Gaynell and his holy grail

by Howard Kohn

Ask Gaynell Theodore Catherine how people of Africa have influenced the world beyond their borders, and he may tell you of Abram Petrovich Gannibel (clearly not his native name) who was taken by slave traders to Constantinople and then to Russia where, allowed to study engineering, he rose to the rank of a military commander and started a family line that, four generations later, produced Alexander Pushkin – yes, the great Russian poet.

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(photo by Julie Wiatt)


Or he may tell you any of a thousand other little enlightenments from
the trove of stories at the Library of Congress that have been the
mainstay of Gaynell’s career.  For 27 years he has produced calendars
that feature the historical gems he mines at the library — along with
exquisite photographs, such as that of a 103-year-old woman threading a
needle — all under the single but expansive theme of “black history.”

blackhistory2011wallCover_250.jpgGaynell ran out of time before he ran out of stories at a party in his
honor the evening of October 21, held after business hours at Now and
Then.  He signed a few of his original calendars, dating to 1983, and
thoroughly enjoyed the happy mingling, arranged by his friend Elizabeth
Brinkama.

The next day Gaynell resumed his regular commute from his home on Kansas
Lane to the hardwood research stalls. “I’ve pretty much lived at the
library,” he said later, musing over entries for his 2012 wall calendar.

He is, however, reaching a crossroads. No matter how remarkable the
quality of his calendars they are printed on paper, which, as we all
know, is rapidly going out of vogue.

After next year he will discontinue his spiral-bound engagement
calendar, with its sophisticated colored prints on multiple sleek pages.
“Nobody keeps track of their schedule in a daybook anymore.  Everyone
has a Blackberry or an iPhone or whatever,” he said.
 
For the foreseeable future Gaynell is going forward with wall calendars,
distributed by Pomegranate Books, but also available through his
website (IOKTS.com), his acronym for I Only Know The Story.  “It’s still
exciting to me to dig into old books and records and find stories that
were lost over time,” he said. “That’s how it all started. I grew up in
Louisiana, but when I moved here I heard things about black people I’d
never heard before. At first I didn’t even believe they were true, but I
researched them, and they were true. It was a thrill for me to find
out, a great feeling.”

Recently he has started to work on gathering up a large number of his
favorite stories into a collector’s volume. “Calendars have a certain
life span, basically one year,” he noted. “But I have a giant archive in
my own house at this point, and I don’t want everything just to be
forgotten again.”

Would he distribute this compilation as a CD?

“Possibly, but I’d really like it to be a coffee table book.  I still love holding something in my hands.”

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