Merritt to the Rescue
By: Melora Ranney (unknown original interview date)
You live in the Southwest; injustice has robbed you of what little you have; you’re losing the will to keep fighting, and along comes…
The Lone Ranger?
No: The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund.
This is a story about a librarian, and about a few thousand dollars that meant the difference to her between giving up and going on–under immense difficulty, and in spite of intense opposition from the biggest law firm in Dallas.
The librarian’s name is Mimi Davis. I had the opportunity to talk with her the other day from her home in Waco, Texas; she also shared her correspondence from that pivotal time in her life. Her voice is clear, warm, and distinctly Texan.
Melora (L): “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself–where you grew up, who you are?”
Mimi (M): “I grew up in Houston. It was humid and hot–wasn’t a big town when I grew up in it. Spent a lot of time at the beach. Was married and had four children, divorced after 29 years.”
L: “That must have been hard.”
M: “It was pretty traumatic. Had been married to a corporate executive and hadn’t had to work, except I had a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I had always had an interest in theology, and then I was divorced, and a job brought me to Arlington Texas–took a job as a governess. The agreement was that I could continue [graduate studies], got the Master’s degree in Theology.
From there, I was looking at applying to do a doctorate combining psychiatry and theology. And that was kind of iffy, because at my age, the chance of somebody being accepted to graduate school–they would probably have had a hard time doing that.”
At this point, in June of 1986, the interim director of Bridwell Theological Library at Southern Methodist University offered her a job. He said that he needed her background in theology at the library and asked her to set up a reference department.
The trouble started in January 1988, a few months after a new director came on board.
At first, things seemed to be going well; then, slowly, the director reportedly starting having differences with faculty, students, and others at the library—including Mimi, who wrote in 1995: “He began to harass me for no apparent reason.” He transferred her to jobs she was unprepared and unsuited for; he tried to demote her. She wrote: “He removed me from committees and faculty luncheon lists and insulted me openly in public places.”
Looking back, Mimi says “I didn’t even know what discrimination was–all of a sudden I thought, ‘this is not right’… every day I would wake up and that’s what was on my mind: somebody’s got to do it, put a stop to people treating people the way he did. People started writing articles to the paper and he would turn up the heat.”
She consulted with the personnel department and received verbal support but no action. Then, advised and encouraged by friends and colleagues, Mimi saw an attorney, who filed an EEOC charge–and the showdown began. After four charges and a letter of dismissal, Mimi and her attorney filed suit in March 1989 against the director and SMU alleging age and sex discrimination.
Mimi struggled to find enough part-time jobs just to make ends meet. Then, she heard of the Merritt Fund. In October of 1989, after a call to Judith Krug at ALA, she wrote:
“Judith—No way to express my thanks—for returning my call on a busy day—for your sympathetic ear—for sending the papers so quickly—etc… This has been a long, lonely battle and I’ve wanted to throw in the towel about a hundred times—then, a ray of hope, like my learning about you and the fund, comes through and I resume.”
M: “I had literally run through all my funds, and along came the Merritt Fund. The first check was $3,000, and that was like a million dollars to me. The day I got it, I had been in an eight hour deposition and I left there feeling like I couldn’t possibly go on another minute. My rent was five days overdue, and when I got home there was the check. I’ll never forget it: it was yellow. By this time, my attorney’s fees were $14,000–my total fees were $29,000. The case was eventually settled out of court in June 1992–it started in January 1988. Four years of my life miserable.
Two of my children died during this process–my second son died of AIDS, and my youngest son committed suicide. Then their father died–so there was a whole lot of stuff going on at the time. I mean, when you have to pay for airline tickets, funerals and things . . . those years are kind of a blur.”
Still, this was something she felt she had to do.
M: “It was my feeling that this was going on, this is my church, my seminary. If I don’t do something about cleaning it up from the inside, it’s not going to get cleaned up.”
L: “Yes, if we just say “let somebody else do it” it doesn’t happen.”
M: “I never considered myself a feminist. Of course it made the news. One of my friends saw me on TV, punched her husband in the arm, and said “Look, Al. Mimi’s become an activist.”
Somebody else might not be able to do it–by that time I was divorced, had no responsibilities other than me. I could risk putting out every dime of retirement that I had–but a lot of people can’t do that.”
L: “You have an amazing spirit.”
M: “Well, as a friend of mine says, what’s the alternative?”
Ultimately, the case was settled out of court. The director was relieved of his duties a week later. And Mimi’s proudest moment was repaying the Merritt Fund every penny it had granted her—a total of $7,000. In July of 1992, Judith Krug wrote:
“I am overwhelmed. Your $7,000 check to reimburse the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund was awaiting my return from the ALA Annual Conference… I am of course, informing the Trustees about your repayment. From them, and from current and future librarians who will be helped immeasurably by your reimbursement, I send our heartfelt and grateful thanks.”
After several years working in the library field, Mimi’s passion for people and justice has found yet another outlet: for the past two years, she has been teaching basic supervisory skills at a local community college. She says “it’s a real service,” pointing out that many people “didn’t get the education they needed–and that’s where community colleges step in.”
L: “What would you like people to know about the Merritt Fund?”
M: “The neatest thing about that fund is that it’s given with no strings. There’s no pressure to pay it back–it’s not another debt.”
L: “What would you say made you the person who could take this on?”
M: “Well, I have a pretty strong faith. And sometimes that means that whatever comes along… Deepak Chopra says that every moment is as it should be. Life is made up of good and bad, and it is what we make it. Problems are there to be solved, mean people are going to come along. They’re not at fault–it’s the fault of those who won’t stand up and say “no, no more.” They are not the perpetrators of moral evil–we are if we don’t take action to put a stop to it. Somebody lies down in front the of train and gets run over, and then somebody lies down in front of the train and gets run over, and sooner or later somebody has to stop the train.”
The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund was established as a special trust in memory of Dr. LeRoy C. Merritt, one of the library profession’s staunchest opponents of censorship and one of its most vigorous defenders of intellectual freedom. It is devoted to the support, maintenance, medical care and welfare of librarians who are discriminated against; who are denied employment rights; or who are threatened with loss of employment or discharged because of their stand for the cause of intellectual freedom. For application, information, or to make a donation, visit www.merrittfund.org.
Citation for this article:
“Merritt Fund to the rescue. (News Fronts ALA).” American Libraries, Oct. 2002, p. 10.