Before Julia Whitehead became the leader of an effort to create the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, she was a Kurt Vonnegut fan.
For Whitehead, her Vonnegut habit started when she read Slaughterhouse 5
in high school. She assumed that the book's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was a stand-in for Vonnegut himself. "Since then I've learned Billy Pilgrim was not based on Kurt's life," Whitehead says a little sheepishly. "But I've found his life more interesting than I ever imagined it to be."
Whitehead went on to become an officer in the Marines, teach school in Thailand, work as an editor with Random House publishing company and as a medical writer for Eli Lilly.
Through the years, she continued reading Vonnegut's books. Whitehead was fascinated by his voice, the ways he created characters who continued from one book to another and, most of all, his sense of humor. "He uses humor to deal with difficult events in life," says Whitehead. "His own life story is interesting and I'm sure there were many joyful moments in his life, but there was also a lot of tragedy and personal suffering. To come away from those experiences and to still love people he seems to make it very clear that he loved people."
Vonnegut's death in 2007, just prior to a scheduled speech he was to give at Butler University as part of the city's "Year of Vonnegut" celebration, was a major blow to Whitehead. "I had decided I was going to try and contact him. But I was stalling. Then he was supposed to come to Indianapolis and I thought, 'I'm going to take this opportunity and try to talk to him or, at least, make some sort of contact with him.' And then he died. All those years I had wanted to express my appreciation of him and I was really upset. The opportunity was gone."
Then, a little more than a year later, she discovered the Henry Miller Library online and was inspired to see if she could help create something similar to honor Vonnegut in his hometown. "I felt I had a combination of skills that might be useful in getting this going. I thought my background might help me communicate, not only with fans of Kurt, but with people who may not know his work, as well as with folks in the community who may see benefits in having this great institution here in Indianapolis, as opposed to somewhere else."
Armed with support from Vonnegut's son, Mark, and his daughters Edie and Nanny, Whitehead has proceeded to assemble an active board, including prominent local attorney Kip Tew.
A website (www.vonnegutlibrary.org) and Facebook page have been created and the project has been incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
Whitehead's vision for the Vonnegut Library is multi-dimensional. The Library will sponsor programs for high school writers and provide support for high school newspapers, honoring Vonnegut's love for his experience writing for the Shortridge daily . The Library has already begun holding public programs at the Athenaeum, including a talk by Vonnegut scholar Rodney Allen (see INFO Box). A book club has been formed and Whitehead says that more "events that honor Kurt in a way that is also fun," are in the works.
"Everyone involved in all these projects is doing it out of their love for Kurt," says Whitehead. "They're volunteering their time." She says she wants the Vonnegut Library to be "a place that's vibrant and alive, that will display [Kurt's] life story and have personal items and an art gallery." Joe Petro, the master print maker who collaborated on Vonnegut's numerous works of visual art, has promised his services.
"I thought my appreciation of Kurt's life and his works would be clearly genuine to people I would want to get involved in the project," says Whitehead. "There is an unmet need out there for people to express their feelings about him."
Currently operating out of office space being supplied by the Athenaeum, the Vonnegut Library project has been looking for a permanent address. In the meantime, Whitehead says the Library is seeking "all the things a start-up organization needs," including office supplies and furniture. Volunteers are also welcome to help with committee work, stuffing envelopes, and, most important, fund raising. People who want to get involved are encouraged to go to the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In talking about Vonnegut and the promise of a new Indianapolis institution dedicated to his spirit, Whitehead seems to summon the presence of a man she never had a chance to meet. "I came to realize that he would have talked to me or would have written back to me," she says of her missed opportunity. "Kurt had so many friends. Everyone was his friend, as someone once said to me. That's a great way to be."