Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dale Watermulder

Last Thursday I attended a beautiful memorial service for Dale Watermulder, who died on May eighth at the age of 74. Dale was retired from the Knox County Public Library System, where he had served for over two decades as the head of the Audiovisual department at Lawson McGhee Library. I was fortunate enough to work with Dale in AV for a brief period of time (from 2000-2001) and I can honestly say it was the most satisfying and rewarding work experience I've ever had. It was my first job with the KCPLS and I will always be grateful to Dale for hiring me and rescuing me from retail hell (I'm sorry, Kohls: no matter how much I love shopping with you I was miserable working for you). More than that, though, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in some small way to this awesome facet of our local library system. And I'm so glad that it gave me a chance to get to know Dale better. He was a wonderful, brilliant man and one I greatly admired and respected. He was one of my heroes.

I didn't really get to know Dale until I worked with him but I'd known who he was since I was a kid. My mom worked at a small junior college and she would check out movies from Lawson McGhee to show in her classes. When it was time to return them she would often pull up to the library entrance and send me inside while she made the block. "Take this upstairs to the second floor and tell Mr. Watermulder that it's a return from Dixie Hall at Draughons Junior College" she would tell me. And I would dutifully carry the film case upstairs and return it to Dale. Or Becky. Or Amy. All of whom I would work with years later. In some small way it felt like working with family, because they all remembered me from my days as a pint-sized courier. Plus, by the time I joined the department most of the staff had been working together for years so they acted like a family. There was a refreshing lack of pretense. None of us were really morning people and so, for the first hour or so each morning, we kept quiet and stayed out of each other's ways. Nobody minded if you weren't a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ray of sunshine at the start of the day; if you just wanted to quietly go about your work until you thawed out that was alright. I assimilated quickly and felt comfortable and at home in that environment. I actually looked forward to work, which was an absolute revelation for me at the time.

Of course that had a lot to do with the nature of our work as well. As head of the department Dale cultivated and curated our collection of movies and music. We provided the public with what they wanted and all the most popular titles were readily available but we also provided materials that were more obscure, more offbeat and random. Dale's knowledge of cinema was vast and varied (and his knowledge of music - classical, in particular - was even more impressive) but he was never snobbish about it. And, this is something I loved so much about him, he wanted to know what we were interested in as well. He listened to our recommendations and suggestions and he took them seriously. Despite his enormous wealth of knowledge he was always keen to learn about new things. Working with him felt like a collaborative process with the single goal of getting the biggest, best assortment of material to the public that we possibly could. It felt great to be a part of something like that, even if it was only for such a short amount of time.

After Dale retired from the library system he would occasionally call me up and we would go to lunch. After we'd decided on a place to eat and exchanged pleasantries he'd always ask "So, what have you seen lately?" He'd get out his little notebook and write down most or all of the titles I'd mention to him. Then he'd tell me what he'd been watching. His recommendations were great. I began my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki after Dale talked him up. I watched The Lady Eve after he suggested it (and I adored it). When I made some remark about loving Hannibal Lecter Dale told me to watch Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for contrast because it wasn't an entertaining movie (and maybe such gruesome subject matter shouldn't always be entertaining). He really liked Nicole Kidman and I did too so we talked about her work and her all-around fabulousness on more than one occasion. He was upfront about what he disliked as well. I adored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but he couldn't get past the amateurish singing. He adored Fred Astaire (Swing Time is a title I remember him bringing up several times) but didn't care for Gene Kelly's more robust, athletic style of dancing. I liked The Song of Bernadette but he thought Jennifer Jones was a great big bore. Even when we disagreed it just felt great to engage with someone who knew so much about movies. 

There are other little things that I remember. Insignificant things that I found so endearing. He would wear turtlenecks under cableknit sweaters, most of which were so well-worn that they'd started to unravel at the seams ("We're pretty casual around here" he told me during my orientation). He once told me, after I'd dropped to my knees to reshelve an item and then quickly stood back up, that I looked like Alice in Wonderland growing smaller and then larger by the minute. He never forgot anybody's birthday and brought in a nice cake for the department to share each and every time. He gave us cocoa at Christmas. There was never much fanfare but that made all the gestures seem even more genuine. 

I'll occasionally have this dumb daydream about how fun it would be to co-host a movie series on television with Dale, like Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore (or Rose McGowan before her) do on The Essentials on TCM. It's silly but I sort of wish I'd told him about it. I think he would've been amused. Though it had been a few years since our last lunch date I thought of Dale often. I imagine I'll continue to think of him often. I didn't know him very well for a very long period of time but he had an enormous impact on me. He was one of my very favorite people in the world and I am so, so sorry that Knoxville has lost such a vibrant, extraordinary presence. But we are better off for having benefitted from his kindness and his generosity for the years that he was with us.