The first time I walked into Nancy Lair’s classroom, I knew she was going to be one of my favorite instructors, but I had no idea she would become a dear friend, and that our friendship would span 40 years. Nancy was a much-loved instructor of cataloging at Indiana University’s School of Library and Information Science, but one of my favorite memories is from her Literature of the Humanities Reference course. Throughout the semester she took our class to the University Library’s Reference Department and gave each of us a red and white envelope of questions, then set us loose to find the answers. Each question, carefully crafted to test our detective ability, reflected Nancy’s lifelong passion for art, music, fine printing, literature, philosophy, religion, history, and language. She sat at a library carrel while we scurried around the room searching for answers that met her approval. If we struggled, she’d look at us with a twinkle in her eye and offer hints until we succeeded. By the semester’s end, we could find the answer to virtually any question presented us, and this was in the pre-Internet era!
Nancy was one of our favorite instructors for many reasons. No matter how large the enrollment in her classes, she not only remembered our names but also knew us as individuals. She continued to inquire about our families, hobbies, and pets long after we finished her course. Nancy always took great care in grading our work, putting far more effort into her critiques than some of her students put into the original assignment.
Nancy enlivened lectures with stories from her experiences at the University of Kentucky, where she worked as a cataloger, served as Head of Acquisitions, and learned the fine art of printing books under the direction of Carolyn Reading Hammer and Victor Hammer, an Austrian-born typographer who fled Nazi Austria in 1939. Carolyn founded High Noon Press, thus named because a small group of librarians (which included Nancy) spent their lunch hours printing.
In 2014, Nancy, with the assistance of Sarabeth Noggle, spent countless hours setting type and designing the last book to be printed by The Press at Chelsea Court, an edition of “Street Haunting: a London Adventure,” by Virginia Woolf. Nancy dedicated the book to her mentor and friend, Carolyn Hammer.
I, like countless other students, remained in contact with Nancy after graduation. A wonderful letter writer, she encouraged our efforts and delighted in our adventures. But it wasn’t until I retired to Bloomington in 2014 that I realized one of the main reasons I had stayed in touch with her all these years: it was the joie de vivre with which she approached life. If we asked “Would you like to go to a women’s basketball game, Nancy?”, she responded “Of course! When will you be here?” Her response was the same no matter what we invited her to do. She said “Yes!” to life.
I don’t know if Nancy loved Thai food as much as we do, but she was always ready to go with us to several of Bloomington’s Thai restaurants, where we celebrated birthdays and other special occasions with pineapple fried rice, Pad Thai, and hot tea. Nancy also was always ready to go out for ice cream, ordering a big scoop of her favorite flavor.
As a student, I had heard many stories about the many dogs, cats, geese, and goats Nancy and her husband tended on their farm, but in later years, Nancy was devoted to her cats. One day she phoned to say she had something to show us. When we arrived at her house, Nancy said “it” was upstairs. While waiting in the sitting room for her return, we heard a meow, and turned to one another. “She must have a kitten!”
Imagine our surprise when Nancy, who was quite slight of frame by this point in her life, walked down the stairs with a 25-pound feline in her arms. “I’d like you to meet Jazz Cat!” Upon questioning, we learned she had seen a picture of Jazz in the newspaper, driven to the shelter, and offered the kitty they despaired of placing a home. Jazz, along with Lucy, were great companions to Nancy, even after she moved to a retirement community.
Nancy was a regular guest at our Thanksgiving table, keeping everyone entertained with stories of growing up in West Virginia in the 1920s and 30s. After the meal, we’d visit and perhaps play music or a game like Quiddler. As she held a handful of cards, Nancy would groan and make all kinds of faces, only to brighten when she discovered words worth dozens of points. In the above picture, from 2017, she’s reminiscing about events prompted by a box of photographs.
Nancy still wore a joyful smile in December 2018 when her library school colleague and friend, Shirley, Deb, and I joined her for an early Christmas celebration. A year later, Nancy departed this earth on Christmas morning. Rest in peace, my dear, dear friend.