Tulsa took to Wendell Berry like a dear old friend when the author came to town recently to receive the 2012 Tulsa Library Trust's Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award.
Berry was honored at a black-tie dinner nestled among the book stacks at the Central Library, and he spoke at a public presentation the next morning.
In discussing the honor, Berry noted: "This issue of honor disappears into the presence of generosity. This has been for me an occasion of extraordinary generosity - I like everybody I met. I don't find anything wrong with any of you."
He also joked to much laughter, "I was looking carefully, and I won't stay and study the situation any more exhausting me."
The 78-year-old Berry, a Kentucky native who farms 125 acres near Port Royal, Ky., with his wife, Tanya, is an outspoken critic of industrialized farming and has made the decline of rural America the primary focus of his works for more than 50 years.
He read from "a little piece called "In the Old Times," which he called semi-autobiographical with fictional character Andy Catlett, "who stands in for me."
In the reading, Berry traces "life in his part of the country up until the end of World War II. The work was getting done by the bodies of people and horses and mules - solar converters - we were living directly from the sun in those days. And after 1945 we began a change ... a change from a life purely creaturely to a life that was increasingly mechanical, until now we reached an age when people speak of their bodies as machines and their minds as computers, in other words machines. What's the difference between a creature and a machine? Well, this is going to take me the rest of my life; that's my strategy. I've started a piece of work that I'm hoping will be unfinished when I die. That's what you call full employment."
Admitting that the segment was "not a very happy reading," Berry followed that there are "a lot of good things happening," citing "the 50-year Farm Bill that tries to address the problems of agriculture. There are a lot of good young people around - people who are not surprised at the difficulties they are going to face and who, I think, are preparing themselves to deal with those difficulties. And finally there are a lot of people around who simply because of their good decency and generosity see things that need to be done and without official permission or instructions or a government grant just start doing them."
"Like you," he told the crowd.
Berry began his prestigious career in 1960 with the release of the novel "Nathan Coulter," set in Port William, a fictitious town in Kentucky. Port William also is the backdrop for many of Berry's short stories, as well as a number of his other novels, including "Jayber Crow" (2000), "Hannah Coulter" (2004) and "Andy Catlett: Early Travels" (2006).
Tulsa Library Trust's 2012 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is given annually to internationally acclaimed authors who have written a distinguished body of work and made a major contribution to the field of literature and letters. It consists of a $40,000 cash prize and an engraved crystal book.
Others on the program were Gary Shaffer, chief executive officer of the Tulsa City-County Library; Ken Lackey, chairman of the 2012 Distinguished Author Selection Committee; and Kathie Coyle, president of the Tulsa Library Trust Board. The Rev. Mouzon Biggs of Boston Avenue United Methodist Church gave the invocation.
Also recognized was Tulsa Library Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Martin, the creator of BookSmart Tulsa.
The Tulsa Library Trust is a public foundation created by private contributions to benefit Tulsa City-County Library. Income generated by the trust's endowment is used to fund projects and purchase materials that the library could not afford through its operating budget.
Those seated at Peggy Helmerich's table included OU President David Boren and his wife, Molly, Lea and Hans Helmerich, Janell and Rik Helmerich, LeAnne Helmerich and Wendell and Tanya Berry.
Other members of the Helmerich family attending included Jennie and Jono Helmerich, Lindsay and Isaac Helmerich, and Jade and Jordan Helmerich.
Committee chairwomen for the dinner include Susie Tatum-Woody, Janell Helmerich, Susie Wallace, Lynda Brownson, Helen Jo Hardwick, Julie Watson, Pattie Bowman, Lynn Peacher, Janie Funk, Carrie Vesely Henderson, Kristin Bender, Ellen Duecker and Peggy Helmerich.
Members of the library board include Rik Helmerich, Scott Graham, Steven Austin, Robin Ballenger, Ann Shannon Cassidy, Bonnie Henke, Shelley Jackson, Ruth Nelson and Jana Shoulders. Larry Bartley is director of the trust.