by Lisa Sisley on August 2, 2011

Have you ever wondered whether you’ve made a difference in anybody else’s life? I mean, let’s take spouses and kids out of the equation…for good or ill, you’ve made a difference to them. But what about people you work with, your neighbors, the kid who delivers your paper? Would they be truly grateful they knew you, if they were standing around at your wake, making chitchat as they tried to edge closer to the seven-layer dip?

For what it’s worth, I’ve got a story about a guy who said a nice thing to me when I was young and trying to figure out my life. And it made a lot of difference.

When I was 23 or 24, I worked the Circulation Department (or “Circ desk,” to us insiders) at Manhattan Public Library. (What a great library MPL is.) I had a wonderful supervisor, Cindy Burge, good colleagues and a fairly interesting job. But I was kind of at loose ends, future-wise. Ken’s nursing career was already launched, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had a couple of years at K-State behind me, but no idea whether I could make a living with an English degree, which is what I wanted to get, so I was working full time while I tried to find some direction…and help pay the rent, of course.

Fred Atchison was the director of public services at MPL at the time. He oversaw the Circ desk, plus the Reference Department. In spring 2011, Fred retired from MPL as the director, having very ably guided the library through the dawn of the Internet and a huge building expansion. He and his wife Sue moved to Lawrence this spring to be nearer to family.

Even though I joined the Rotary club Fred belonged to a couple years ago, I never told him this story, which he won’t even remember. He won’t remember because it’s not really a story…it’s more of a moment. And because he’s done so many similarly kind things, there’s no reason this would stand out for him.

Anyway, it was the mid-’80s, and “Out of Africa” was the blockbuster book and movie du jour. The memoir’s author, Karen Blixen, wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen. It was confusing when you looked her up in the card catalog (yes, kids, actual cards). As I recall, you had to know her pen name to find her, even though a lot of people came in looking for the book under her real name.

So, I was checking out books one day, and Fred was working a shift in Reference. As I finished up with a patron, Fred came walking to the Circ desk, fast. Over his shoulder, I could see a lady standing at the Reference desk.

“Lisa, what’s Karen Blixen’s other name?” he asked me. “Isak Dinesen,” I said. “Thanks. I knew you’d know,” he replied. And he walked back to Reference.

That’s it. That’s the “story.” A guy asked me a question. I answered. However, to me, at the time, it was huge, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it was even more significant than I appreciated at the time.

Fred was second-in-command at MPL, but he didn’t care that the patron saw him asking the kid at the Circ desk for help. I expect there were other people in the building he could have asked, but he asked me. And he didn’t have to throw out that “I knew you’d know.” But he did. Fred knew I could do more than just check out books properly. Fred knew I knew things about books. Fred knew I’d give him accurate information.

Not long after that, an opening came up at Reference. Even though I didn’t have my degree, Fred’s comment (plus a dose of chutzpah) emboldened me to apply. And I got it. And that three-year gig, under the expert tutelage of Gerry Walton, helped me acquire the research skills and experience and confidence in my own abilities that led to other wonderful opportunities. Including the realization that I could make a living with an English degree, and one day, that I could help run a business.

Would I have earned my college degree without Fred’s comment? Sure, eventually. Would I have had the guts to apply for that Reference job, if I didn’t know that Fred thought I was halfway sharp? Doubtful. Would I have regained my direction and confidence as quickly without that little throwaway remark? Nope.

So the next time you have the chance to say something encouraging to somebody, do it. Don’t make a big deal about it, just do it. Do it right then. You might not get a “thank you” at that moment. But don’t be surprised if, someday, that person tracks you down to correct the oversight.

Thanks, Fred. For everything.