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End of an era for the Espy Foundation

By Cate Gable

Published on December 14, 2010 12:01AM

Between jobs, which were scarce during the 1930s, Willard Espy wrote poetry, short stories, plays and several novels at his home in Oysterville.<I><BR>OBSERVER file photo</I>

Between jobs, which were scarce during the 1930s, Willard Espy wrote poetry, short stories, plays and several novels at his home in Oysterville.
OBSERVER file photo

<I>OBSERVER file photo</I><BR>Sculptor Anna Skibska who created her glass-fiber sculpture

OBSERVER file photo
Sculptor Anna Skibska who created her glass-fiber sculpture "Trees" inside the foundation barn.

OYSTERVILLE - After more than 10 years as a non-profit honoring Willard R. Espy and creating a retreat space for artists and writers, the Espy Foundation quietly closed its doors last week.

Polly Friedlander, the Espy Foundation founder and executive director, remarked that the foundation was the victim of the difficult economic times.

Robert H. Thurston, called by Espy Foundation board member Lee Soper "the foundation's guardian angel," said, "I appreciate the creativity and fun that the Espy Foundation brought to a historic village. And I believe something is always gained by a community when art and literature arrive; this was Espy."

Willard Richard Espy (1920-99), native son of Oysterville and prominent citizen of the Peninsula, lived part-time in his "little red cottage in the village" and in New York City. Author of "An Almanac of Words at Play" and many other volumes, he was known for his light verse and whimsical approach to language. His writing regularly appeared in Punch, Reader's Digest and Word Ways. (His daughter Freddy Medora Espy was the first wife of editor and writer George Plimpton.)

Artists-in-residence After its founding in 1998, the Espy Foundation became known as sponsoring a magical retreat for writers, scholars and visual artists. Perhaps two of the most remarkable residents who traveled the farthest, were a pair of Chinese writers very prominent in their own country.

Nearly two days in transit, Xiao Yinong, from Ordos, a town of 1.5 million in the region of Inner Mongolia and Liu Qingbang, from Beijing (7 million), arrived in Oysterville (population 30) for a reception on an overcast Sunday evening. They were met at SeaTac airport by University of Washington professor Shawn Wong and when he left, Friedlander realized that no one could speak to the visitors.

As Friedlander remembered, "We soon discovered that Dongmei 'May' Wu Miller of Long Beach, wife of Ken Miller, PUD crew supervisor, whose native language is Mandarin, also spoke Cantonese." Miller was commandeered to be their unofficial translator for the remainder of their residency.

The last residents of the program arrived this summer, before the financing problems reached a climax: visual artist Jill Bullitt (daughter of Pacific Northwest literary icon Carolyn Kizer), from North Carolina; and Los Angeles biographer Patricia Wakida, who is working on a non-fiction biography of Seattle native Shig Murao.

"It Will Be Missed" Over the years, the Espy Foundation has brought over 60 high-caliber artists like these to the Peninsula. Generally, as part of their residency, a final presentation of artwork or a literary reading of works in progress was the highlight of a visit. These presentations usually took place at Friedlander's Oysterville home or the Oysterville School House.

In January of this year, Sydney (niece of Willard Espy) and Nyel Stevens hosted an event they called "A Novelist, A Poet, A Playwright" - involving three Espy Foundation residents from Brooklyn College in New York City.

Another visiting poet, Anita Boyle, wrote about her residency experience, "I was an Espy resident in 2003, the sole poet with three novelists. I shared Cynthia Hayward's beautiful house with the historical novelist Sarah Steinberg."

"While I was there I wrote at least 60 poems, and also edited a couple short stories, walked the beaches, met a coyote, and, after my experience there, made a point of learning to enjoy oysters. My new book, 'What the Alder Told Me,' will be published this month as the first of a series of Pacific Northwest poets by MoonPath Press."

"This is very sad news," she continued, after being told of the foundation's demise. "The residencies in Oysterville through the Willard R. Espy Foundation were extremely valuable to many writers and artists. The service the foundation provided was significant in the development of the participating writers' skills. I'm sure the Espy Foundation will be missed."

The Willard R. Espy Library Though the Espy Foundation was known for its residency program, that was not the original purpose of the organization. According to the Articles of Incorporation filed with the Washington Secretary of State on Sept. 8, 1997, the non-profit was created "to establish and maintain in Oysterville, Washington the personal library of Willard R. Espy and encourage and support its use by any interested person."

From both these articles and the Espy website, it appears that Willard Espy's library included "books on language, particularly the lighter side, as well as . . . reference volumes ranging from general and specialized dictionaries, quotation anthologies to Northwest history, and relevant periodicals."

The library, dedicated in April 2000, consisted of Espy's 700 books including texts on wordplay and riddles, anagrams, puns and palindromes, tongue-twisters, slang, curious word origins, limericks, and collections of light verse. There were also many reference volumes ranging from general to specialized dictionaries, thesauruses, quotation anthologies, and readers' and writers' references.

Pacific Northwest writer Paul Dickson subsequently donated an additional 2,400 volumes to the library, which also included texts on Southwest Washington history. (The foundation website also notes "to celebrate the opening of the library, Merriam-Webster donated a comprehensive set of its language related titles, nearly 50 volumes in print and on CD-ROM.")

One of the last acts of dissolution was a decision about what to do with the personal collection of books from Willard Espy, called the core collection, and the other donated volumes.

Och Tamale Gazolly Gazump Vivian Wattum, long-time Espy Foundation volunteer, and Emily Brown, the foundation's accountant, put in long hours in the last two weeks to make the arrangements to pack up the books and transfer them to the Smiley Public Library in Redlands, Calif.

It may seem like the books are being sent a long way from home; but, in fact, the Espy family has a long history in California as many of the Espy men were graduates of the University of Redlands. Though Espy did not have a hand in creating the Redlands cheer, (created in 1921, 10 years before his attendance), sung or shouted at touchdowns or greetings to other alumni, it may have contributed to setting him off on his path of whimsy:

Och tamale gazolly gazump

Dayump dayadee yahoo

Ink damink dayadee gazink

Dayump, deray, yahoo

Wing wang trickey trackey poo foo

Joozy woozy skizzle wazzle

Wang tang orkey porkey dominorky

Redlands! - Rah, rah, Redlands!

Stevens can remember her mother, Dale Espy Little, singing or chanting the "Och Tamale," as it is called, while working in the kitchen. "We just thought of it as another nursery rhyme," she said.

Thus, Espy's association with Redlands is coming full circle. Larry Burgess, executive director of the Smiley Library and also an alumnus of the Redlands, remembers spending one "rousing night" with Espy himself at one of the university alumni reunions.

"Larry was beside himself when he got the call about Willard's library," Brown said, "like a kid in a candy store."

Burgess, contacted after accepting the books, commented, "We're going to be in a collaborative dialogue with the University of Redlands because we have an opportunity for a number of student uses as well as internships. I haven't seen the inventory list yet but in peaking into some of the boxes I'm sure a number of the books will have to be in a special collection because of the scarcity of the editions."

"I'm very grateful to Vivian and Emily for thinking of us - and in a sense it's a very nice intersection as this was a place where Willard spent his time and lived for four years."

"It seems fitting that we will be able to house his literary legacy," he added.

Smiley and Armacost Libraries Since Burgess has close ties with the Armacost Library at the University of Redlands, the two institutions will be working together to evaluate the collection which arrived in Redlands, Saturday, Dec. 11.

Archivist Nathan Gonzales, who works for both institutions, said, "We're very excited about the library. I didn't know Espy personally but I knew of him, and he is obviously important in the history of Redlands."

"Now that the heavy lifting is over - 120 boxes is substantial! - we'll be evaluating the condition of the collection to determine whether it will be 'circulating' or 'special' and how to make the best use of it." (A special collection stays in-house for reference only while a circulating collection can be checked out by the public.)

"One of the advantages of being a public library is that it will be accessible to everyone," Gonzales added.

Stevens, on hearing that the books were going to the Smiley, stated, "It is unfortunate that the books were first offered to the city library at Redlands rather than to the Armacost Library at the University of Redlands. Willard (and several other Espy family members) were graduates of the University of Redlands and Willard had a lifelong association with faculty and administration there. I think he would have been quite mystified about the foundation's choice for the final placement of his books.

"The collection really belongs where scholars have the greatest access to them," Stevens continued, "while the Smiley Library in the city of Redlands is only two miles from the university, it is not on the campus and does not have the same scholarly caché or the interlibrary services with other universities that the Armacost Library has. It is to be hoped that, eventually, the two libraries can work collaboratively to the ultimate advantage of their respective patrons."

It appears that Stevens' reservations may be addressed. Les Canterbury, interim director for the University of Redlands Armacost library, said, "It doesn't matter who the collection comes to or where the library is housed in Redlands as we will all be aware of the collection now."

The Last Chapter The last chapter of the Espy Foundation began when Wattum and Brown, with Ocean Park book dealer Catherine O'Toole's help packing boxes, loaded up the U-Haul - with the books, Willard's writing chair, one of his typewriters, and a spectacular portrait of him painted by Jane White Hawkes, the well-known portrait painter and wife of Alistair Cooke - and headed south to Redlands.

This library, according to Bellingham resident Neville Thompson, a retired librarian who inventoried the collection, "was a fine collection about all the aspects of words and word use." It seems a shame that the collection could not have found a home in Pacific County and been made accessible to our region's many homegrown wordsmiths.

In a letter to Little, written Nov. 13, 1997, Friedlander noted, "The language 'to encourage and support its [the library's] use by any interested person' was included to allow for the possibility that the foundation might publish or even develop a modest writers retreat."

It might be fair to say that the "modest writer's retreat" became the tail wagging the dog. It appears that the library itself, housed in a small building in Oysterville, was infrequently used except by visiting residents, primarily for the computer connection there. Unfortunately, its existence was little known to other Peninsula residents. But the foundation's artists-in-residence program provided a win-win situation for visitors and locals alike.

As Thompson said of her visits to the Peninsula, "I ... greatly enjoyed my two visits there: Oysterville is a magical place."

Thurston too, long-time foundation supporter, said, "The foundation has now closed, however many entities are finite. I'm sure something new will come along that will bring creative energy to this community. Through Espy I made new friends and have only admiration for the many persons who contributed their time and energy towards the Espy Foundation."


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