Weekly Feature

2017-05-17 / Front Page

Death of a librarian

David Fairlie’s indelible mark on library lives on
by ETHAN POWERS
Editor


Donna Fairlie holds a photo of her late husband, David, a longtime employee and librarian at the Clarence Public Library, in the couple’s favorite part of the building. 
Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Donna Fairlie holds a photo of her late husband, David, a longtime employee and librarian at the Clarence Public Library, in the couple’s favorite part of the building. Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com In her late 30s and after raising three children from a previous marriage, Donna Whitlock saw an opportunity to redefine herself.

She signed up for information technology classes, knowing they could open new opportunities and lead to a multitude of career paths, and the curriculum required her to obtain a certain number of community service hours. As the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system was in the midst of transitioning to a digital maintenance of its stock, she decided to blend her love of reading with the need for service hours.

Her placement at the Clarence Public Library would ultimately lead to much more than a name change from Whitlock to Fairlie — it led her to her soulmate and the union of two individuals who saw in one another the counterpoint of themselves. The relationship also resulted in an unmitigated passion and enthusiasm for literature that would benefit the entire Clarence community.

Despite David Fairlie’s death last month following a long illness, his imprint on the community remains irrevocably marked on the programming and status of 3 Town Place, the location of the new library, which has become a landmark and prominent gathering place within the town.

The embers of that legacy were ignited upon first sight.

Fairlie worked as a substitute teacher for a decade, but given the nature of his remarkably quiet, reserved personality, he often found the work exhausting. Like his future wife, he too returned to school in his 30s for library science, quickly realizing that he could combine the most fervent aspects of his two passions, reading and the classroom, into a career as a school librarian. He decided to gain experience working in a library prior to searching for a full-time job.

He was placed at the Clarence Public Library, at that time still located on Main Street next to Clarence High School, under the direction of Marie Robillard, who served as the library’s director from 1983 to 2001. Upon receiving his degree, he became a trainee at the Clarence Library, and it wasn’t long after he had gotten to know the staff, patrons and diverse book collection that he decided he needn’t look for a job within a school district. He was already home.

In 1999, Robillard informed Fairlie that there was a woman coming in for an interview to be a volunteer, one who was taking an information technology course and needed some community service hours as part of the program. She suggested that Fairlie conduct the interview, as he was the one who would train her in various technological and clerical tasks.

As Fairlie and Robillard discussed what questions to ask, a blonde-haired woman with light eyes and a convivial smile entered through the back door.

“The look on David’s face … it was just beautiful to see,” said Robillard. “He saw her, she saw him, and that was it. I get goose bumps when I think about it.”

Fairlie and Whitlock became inseparable. Every break they had, they took together. Robillard eventually hired Whitlock as a substitute clerk and not long after, there were two Fairlies employed at the Clarence Public Library.

When she observed him throughout the day from behind bookshelves, Donna Fairlie said, she witnessed a man whose unfailingly hospitable demeanor never faltered, regardless of the patron’s age or appearance. She knew then, she says, that he was a hidden gem.

“As I watched him, he was just the kindest person ever. I fell in love with him. I’m still madly in love with him.”

Helpful, patient and kind are characteristics that become a recurring theme when former co-workers describe Fairlie’s presence. Current Clarence Library Director Monica Mooney accepted the position in 2009, at which time Fairlie became her assistant and provided invaluable service in the library’s maintenance and organization. Mooney says Fairlie thrived in the day-to-day regulation of the library’s stock that would overwhelm others.

“He always seemed to know the answers, or know where he could find them,” she said. “So many things that are the way they are in the Clarence Library, that are organized and efficient, are that way because of David.”

It was his sense of tranquility that provided Mooney with one of her fondest memories of Fairlie and one she believes serves as a microcosm for who he was a person. When the building’s fire alarm went off, patrons and staff alike raced toward the exit as if flames were emanating from the ceiling. Fairlie however, slowly rose from his seat and offered a composed direction.

“He didn’t have to shout. He just pointed at the door, and that seemed to be enough to organize people,” said Mooney. “He was just so calm, whereas everyone else was running around.”

Though Fairlie ultimately decided to leave the classroom, his passion for working with youth and introducing them to the magic of the literary realm never wavered. One of his most notable endeavors was his work and unprecedented run of success with the Clarence “Battle of the Books” teams.

The book-based trivia competition is geared toward students entering grades six through nine. They are given a list of books to read prior to the competition, and at the event, questions based on the books range from characters and setting to plot and quote identification.

Fairlie’s teams, which he coached alongside his wife, won the gold medal in 2011, 2013 and 2014. She received an outpouring of support from the community once news spread of his death, but the condolences from the Battle of the Books family often touched her the most. Many of the team members had volunteered at the library under Fairlie’s supervision, and in their letters to Donna Fairlie, credit his contagious enthusiasm for literature as being instrumental in their own education.

“I would always say that he taught the young ladies how they should be treated by a gentleman, and he taught the young men how to be a gentleman,” said Donna Fairlie. “I think he would be most proud by the influence he had with young people.”

Through a 14-year marriage, the often reticent Fairlie shared with his wife the interests that, prior to their meeting, he had experienced as an unmarried man. She jubilantly witnessed a man who enjoyed his introversion, but also one who displayed a variety of passions, including cartooning, gardening and woodworking, plus a zest for Old English.

“His father, at his service, said that David was a ‘Renaissance man and a gentleman.’ I thought that perfectly captured who David was,” she said.

Fairlie also played an integral role in one of Clarence’s most noteworthy progressions: the new library. Robillard knew that the library was running out of room at its location on Main Street, and with Clarence’s rapidly growing population, the problem showed no signs of being resolved.

She approached the Central Library with the idea of constructing a new building for Clarence, and she remembers skepticism expressed on whether it could ever come to fruition. Robillard worked tirelessly with the Town Board and the Central Library in determining a site and ironing out the details.

It was determined that the town would be responsible for the construction of the building, while the library staff would need to furnish it — a difficult fundraising feat by any measure. After visiting numerous organizations in Clarence, explaining the need for a new library and what it could do for them, Robillard and the library staff were able to scrape together the necessary funds.

In 2001, the Clarence Public Library was reborn at 3 Town Place, and it now stands as an archetype for the county library system.

The smooth transition was due in no small part, according to Robillard, to Fairlie’s aptitude for technology. Ensuring that the logistical challenges of book collection maintenance during the move did not become too overwhelming, Fairlie excelled at compartmentalizing key aspects.

“We didn’t get too much help from the county,” says Robillard with a buoyant laugh. “David just knew how to do things with the computers, and he taught us the ins and outs of the programs. We were very lucky he was there.”

Perhaps no other memory of Robillard’s better highlights Fairlie’s commitment to the Clarence Public Library than when she approached him about leaving it. Knowing that Fairlie could see a substantial increase in pay if he were to upgrade his education as a librarian, she also knew it might result in a new placement for him elsewhere in the system.

“I told him, ‘You could be making more money. You would have to leave, and I don’t want you to leave, but there’s quite a bit more money at the next level,’” Robillard said. “He told me, ‘I don’t care what the number is; this is my library.’ You couldn’t get him to leave. He loved that library, and everyone within it loved him.”

Donna Fairlie is still fighting to come to terms with the absence of a man she loved to learn about with each passing day, as the library staff grieves for a devoted employee who brought composure and wisdom to its halls, and as the Battle of the Books family mourns a mentor. Yet she finds comfort knowing that the impression made by her husband will long outlast the brick and mortar housing the bookshelves that gave him such purpose.

“Anyone’s job can be replaced, but people, themselves, cannot be replaced,” she said. “I think anyone who knew David through the years he was at the library would agree that he is irreplaceable.”

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