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He was like a Santa Claus of books. That's how children at Miles Park School on Cleveland's East Side describe Bob Cheshier.
A year ago, the white-bearded retiree made it his mission to place Little Free Libraries -- cleverly painted wooden dollhouses mounted on a stand and filled with books to be given away -- near Cleveland schools. Because the little structures were an instant hit with kids, Bob always had "hungry libraries to feed," as he once told me in an email.
And so, while smoking his trademark pipe, the 82-year-old would wheel his Mini Cooper through Cleveland's roughest neighborhoods, pull into school parking lots and march inside carrying boxes of books. School staff and children loved to see him coming, smiling, smelling of tobacco and always bearing gifts.
"We don't ever see anybody like that at our school," Principal Heather Grant of Tremont Montessori said affectionately.
She's right about that. Bob Cheshier of Cleveland Heights, who died unexpectedly May 14 of heart failure, was one of a kind. An irreplaceable guy with an irresistible idea.
Every time I wrote something about the Little Free Library crusade he started last fall, readers loved it and clamored to help. Shaker Heights school district gave him carloads of old books. The Albert M. Higley construction company held a book drive and offered to work with Auburn Career Center students to build six mini-libraries.
All told, Bob raised enough to commission 14 of the structures near Cleveland schools.
Retired from a career as Case Western Reserve University's director of medical libraries, Bob kept track exquisitely of all of the calls, emails, checks and requests, responding to each one.
"This concept seems to have a life of its own," he once marveled in an email to me. "You really started something."
Nah. It was all Bob, who also spent his free time collecting books and shipping them overseas to poor nations through his nonprofit, Third World Books.
Eventually, he began dreaming of installing a little library at every Cleveland public school.
Cleveland schools chief Eric Gordon, who met Bob this year while visiting Washington Park School, quickly got swept up in the vision too. "I found his enthusiasm infectious. I'm so grateful for what he has done for my kids," said Gordon. He plans to place Little Free Libraries at 13 under-performing schools that have been designated to receive extra investment next year.
What's the draw of this tiny library, what does it really accomplish? On Thursday, I put that question to fourth-graders at Tremont Montessori, where Cheshier placed a mini-library last October. They put Bob's legacy into words in a hurry.
"It's helping kids read," answered Aaliyah Higdon, who said her favorite Little Free Library book so far was one on tornadoes.
Daryus Barrett explained it further. A lot of his friends have taken books from the schoolhouse-shaped little library, including some who don't like reading at all. "They probably think that since it's outside in a pretty garden, the books are more interesting than those from the library," said Daryus, who has pulled out 10 books or so for himself since it was installed. He's even pushed himself to try some "that were kind of hard."
Bob Cheshier, who died unexpectedly May 14 of heart failure, was one of a kind. An irreplaceable guy with an irresistible idea.
Layla Abdur-Raheem, who loves to open the tiny door and hunt for Junie B. Jones books, said it's fun to grab one and read outside on the playground.
At the real library, "it's so boring and you have to be quiet," added Daryus.
Plus, the kids chorused, it's great to not have to worry about returning the book by a certain date.
That's a major reason kids love it. They can take books home if they want, and "If you don't bring it back, it's not a crime," said instructional assistant Jasma Love. She swooned over the little library when she saw it at another school and quickly contacted Bob to get one at Tremont Montessori. "It's just cute. Something different."
Bob, whose sudden death left family and friends shocked, had countless balls in the air and his effort was gaining steam every day.
One of his latest achievements was that he had arranged for construction trades students at Max S. Hayes High School to start building the mini-libraries. "We're working on them right now," teacher Jim MacDowell told me.
Bob had visited Max Hayes several times recently to explain to students that thousands of these tiny bookhouses have sprouted across the globe since 2009, part of an international literacy movement (littlefreelibrary.org).
"He really got them to understand with their hearts the importance of such a project and how they fit in. Once they realized that . . . they just dove right in and enjoyed working on it," MacDowell said.
He then voiced what many of us who worked with Bob are feeling: Without our coordinator-in-chief, we don't know how to move forward.
"I met with Bob once a week. I never took some of these names down. I never thought I needed to. I'm kicking myself now," said Nancy Sherwin, who attended St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights with Bob and volunteered with his literacy effort. "In his quiet way, Bob went around and did all these things. No one person can take his place."
As it stands now, two people are planning to try: his son-in-law, Bill Rubin, who manages the Mayfield branch of Cuyahoga County Public Library, and Sherwin.
Their first job will be to connect the puzzle pieces, and find the people who had joined Bob's ever-growing network.
"So much of what Dad did was in his head and [only] he knew what part everybody was playing," Rubin said. "Dad has kind of left us a treasure chest here. We're opening it and finding all sorts of wonderful things."
He added: "This will be part of our project in the coming days -- to carry on what he had started."
To contribute to the effort to place Little Free Libraries near Cleveland schools, checks can be mailed to Third World Books, 2208 Grandview Ave., Cleveland Heights, OH 44106. Make check out to Third World Books (write Little Free Library on memo line). To inquire about donating books or connect with the local effort, send an email to Nancy Sherwin at firstname.lastname@example.org