People: Book lover Martha Clay

December 20, 2004|HERB BROCK

On a small pillow on a settee in Martha Clay's apartment is the following needlepoint inscription: "I cannot live without books."

The famous line, contained in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, seems to sum up one of the loves of Clay's long life. It has dominated her 90 years, and was behind her dedication to the Danville-Boyle County Public Library - a dedication that encompassed 43 years that ended last month with her resignation from the library board. "I have always loved books, and I have, for a long, long time, been a patron of a wonderful place in town where you can find many, many books and periodicals," said Clay.

Many years ago, that "place" practically belonged to Bess Tunis, the long-time librarian. And Tunis was the one who suggested that one of the library's most avid patrons take a leadership position.

"It's been a long time but I believe she (Tunis) was the one who invited me to serve on the board," Clay said. "I was named to the board and enjoyed serving an institution that is so important to the community."


Clay and the rest of the board, along with Tunis and Karl Benson, who has served for the last several years as librarian, have overseen a lot of growth, in facilities, books and services. While Clay is both proud and impressed in the brick and mortar improvements that have taken place - and reportedly will continue under a major expansion that currently is being considered by the board - she believes the foundation of the library was, is and will continue to be not a brick but a book. "Books enliven the mind and spark the imagination. They have been such an important part of my life," she said.

There aren't nearly as many books around Clay's home these days. She recently moved from an apartment house on Lexington Avenue to a smaller but comfortable and well-appointed apartment in McDowell Place.

"Naturally, I've had to down-size," she said.

But when you enter her home, you feel like you're going back in time to a parlor in an antebellum mansion. And you are not surprised that the woman holding court is an unabashed bookworm. She is the personification of the well-bred, well-spoken and well-educated Southern woman. There is an air of grace and gentility, and an aura of curiosity and intellectuality that permeates her apartment.

Clay could be viewed as a "proper Kentucky young lady" who married and stayed home to raise her children. But there is that other dimension. In a sense, she upgraded her upbringing through education, much of it formal. A lot of coming from reading.

She grew up on Mercer County farm

Clay grew up on a farm on Mundy's Landing in Mercer County, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and Mattie Sue Strader. After high school, she went to Centre College but didn't graduate. "I married out," she said, referring to her marriage to fellow Centre student James Clay Sr. from Danville. She also married Kentucky history. Her husband could trace his roots to both the famous abolitionist, Cassius Clay, and famous statesman, Henry Clay.

Except for a few years spent in Ann Arbor, Mich., where James Clay Sr. attended law school at the University of Michigan, the Clays made Danville their home.

"Jim earned his bachelor's and law degrees. I proceeded to earn my MAMA degree," said Clay with a gentle laugh.

She and her husband, who died a few years ago, had four children: Martha Ann Nichols of Louisville, James Clay Jr. and Richard Clay, both of Danville, and Elizabeth Lee Fernandez of Madrid, Spain.

James Jr., Thomas and Richard followed their father's footsteps and became attorneys. James Jr. and Richard joined their father at the law firm of Clay and Clay, which was begun by Sanders Clay just after World War II and is the longest continuous legal firm in Danville.

Clay also has 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. You can bet each one of them, like their parents, were treated to stories from books read to them by Clay.

Her first favorite as a child was "When Knighthood Was In Flower" by Charles Major. She read it so often she practically memorized it.

The Lang Fairy books were another childhood favorite, and were identified more by the colors of the covers than the titles.

Sad to see children not reading as often or as much

She laments the fact that the last few generations of children don't read as often or as much as she did. Television, videos and video games, according to many experts, are winning the competition. "I deplore the fact that everything on television is furnished to children. It's passive entertainment," said Clay. "With books, you use your mind and explore your imagination."

Several decades later, she is still using her mind and exploring her imagination by reading - and re-reading - books, and finding new authors that she adds to her list of favorites, a list that begins with Charles Major.

"One of the authors I recently discovered is Silas House," Clay said. "He now lives in Somerset and specializes in tales from Appalachia. I loved his book, 'A Cold Tattoo.'"

Clay also has been a member of the Garden Club of Danville and the Amanda O. Rodes Book Club, has served as a hospice volunteer for 16 years, and has been an active member of the Episcopalian Church.

"I still have memories, most of my family, and my radio over which I am able to listen to every game that Danville High plays," Clay said, touching the little radio next to her chair. "And, of course, I still have my books."

She still visits the library, and she checks out books brought to McDowell Place on the bookmobile - a service that was started during her tenure on the board.

"Whether I buy them, get them as gifts or check them out at the library or bookmobile, I must have books to read," Clay said. "Like the pillow says, I cannot live without them."

Central Kentucky News Articles