June 24, 2013

Retired librarian Arlene Root was ‘one of a kind’

Any time Arlene Root was out running errands, heads would turn.

Any time Arlene Root was out running errands, heads would turn.

Her battleship gray 1950 Plymouth was as distinctive as its driver.

“She was one of a kind,” said friend and one-time co-worker Larry Vos, reference services administrator at the Wichita Public Library.

Ms. Root, retired art and music librarian, nature enthusiast, and human catalog of Christmas facts and traditions, died Monday morning in a three-vehicle accident near Central and West. She was 89 years old.

Three other people suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the crash, according to Wichita police Lt. Brian White. Police have not released who was killed in the accident, but close family friends of Ms. Root confirmed Monday night that she had died.

Additional details and the cause of the accident were expected to be released on Tuesday.

Ms. Root was born Nov. 7, 1923.

She grew up in the small town of Wilsey in Morris County, excelling at 4-H and learned to take detailed records of her 4-H projects. She graduated from Wilsey High School in 1941, the class valedictorian. She then enrolled in a one-year normal training program and quickly passed a test earning her teaching certificate.

Ms. Root taught in a one-room Morris County schoolhouse for one year, according to a Wichita Eagle article published Aug. 30, 1981. In 1943, she began attending classes at the College of Emporia, where, in 1946, she earned her bachelor’s degree in music education. She then taught music and English in the towns of Brownell, Plains and Cassoday.

In her spare time, she earned her library science degree from Emporia State College. Ms. Root moved to Wichita in 1951, where she was hired as a librarian for the Ford Rockwell library branch of the Wichita Public Library. She eventually was moved to the main library in downtown Wichita. She earned her master’s degree in instrumental music in 1956 from the University of Wichita.

On Jan. 1, 2005, she was featured in The Wichita Eagle for her encyclopedic knowledge on Christmas. In the 1950s, before Google and the Internet, she began collecting information when people would call the library’s help desk wanting to know more about traditions.

“There were quite a number of questions then as to how Christmas was celebrated in other lands,” Root said. “We had to plow through so much stuff to find anything. It was not organized.”

She collected a box of 470 file cards — enough for a 10-volume set.

She was an expert on boys choirs, leading that group at Woodland United Methodist Church during the 1960s and 1970s. She took students to various concerts across Kansas and the nation — in the same 1950 Plymouth she was driving on Monday.

Tim Martz, retired superintendent of Wichita’s Park and Recreation Department, remembers his first paying job as a boy was helping to care for Ms. Root’s yard. He and his brothers, Steve and Dave, also were in her choir.

“She could load six of us boys in the back seat, two in front and all the choir robes and music in the trunk, and off we’d go to a performance,” Martz said. “I tell you, she was one of those gals, that once you did something for her, you had her as a friend for life. What I remember most about her was her love for people. She genuinely cared for people.”

She also liked animals and once had a pet dog named Johann Sebastian Bark.

And she could talk your ears off, Vos said. “She was exact and always very careful in how she said things. You knew you were getting correct information.”

Indeed, said neighbor Wayne Newkirk, “If you ever went over to her yard, you had better expect to be there for awhile.”

Ms. Root loved nature — enough so, her yard was overgrown with foliage and grass. She could name every plant and was constantly found in the yard.

She was predictable. Each Wednesday, if there was a noon lecture scheduled, her car would be parked at Botanica while she was inside the Wichita gardens listening to a speaker.

“There was only one car like that in Wichita,” Tim Martz said.

Word quickly spread Monday that a vintage car was involved in the fatal accident at West Central and Dougherty. Many knew immediately who drove that car.

“People would ask her many times why she wouldn’t get a new car and she’d say, ‘This one works perfectly fine,’ ” said Steve Martz.

Kevin Hanks was working on a car at MasterTech Transmissions when he heard the accident. The auto shop is on the corner of Dougherty and West Central.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Hanks said. “All I saw was smoke and red dust at first.”

Hanks said he helped pull the passenger door of the vintage car open as paramedics arrived.

“I couldn’t get her to respond and not long after, the paramedic said she was gone,” he said.

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