Benita Strnad sits in her office on the lower level of McLure, surrounded by the colorful postcards she had on the walls. (Photo by Kelcey Sexton)

When Benita Strnad retired from her position as education reference librarian at McLure, it brought 30 years at The University of Alabama to a close. Her career at UA began in March 1993, so it seems rather fitting that her retirement began with March as well. Strnad, 66, said she always intended to retire earlier than this, but things don’t always go as planned.

“I started out agreeing to stay for six months, and it’s been five years,” she said, laughing.

As she transitions into the next chapter of her life, McLure will turn the page as well.

The education library collection will be moving at the end of the spring semester either to an archival facility or to Gorgas Library, Strnad said, and McLure will be renovated.

McLure, constructed in 1925 and last renovated in 1954, was originally scheduled to close to patrons on Feb. 28, which is why Strnad made that her last official day at UA.

“I thought, ‘(We’ll) close the library, I’ll close out that part of my life, and go do something else or be somewhere else for a while,’” she said.

Something else could include cooking, baking – “I used to bake all my own bread during the pandemic. When everybody else started baking bread, I quit.” – knitting, embroidering, or watching foreign and art films.

“I always said that one thing I was going to do was go to the nearest public library and tell them (that) every Wednesday or pick a day at 2 o’clock, I’ll come here and read a book,” she said. “I think that we don’t read enough to children. I actually don’t think anybody reads enough.”

Traveling is also an activity she enjoys. It’s also when she “spends quality time” with audiobooks.

“I drive most everywhere,” Strnad said. “I always laughed about it. I said, ‘In my next life, I’m going to be a truck driver.’”

Somewhere else, however, will include leaving Alabama and making the two-day drive back to the farming town she calls home in Kansas.

“My sister quilts,” she said. “I told her, when I come back home, when I get a house, I’m going to put a quilting frame in the living room, and every Tuesday afternoon, we’re going to quilt.”

Most of Strnad’s family still lives in Kansas, including her mother, whose house is at the edge of town.

“When I get up in the morning and go sit at the table in the dining room to drink my coffee, I look out east, and I can see for a mile and a half and watch the sun come up. It’s always kind of relaxing,” she said.

The community is in a county that has three paved roads, she said, and two of those are highways.

“I come from a very small town,” she said. “It has a hundred people in it, and probably half of those people have the last name Strnad.”

After graduating high school, Strnad went to Kansas State University, earning her bachelor’s degree with the intention of becoming a schoolteacher.

“I come from a long line of teachers,” she said, adding that her sister was a teacher for 15 years but is now a school librarian.

After returning home working on her neighbor’s dairy farm for a few years, Strnad decided to attend Fort Hay State University to earn her school library certification. Once she graduated and was certified, she worked in two Kansas school districts for seven years then worked at a library at Kansas State University for one year. Upon not hearing anything about another job she applied for, Strnad said she contacted HR and was told that she didn’t qualify for the position.

“I said, ‘Well, what do you mean I’m not qualified? I’ve got my college degree, and I’ve got this master’s degree, and I’m certified,’ and she said, ‘Yes, but your master’s degree is not from an ALA-accredited library school.”

This was something Strnad was not aware of, and Fort Hay State was not an American Library Association-accredited school.

“I thought, ‘You know, if I’m ever going to do anything more in this profession, I am going to need that ALA accreditation degree,’ and so I just pulled up stakes. I quit my job,” she said. “I packed my car up and went down to Emporia State.”

In 1992, she graduated from Emporia State with an ALA-accredited degree. When a position at a public library in Virginia that she had applied for and accepted fell through, Strnad applied for a curriculum materials librarian position at UA.

She originally told her parents she wasn’t going to accept “because (she) had always said that (she) would look for a job anywhere within the confines of the Louisiana Purchase,” she said. But when the University bought her a plane ticket to Tuscaloosa so she could interview for the job, her father was impressed.

“He said, ‘Oh, go do the interview. You’ll never go to Alabama for any other reason. Might as well take advantage of the free trip,’” Strnad laughed.

She decided to accept the job, expecting to give it at least two years or so to gain experience, she said.

Again, though, things did not go according to plan, and somehow, those two years turned into 30.

“What kept me here was the people I worked with here at McLure,” Strnad said.

When she started working as the curriculum materials librarian, Sharon Stewart was the library director. Stewart quickly became a mentor to her, advising and helping her devise a plan to publish research, helping earn her a promotion from instructor to assistant professor. Strnad later earned another promotion to associate professor, and she became tenured in 1998.

Strnad had several other co-workers who made her want to stick around as well. Two of these women were Helga Visscher, head of the library from 2002-2012, though she’d been at UA since 1978; and Nancy DuPree, “the best reference librarian in the world.”

“That’s primarily why I stayed, was because of those women that I worked with,” she said. “Yeah, it was just an amazing environment.”

Over 30 years, Strnad witnessed many changes in the education library. In 2018, the curriculum materials librarian position was cut due to downsizing, leading to her new role as the education reference librarian, assisting students with research. Technology updates brought more methods of automation and digitization into the library. McLure’s numbers dwindled, for various reasons, from seven staff members and 20 students to two staff and seven students. Now that Strnad has retired, there is one staff person left, she said.

The walls of her lower-level office were covered with colorful postcards – either sent to her or ones she collected over her travels. On her desk sat a stack of books that she joked had been there throughout her career.

“The weirdest thing that ever happened was, I’m going to guess it was 1995,” she said. “A girl came into my office. She was very upset. She had like $500 worth of fines because she allowed another student to check out books on her account, and the person never returned the books.”

There wasn’t anything that could be done about it though, Strnad said, and while that student was still in her office, the phone rang. As she reached over to grab the phone, a button on the sleeve of her blazer caught the coffee cup that was on top of a stack of books at her desk. When she pulled her arm back, she said, that ceramic coffee cup crashed to the floor, splattering coffee everywhere.

“The coffee cup was important,” Strnad said.

When her sister was living in Colorado Springs, the two had traveled to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to hear the elk bugle.

“Oh, it was one of those amazing things that happens to you,” she said. “It was just an amazing experience.”

As the sisters made a stop at a coffee shop on their way out of the mountains, Strnad bought that cup to commemorate the special trip.

As pieces of the souvenir cup littered the floor of Strnad’s office, her face fell, and the girl quickly left. Strnad decided to take a walk to Bidgood Hall to recompose herself.

“When I came back, a student that worked for me was sitting in my office, had picked up all the pieces of the coffee cup, cleaned up the floor, and was gluing the coffee cup back together,” she said. “Because he said he knew it was important to me.”

Years later, though, Strnad said she and some others were eating after church at O’Charley’s. Their waitress stopped at one point, asking Strnad if she remembered her. Strnad said no but guessed that the girl must have spent time in McLure as a student, to which the girl said “yes.”

“‘I was the girl sitting in your office the day you broke the coffee cup,’” the waitress said.

She then explained that she had returned to Tuscaloosa that summer to wait tables but taught school elsewhere during the rest of the year.

“What was funny about it,” she said, “was where she was teaching school was in Colorado,” which, if you recall, is also where that ceramic coffee cup came from. She laughed.

“What are the odds?”