Dewey climbed on to his lap, the man was beaming.
And then there was the man visiting the library’s jobs section. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his type – proud, hardworking, resilient. As he looked through the vacancy listings, I could see the strain in the hunch of his back. When Dewey approached, he always pushed him away. Then one day I saw Dewey sitting on his lap, and for the first time in weeks the man was smiling. Maybe Dewey couldn’t give much, but that winter he gave exactly what Spencer needed.
If you really wanted to understand the effect Dewey had on Spencer, though, all you had to do was look at the children. ‘If you don’t settle down,’ our children’s librarian, Mary Walk, would tell those who gathered for story hour, ‘Dewey has to go.’ A hush would fall as the children took their seats. Dewey would slide between them, making them all giggle before curling up in the lap of one lucky child. And every week it was a different child.
Dewey didn’t play favorites; he loved everyone equally. But even as I write that, I know it wasn’t quite true. Dewey did have special relationships, and one I’ll always remember was with Crystal, a beautiful girl of about 11, who had no speech and very little control of her limbs. Crystal’s wheelchair had a wooden tray and when she came in for story hour with the rest of her special needs class, her head was always down and her eyes were staring at the tray.
Dewey noticed Crystal right away, but she didn’t seem interested in him, and there were plenty of children who desperately wanted his attention. Then one week Dewey jumped on Crystal’s tray. Crystal squealed.
She had been coming to the library for years, and that squeal was the first sound I ever heard her make. Her eyes had always been blank. Now they were on fire. She started to smile and you couldn’t believe how bright her smile was.
Maybe Dewey couldn’t give much, but that winter he gave exactly what the town needed
One week I picked Dewey off Crystal’s tray and put him inside her coat. She stared down at him in awe. She was so happy. Dewey was so happy. He had a warm chest to lean on and he was with somebody he loved.
Between 1987, the year before Dewey fell into our arms, and 1989 visits to the Spencer Public Library increased from 63,000 a year to more than 100,000. Clearly something had changed. I could see it among the patrons, but also among colleagues.
One of my first decisions had been that no library funds would be spent on Dewey’s care. Instead, we kept a Dewey box in the back room into which we tossed loose change. Over the years the staff had become splintered and cliquish, but once Dewey joined us, the tension lifted. We were laughing; Dewey had brought us together.
And for me, Dewey’s love and understanding reached even further – to my daughter Jodi. I had been lucky enough to have had the best childhood, as the second of six children growing up on my parents’ farm in rural Iowa. However, family life was never going to be quite the same for Jodi. I was 22 when I married her father Wally Myron and I fell pregnant almost immediately.
But Jodi’s birth led to gynecological complications and two years and six operations later, I woke up after exploratory surgery to discover doctors had removed my womb and uterus. The physical pain was intense, but worse was the knowledge that I couldn’t have any more children. In my mind a curtain came down.
When the black cloud lifted a few months later, Wally wasn’t there. Not like he used to be, anyway. The realization that your husband is a problem drinker comes suddenly, but the admission takes a long time.
Jodi was six before I started divorce proceedings. In my early years as a single mother, Jodi and I were inseparable, but by the time Dewey arrived Jodi was 16 and spent most of her time out with friends or locked in her room.
We interacted only at dinner and even then we rarely had much to talk about – until Dewey. I’d tell her what he did; who came to see him; whom he played with. On Sunday nights we’d drop by the library to feed Dewey and he would jump off bookshelves just to impress her. He was crazy about her and she was the only person from whom he craved affection.
During the holidays, when the library was closed for a few days, I brought Dewey home with me. At bedtime, Jodi would call me to her room. I’d find Dewey lying over the top half of her face and we’d both start laughing.
Jodi was funny around her friends, but for all those secondary school years she was so serious with me. Dewey was the one thing that made our relationship playful. He loved Jodi and I loved him for loving my daughter.
When Dewey was two, a local store organized a pet photo contest. On a whim, I entered him. The town voted, and he won by a landslide, securing more than 80 per cent of the votes. I was almost embarrassed.
That was when I realized Dewey wasn’t just the library’s cat; he was Spencer’s cat. He started making regular appearances in magazines, newspapers and on television. We never pursued publicity; we were simply Dewey’s answering service.
The worst of the farm crisis had passed and as the library’s unofficial publicity director, Dewey was getting the kind of national exposure most small towns could only dream of. Sure, nobody has ever built a factory because of a cat, but nobody has ever built a factory in a place they’d never heard of, either.
In 1994, Spencer Public Library entered the modern era. Out went the antiquated system, with its cards and stamps; in came eight computers. The typewriter, which Dewey had loved as a kitten, fell silent. Crystal left school and began a life that I pray was happy. Other children were growing up, too, but there were always new ones arriving.
Dewey did something heroic every day – changing lives in Spencer one lap at a time
Dewey’s life stayed essentially the same and his fame continued to grow. He received letters from Taiwan, Holland, South Africa, Norway, Australia. Three or four times a week, people would arrive from Utah, Washington, Mississippi, California, Maine and every other corner of the map asking to see our famous cat. All of them left smitten.
Dewey wasn’t special because he did something extraordinary but because he was extraordinary. He wasn’t a hero cat who had saved a child from a burning building, but he did something heroic every day – changing lives in Spencer one lap at a time.
Of all the difficult things in my life – the surprise hysterectomy, the alcoholic husband, the breakdown of my marriage – my double mastectomy was by far the hardest. In the mid-1990s I discovered lumps in my breasts and had to have the surgery. The hollow, sore, scraped-out feeling was with me every minute as I struggled back to my desk.
Whenever I had needed him, Dewey had always been by my side. Now he climbed up to my lap. That might seem like a small thing, but it made all the difference because there was no one to hug me and to tell me it was going to be OK. Nobody knew what I was going through – except Dewey. He seemed to understand that love was constant, but that it could be raised to a higher level when it really mattered.
As the century turned, Dewey mellowed. He still greeted everyone, but on his own terms. He had arthritis in his left hip, and picking him up the wrong way would cause him to limp. When he reached 14, I began mentally preparing for his death, but by the time he was 17, I had nearly stopped thinking about it.
In early November 2006, just as he approached his 19th birthday, his gait became unsteady. An x-ray showed a large tumor in Dewey’s stomach. ‘Is there anything you can give him?’ I asked Dr Beall, the vet.
‘No, not really.’
‘Do you think he’s in constant pain?’
‘I can’t imagine that he’s not.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Somehow I had convinced myself that Dewey was going to live for ever.
I called the library staff and told them Dewey wasn’t coming home. Several came down to say their goodbyes.
Dr Beall put Dewey in my arms. I told Dewey how much I loved him and rewrapped his blanket to make sure he was comfortable. What more could I offer him than comfort? Dr Beall gave him the first injection, followed closely by the second. He said, ‘I’ll check for a heartbeat.’
I said, ‘You don’t need to. I can see it in his eyes.’
Dewey was gone.
Dewey died 11 days after his 19th birthday. In the month that followed, I received more than 1,000 e-mails from all around the world. His obituary ran in 270 newspapers.
I didn’t want a memorial service but we had to do something. So on a cold Saturday in December, Dewey’s admirers gathered at the library. We realized, as we stood there together, that words couldn’t describe our feelings. Finally a local schoolteacher said, ‘People say, “What’s the big deal? He was just a cat.” But they’re wrong. Dewey was so much more.’
Everyone knew exactly what she meant.
This is an edited extract from Dewey by Vicki Myron, which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday, price £14.99. To order a copy with free p&p, visit you-bookshop.co.uk, or call 0845 155 0711