UR Here: Farewell, Mr. Higgins

In Tribute to a Great Iowa Citian: Ron Prosser

If you were in the Iowa City Public Library any time before a few months ago, you know who I’m talking about. There’s a good chance he checked out some materials for you, or you at least saw him sitting behind the new library card desk, helping a patron acquire their magic passport to a world of wonderful books and other media marvels. He was the tall guy. No, not really “guy”—gentleman. The tall gentleman who looked kind of like a college professor, with slightly unkempt graying hair, big glasses, a big smile, a sonorous yet gentle voice, and, if you talked to him at all, you knew a big brain and a big heart. That was Ron Prosser, perhaps the greatest circulation clerk who ever lived.

Sadly, we lost Ron Prosser a few weeks ago. He passed away unexpectedly only a few short months after his retirement from the library. Many, many people in the Iowa City community are mourning the loss of Ron. He was truly an Iowa City original—and in being so, he was the quintessential Iowa Citian.

Ron came to Iowa City well over 30 years ago from Minnesota. Like many new community members, he was attending graduate school at The University of Iowa. He received a master’s degree in history in 1970, and he then began a Ph.D. in history. His mistake—Ron himself said he “should’ve learned his lesson”—came when he worked as a circulation library assistant in the UI library. The intellectual and cultural stimulation of the Iowa City community combined with his new-found love for library circulation led Ron to take a similar position at the Iowa City Public Library. As with so many Iowa Citians, Ron’s time here in our community and his new job were “temporary.” Nearly four decades later, he completed his life journey with us, here at home.

Now, it may seem odd to devote one’s life and career to library circulation when one has had graduate training in history. But think about it. You spend your days living with mounds of books moving swiftly past you, you are organizing materials in a minutely fastidious manner (anyone who loves academic scholarship knows what I mean), and you help put those desired materials into the hands of eager patrons who want them. Through his many years of experience and his deep love for the library, Ron knew the collection inside and out and was probably the most valuable resource in the building—if you look up “institutional memory” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Ron. But Ron’s true passion, I think, and certainly his greatest skill, was that last part of his job I mentioned—the patron service part, making people happy by making sure they had books and CDs and movies that they would enjoy and learn from.

I didn’t get to know Ron very closely. When I was in graduate school at the UI in the late 1980s, I knew he was that friendly big guy at the library. When I returned to Iowa City in 1999, I was more than delighted to see that That Friendly Big Guy was still at the library. When I started serving on the board of trustees of ICPL, I got to know Ron a little better. All throughout the years, it was a distinct pleasure to be checked out by Ron, who at the very least always had a radiant smile for you and a very polite, “Thank you, sir.” It didn’t take much to get an even better interaction, though, with a little bit of informed, and often humorous, discussion of what you were checking out, and you might even get some great tips from Ron on other books he thought you’d like.

But Ron’s circulation powers manifested a special magic with children. Kids were drawn to That Friendly Big Guy like a magnet, his warmth and compassion exuding from those hands reaching out to you to help you check out the books you wanted to take home. Innumerable preschoolers and older kids, too, insisted that Ron be the only one to check out their books. One young admirer, for unknown reasons, named him “Mr. Pumpkin” and brought him Halloween treats. My best memory of Ron, the image I will take with me as I remember him, is his very tall torso hunched down onto the new library card desk, his head inclined toward the eager young boy or girl getting a first library card ever, rapt in quiet, secret conversation with the little one who, hopefully, will love libraries forever. With Ron initiating you, how could you not?

Ron’s life as The Greatest Circulation Clerk in the World was not a bed of roses, however. By the time of his 30th anniversary as an ICPL employee, he had succeeded to the title of “Senior Library Assistant, Customer Relations Representative.” As such, he was also responsible for handling disputed patron accounts and damaged materials (as Circulation Services Director Heidi Lauritzen says, “sometimes by unspeakable substances”), and he worked with the library’s collection agency. Ron was also the liaison with the police department and earned the distinction of “most subpoenaed library employee.” These aspects of his job, by his own admission, led to some interesting experiences: being cursed at, spat upon, bitten (by an adult), and urinated on. Library circulation, especially at advanced levels, has its occupational hazards.

Not surprisingly, the images of Ron that many carry with them are aural: his booming “Good Morning!” (every day) to all his colleagues, his uplifting humming and singing, his whistling on his many walks through town.

“I always enjoyed hearing his voice on the phone or in a voice mail telling me that the much-anticipated book or movie I put on hold was ready to be picked up,” said Meredith Rich-Chappell, my colleague on the board of trustees. I bet his testimony about stolen library materials was amazingly effective.

Ron also was a master horticulturist. He grew three dozen varieties of orchids—and you could sometimes see his circulation station delicately appointed with a lovely bloom. He grew over a hundred different cacti, and he nurtured some Bonsai, too. He wrote books. He pursued genealogy, and he was thrilled to learn that a supposedly saintly ancestor was hanged for stealing. He served on the board and various committees of Iowa City Community Theatre. Ron was fully engaged—with the community, and with the world.

Ron was totally, and wonderfully, what Iowa City was all about. He showed us that finding your bliss was more important than fame, ambition, wealth, or an enviable address. Ron could have gone so many places and done so many things, but he found the place, the work, and the people he loved, and he stayed with them—and lived a very rich life, and a life that enriched ours. Ron didn’t build any skyscrapers or have thousands and millions to give to admittedly worthy causes. He didn’t engineer a rise in the political landscape. He didn’t open a bunch of popular restaurants. But, as Library Director Susan Craig says, “He was so ‘Iowa City.’” He was smart and inquisitive, and he shared generously what he knew and loved learning from others. He was immersed in the cultural life of our community. He knew and created beauty. He was hilarious. He was odd. He was boisterously loving of his friends, family, people he served, animals, and strangers. He knew what a good thing his life in Iowa City was and stuck with it for a long, long time.

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Farewell, Henry Higgins, Mr. Pumpkin, Jade Master, Father of Orchids, That Friendly Big Guy, The Greatest Circulation Clerk in the World. We have missed you, and we will continue to miss you, dearly. And, for the last time, thanks for checking me out, Ron.

I offer my deepest thanks to those who shared their memories of Ron with me and helped me put this tribute together: Susan Craig, Elyse Miller, Beth Daly, Heidi Lauritzen, Mike Brenneman, Meredith Rich-Chappell, Jody Hovland, Rachael Lindhart, and Gerry Roe.