Library legacy broadens Special Collections

July 26, 2000

Carol J. Schlueter

It was a sight that stopped Bill Meneray in his tracks. Meneray, assistant university librarian in Special Collections, had just entered a modest home in the remote West Texas community of Alpine, on university business-to bring home a collection of books willed to Tulane.

And there, on the floor, two books propped open a door: a 1926 Tulane Jambalaya yearbook and John Speed's History of Great Britain, printed in 1611. The fascinating books and other collections in Alpine, the pride of deceased 1926 Tulane alumnus George Bechtel, have come home to Tulane and are already expanding the knowledge of Tulane students and others in the New Orleans community.

Just this summer, Meneray used some of Bechtel's rarest books for a presentation to high school teachers involved in a seminar on the medieval world. Thanks to the legacy of Bechtel, Meneray was able to show the teachers the rarest of illuminated manuscripts from the 13th to 15th century, and examples of early printing.

Tulane students are seeing other materials in class presentations in classics, English and French. "It's already served a very good use," Meneray said, but the library has at least two years of work ahead to analyze and catalog the massive set of materials.

How massive? Meneray describes his entry into the Alpine home: "I opened the door and all I saw was books. Books on shelves, books 3-feet-high on the floor, books on tables and chairs, in every single room. And there was a passageway to walk through the books," he said.

In this 1,500-square-foot home of Bechtel, whose father was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1918 to 1937, was a vast literary collection of 20,000 volumes of books as well as an aggregation of antique toys, stamps and records. And now 300 boxes of these books and other articles are housed in Special Collections.

But Bechtel's donation of his collections to Tulane turned out to be only a small part of his philanthropy. Financial gifts after his death in 1998 have exceeded $4 million, including more than $3.6 million in cash. Tulane College is using these funds for scholarships and programs for students, as well as to help with the renovation costs of Robert C. Cudd Hall.

Bechtel's legacy has spread out to touch many other people. Tulane kept some of his antique toys, but decided to pass along much of Bechtel's toy collection to help start a "Toys for Tots" program in the Alpine community. Some of Bechtel's household goods were sold and the proceeds earmarked for a shelter for battered women that was being organized in the Alpine area, Meneray said.

And because there were parts of Bechtel's book collection that Tulane already had, or did not wish to keep, Meneray donated books to needy organizations. A Time-Life Series on science went to Alpine's Brewster County Public Schools.

Older works of fiction went to the Brewster County Public Library. Closer to home, Meneray shared some of the art books in Bechtel's collection with Newman School, where an art book collection is named in honor of Bechtel's sister, Meredeth. Both siblings graduated from Newman. Eventually, Meneray hopes to put some of the Bechtel donations on display.

"Once we have a hold on this collection, I want to display sections of his library, so everyone can get a sense of the breadth of the man."

Bechtel had a PhD in philology, taught in academia and pursued a lengthy career in the U.S. Navy's cryptology section. His library was equally interesting, with some books wondrous and others common. His holdings included 5,000 works of science fiction; 2,500 works in science and math (he was very interested in Euclidean geometry and collected works in Greek, French and Latin); 2,500 in classical studies; 2,000 in linguistics; 800 in fairy tales including an extensive collection of Wizard of Oz materials; 1,500 in art and music; and 300 rare books.

The collection is conservatively valued at about $200,000. The stars of the collection are the rare books, such as The Golden Legend, a compilation of the lives of saints written in the 13th century by Jacobus de Voragine. According to Meneray, the copy in the possession of Special Collections was printed in 1482 by one of the era's great printers, Anton Koberger.

As he discussed its history, Meneray carefully opened the large, bound volume of pristine pages with dark script on thick paper and large blocks of capital letters decorated in red, royal blue and gold leaf. It doesn't take an archivist to stare in wonder at treasures such as this. "It's a major addition to the library," Meneray said.

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