Editor’s Note: Sherry Kafka Wagner is one of the extraordinary people living in San Antonio who is not a household name. Her professional accomplishments as a writer, author, urban planner, and historian make her a polymath and one of the city’s genuine treasures. Telling friends she is downsizing at age 79, Wagner has arranged for her extensive private library to become the house library at the newly opened Hotel Emma at the Pearl. The 3,700-volume collection includes many books inscribed by the authors and numerous first editions. Hotel guests can check out books during their stay and return them at departure. The Emma staff also takes locals frequenting Supper restaurant, Larder or the Sternewirth bar and clubroom to see the collection housed in a two-story, wood-paneled library. Wagner wrote the following piece, edited for publication here, for the Hotel Emma’s in-room guest book.
I remember carrying a book from person to person, begging them to read it to me. It was an 1877 novel by Anna Sewell called “Black Beauty.” How this tattered copy came into my possession I do not know, for the only books in my family’s home were the Bible and Sunday School literature. I was three years old.
I was born on September 11, 1936, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. At age three I was living in a house with my grandmother, my parents, and my mother’s three younger sisters. Those aunts were the ones I lay in wait for, clutching my book and devising ways to make them read it to me. This included having my grandmother order them to do so. When we finished the book, my tears would flow copiously while I pleaded, “Read it again! Read it again!”
When I learned to read, I felt that was the beginning of my life as a distinct individual. To my five-year-old mind, that was when I became my own autonomous person, on my independent path.
Growing up I attended sixteen different schools during twelve years of public schooling. Some were tiny rural schools where there was more than one grade in the same class. Some were larger schools with more ambitious programs. In each new school my first quest was to find out where the books were and what was required for me to be allowed to read them. When I was 12 years old I was enrolled in a small rural school where there was no library, not even a bookshelf in a classroom. One day I espied a box of dusty books abandoned in a closet, and I persuaded the principal to let me put them on a shelf and check them out to students. As it turned out, I was the only customer for this improvised library.
I was 10 years old when my family moved to a town with a Carnegie Library in a fine, impressive building. When the librarian explained that I could check out books for free whenever I wanted because I was a citizen, I instantly became an impassioned advocate of democracy and an unyielding advocate for free access to information and knowledge for all people.
In the third grade I declared to my mother, “I am a person of the story.” By the sixth grade I begin to write my first novel. At age 17 I entered an essay-writing contest where the subject was “What I Would Tell An Immigrant About America.” I won first place and a scholarship to the college of my choice. I left Arkansas for Baylor University in Waco, a Baptist school which was the only out-of-state institution my parents would let me attend.
At Baylor I discovered the theater and playwriting, and I got an idea for a novel. When I went to study at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, I continued working on that novel while writing a play. After I left college, I completed the novel and it was published. It is here in this collection: Hannah Jackson by Sherry Kafka. This book won the Friends of American Writers Award in Chicago and the Texas Writers Roundup award. The play, The Man Who Loved God, also is here, included in the collection Best Short Plays of 1968.
When my three children were young, I made up stories for them. A couple of those stories became children’s books, Big Enough and I Need a Friend. They, too, reside in these shelves alongside another book, I Will Always Stay Me. This is a collection of writings by South Texas migrant farm-worker children from small rural schools whose teachers joined me in a creative reading and writing program during the 1978-79 school year. Because writing matters to me, I was humbled and grateful when I was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Except for this small group of personal writings, the books in this collection mark my journey through life. At Baylor University, I was fortunate enough to encounter the exceptional Paul Baker, a great teacher. A book in this collection, What the Best College Teachers Do, published by Harvard Press, tells of his teaching. His classes had a profound effect on me, fostering a continuing interest in creativity and learning as well as encouraging a strong interest in creative work in its many manifestations. These interests are reflected in many of the books on these shelves. My story as his student is partially told in the book, What the Best College Students Do.
In 1966, the year my novel was published, I moved to San Antonio to work on the planning staff for the world’s fair, HemisFair ’68. This marked a turning point in my life because I became interested in exhibits and in urban design. The interest in exhibits led me to work with many museums, aquariums, and visitor centers in many places, both in this nation and in other countries. The interest in city development led me to work with city planning and project development, including parks, urban districts, and urban revitalization, including the 1972 study for the development of the San Antonio River Corridor. This work moved me out into the world and away from the solitary life of writing. These projects led to my selection as Artist in Residence in the School of Environmental Design at Texas A & M University in 1972. In 1978 I wrote a report for the Department of the Interior as part of their submission to Congress for creation of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
In 1974 I moved with my family to Austin, where I continued working on as an independent consultant on urban projects with a number of firms, including that of the remarkable Kevin Lynch, the outstanding urban designer from MIT. You will find some of his books on these shelves. These efforts led to my being selected as a Loeb Fellow in Advanced Environmental Studies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, 1980-81.
In the 1980s I lived on the East Coast, first in New Haven, CT, then in Cambridge, MA, and I continued to work on a project-by-project basis. Each new effort in meant more books on the shelves because, as I delved into the issues, ideas, people, and history that were touched on by each project, I often used books to guide my explorations. A number of those books ended up here.
Because stories always intrigued to me, I continued to write occasionally. I wrote episodes for Children’s Television Workshop production, 3-2-1 Contact and for KLRU-KLRN’s Carroscolendas. I produced and wrote several documentary multi-image, multi-media shows for museums, visitor centers, and television, including Wings Over The Alamo about the history of military aviation in San Antonio and A Special Place about the San Antonio River. I had the privilege of writing the first cover story for Texas Monthly magazine in February 1973 and serving as a contributing editor during its first two years. I also wrote articles for a number of other publications.
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Somewhere during the years, I read about a person who was being shown a large personal library. The visitor asked the owner, “Did you read all these books?” The owner replied, “No, but they all deserve to be read.”
Each book here at the Hotel Emma is deserving of attention. I read some parts in all of them; most I read cover to cover, along with many other books that fell by the wayside during my life’s journey. These particular books finally came to rest on these shelves in this excellent place.
I was never a book collector, as such. I am simply a person who has lived with books. I am grateful for the laughter and tears, questions and answers, surprises and pain, pleasure and comfort books afforded me these many years. Now they are here for you. Browse through them, and perhaps you will discover a book that captivates you just as Black Beauty enthralled the tiny me and helped to shape my life.
This is what books can do.
*Top image: Sherry Kafka Wagner reads a book from her collection at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Ball.