After nearly half a century of checking out books to students at Lawrence High School, Martha Oldham is finally checking herself out of the library.
Oldham, the longest-serving educator in Lawrence school district history, officially retired July 1 after 46 years as the school librarian.
“People always said you would know when the time was right,” Oldham said. “The one thing is, I just had fantastic kids all through my years. And working with kids is just such a wonderful experience. It's just a great school.”
Oldham grew up in Emporia and began her career at LHS in 1967 after working the previous seven years in the Manhattan school district.
That was also the same year a young student named Dirk Wedd started school there.
“She just makes the atmosphere and the climate at Lawrence High like that of a family,” Wedd, who is now LHS's head football coach, recalled. “She's constantly reminding kids through those displays (in the cabinets of the hallways) about the history of Lawrence High. She's been very important for the well-being of the school.”
Troubled times early on
Oldham's first years at LHS were a turbulent time in Lawrence. In 1970 many of the school's black students staged walkouts to protest the lack of black history or literature in the curriculum, the absence of any blacks on the school's cheerleading squads and other teams, and the lack of racial diversity among the school's faculty.
“Let me tell you, it was a very frightening time,” Oldham recalled. “We had policemen who slept in the school, in a classroom overnight. Policemen were there all the time.”
At one point, she said, students protested the library itself because the card catalog had no entries under “black history” or “black literature.” That's when Oldham teamed up with English teacher Del Fambrough, wife of the legendary Kansas University football coach Don Fambrough, to start building a collection.
“The school gave the library some money so we could build the black history and literature collection,” Oldham said. “I had such wonderful help. We had input from Del, and the history teachers and some people at KU. That was exciting, getting and purchasing this material and the input from so many people.”
After the turmoil of that era died down, Oldham faced another kind of revolution: the digital revolution and the advent of the Internet, which would change virtually ever aspect of the library.
“Lawrence High School was the very first (school) library in the state of Kansas to check out books with a computer,” Oldham recalled. “We had an IT department at the high school, and I worked on a program and we put the library on a computer.”
Today, she said, the job of a school librarian is nothing like the job she trained for in the 1950s and '60s.
“The only thing that I do now that's the same: I put newspapers on a stick,” she said. “Computers just changed the library. The internet, databases, e-books. It just opened a new life for the library.”
Meanwhile, Oldham formed strong bonds with many of the students and colleagues she worked with.
Bill Kelly recalled how Oldham befriended his mother, music teacher Barbara Kelly, in the 1990s, around the time both of their husbands were nearing the end of their lives.
“In later years, Martha would transport Mom and they'd go to KU basketball games together,” said Bill Kelly, who now teaches science at LHS. “Mom and Dad had a big kitchen table in the house, and they'd sit around that table and talk about life's miseries and life's goodness and everything in the world. Lots of tears and lots of laughs.”
Besides running the library, Oldham was also a fixture on the sidelines of LHS Lions sports events, taking pictures of football and baseball games, as well as track, cross country and other sports and posting them on the team websites.
“She makes me nervous as all get-out, walking along the sidelines like that,” football coach Wedd said. But he said Oldham is younger than her years would indicate. “She's a very spry young lady.”
After her retirement, Oldham said she plans to continue taking sports pictures of her favorite high school team, and she plans to continue building and maintaining the teams' websites.
But Oldham said nothing will ever replace the joy she had being the school librarian.
“You know, when you have the best job in the world, it's pretty hard to retire,” she said.
The Lawrence school district has not yet announced who will be the next LHS librarian.