Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Portrait of The HRC Director Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022)

Thomas F. Staley, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Lean, hesitant Kurt Zimmerman came from the hallway that led to director Thomas F. Staley’s office. His bright white shorts and flip flops matched uneasily with a buttoned, brilliant blue shirt; for he was young, only twenty-two.
            “Hello. Come in, Kurt,” Staley summoned, springing forth from his chair. He robustly rounded his desk, dapper in appearance, fully outfitted with jacket and tie, hand extended for a firm shake.  He projected larger in appearance than actual size.
            “How are you?  How do you enjoy being at the Ransom Center?” he said quickly, for he always spoke quickly, as I was to learn.
            “I like it a lot.  I’m volunteering with Frank Yezer, and I just made some preservation boxes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism albums. . . “
            “Yes, Doyle, interesting.  Lot more to him than Sherlock Holmes.  So, you like working with Frank Yezer?  He has good things to say about you. Recommended you for this internship.  I reviewed your application.  Do you know the idea behind the internship?”
            “I haven’t . . . “
            He patted me on the back and motioned for me to be seated.  I almost lost a flip flop in my haste to settle.  He resumed his director position behind the desk.  Most of his office was devoted to his collection of James Joyce, one wall of glass front bookcases housing rarities and another wall of shelves overflowing with virtually every secondary item ever written on Joyce and his contemporaries.  I was intrigued.
            He asked, “The Lilly Library – have you heard of the Lilly Library? – at Indiana University, David Randall was the original director – he established in the early 1960s a one-year paid internship to foster and train rare book people—librarians, archivists, bibliographers, even rare book trade members.  The Ransom Center internship will be two years.  Five candidates will be selected for this first group.  Do you have a particular interest or focus?”
            “I’ve always liked books, Dr. Staley. I just graduated with my English degree, not sure which way I want to go.  Professor Gribben brought our American Literature class to the Ransom Center last year and showed us some original Poe letters and Twain books . . .”
            He thought, that shirt of his is really quite blue, like the cover of a first edition of Ulysses.  I need more substance to make a final decision, leaning no, lots of applicants, and my board meeting with the executive staff is in an hour, review some notes,  what am I supposed to pick up after work, call the wife, and this unread bookseller’s catalogue, should have looked through that before having Kurt in, I really need to look through that when I’m done with him, maybe Joyce’s Et Tu, Healy!.  But don’t be ridiculous.  No known copies.  But.
            “Frank tells me you have the makings of a collector,” he said after a brief silence.
            “I do like the idea of collecting books.  However, I’m broke.” I laughed, a bit too hard.
            “So was I when I started,” he replied with a smile, “Let me show you some things.”
            And before I could rise, he had darted to his wall of glass front bookcases. 
            I did not have to feign interest.  The aura of collecting pulled me then as it pulls me still.
            “Hold this,” he said enthusiastically, gently placing a tome in my hands.  “The first Spanish edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.  I found this quite early on.”  Then began the deluge – book after book related to Joyce—inscribed items, thin pamphlets, the weighty quarto of the thick first edition of Ulysses, one of 150 copies on verge d’arches paper with a provenance I can’t remember now.  I barely could stay above water but I did, his words coming as fast as his books.  I asked lots of basic questions, and he took time to answer them.  It was my first close encounter with a passionate book collector.  There have been many such encounters since but none so important.
            He thought, so Kurt’s got the makings of a collector, very, very good, and he’s a talker, hmm, not sure on that, and I'm going to be late for my meeting -- and I still haven’t checked the bookseller catalogue yet -- but he’s different from the others, potential here, and the answer then must be yes, yes, yes.  But not now, formalities must be observed.  And I must pee.
            “Kurt, it’s been a pleasure to meet you.  I’m late for a meeting, and I really have to go.  We will get back with you quickly on the internship decision.  And perhaps I can show you some more Joyce if you are interested.”
            “Thank you, Dr. Staley.  Thanks for considering me.  It’s been an experience seeing your books.  And I am interested.”  We shook hands and I retreated from his book-lined command post, noticing a tennis racket at the ready by the door.
            “One more thing, Mr. Zimmerman,” he said, and I halted, “If you are selected for the internship you will need to upgrade your beach casual look.” 
            I stammered a reply and made haste down the hallway and out of his sight.  Optimistic within, maintaining as much dignity as possible without.  I was soon to find the violet never shrank.
Written as a memorial tribute to Dr. Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022), noted authority on Joyce and director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas—Austin from 1988-2013.  He took a chance on me that changed the trajectory of my life.  Grateful is an understatement.  Staley’s myriad accomplishments of his distinguished career are described in the links below.

Must have been my go-to outfit. 
 KZ with bookseller Dorothy Sloan, ca. 1990


  1. Kurt, excellent as always. Dr. Staley and I were both founding members of the Evelyn Waugh Society, but my only interaction with him was my attempt to sell him some letters. Unfortunately, this was in 2008 after the crash and he had not the resources I think he earlier might have.

  2. Thanks for sharing your memories of Dr. Staley. I love the photo with Dorothy Sloan. It's fascinating to look back and piece together how you got to where you are and maybe even more important, who you've become. Tom S.