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Dean Gillian M. McCombs and 2017 Literati
Award recipient Rena Pederson.

Dean Gillian M. McCombs (left) and 2017 Literati Award recipient Rena Pederson.

During an extraordinary evening of commendation and reflection, more than 200 guests joined Friends of the SMU Libraries in paying tribute to libraries and literature at Tables of Content (TOC) on April 1.

A highlight of the event was the presentation of the eighth annual Literati Award to journalist and author Rena Pederson in recognition of her impact on culture and the community through her thought-provoking literary contributions.

TOC raised over $100,000 – a record-setting amount – for the University’s libraries. SMU Trustee Bobby B. Lyle ’67 and Lottye Lyle, SMU Libraries Executive Board member, served as honorary chairs of the sold-out fundraiser. For the second consecutive year, the graceful Fondren Foundation Centennial Reading Room served as the setting for the evening of fine dining and captivating conversation.

In her opening remarks, Gillian M. McCombs acknowledged that it was a “truly bittersweet occasion for me – my final TOC appearance, since yes, the rumors are true: I am retiring and planning to relocate to that land of enchantment – and home of SMU’s westernmost campus –Taos, New Mexico.”

Gillian M. McCombs with family

Gillian M. McCombs’ special guests for her final TOC as dean were her daughter Heather McCombs (right) and grandchildren Georgia and James Parnau of Appleton, Wisconsin.

McCombs, Dean and Director of Central University Libraries, will step down at the end of June after nearly two decades of achievement at SMU. Among the highlights of her tenure is the recent transformation of Fondren Library.

“Last year when I stood up here, we were still very much immersed in the renovation – this area was only the first phase,” she recalled. “But in September, many of you were able to join us to celebrate the opening of the Starbucks Café, the Collaborative Commons and the Prothro Learning Commons. And yes, sometimes, if you build it, they will come. The opening of those spaces, together with this reading room, truly made Fondren Library the hub it was always meant to be on campus.”

Leading up to the Literati Award presentation, SMU President R. Gerald Turner read a letter by First Lady Laura Bush ’68, SMU trustee and perhaps the nation’s most famous former librarian, congratulating the trailblazing women:

“As an award-winning journalist and author, Rena, you’ve informed and entertained us. You have left a remarkable imprint on Dallas, our State, and our Nation during your prolific career.

“Gillian, at every turn you have served the SMU Libraries with vision and dedication. I applaud the many contributions and lasting impact you have made in your 19 years of service to SMU. Thank you!

“President Bush joins me in sending our congratulations and best wishes for a memorable evening.”

In accepting SMU’s prestigious literary award, Pederson commented: “You could not have picked an award that would please me more – because you probably did not know I practically grew up in a library – the Tom Green County Library in San Angelo, to be precise. It was my second home.”

She spoke about beginning her storied journalism career as a junior in high school, where her tasks at the San Angelo Standard Times ranged from clipping news stories to file in the newspaper’s “reference library” to covering the police beat. Twenty years later, she served as the editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News, where her accolade-winning leadership led to her selection as a member of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize board for nine years.

Currently a contributor to The Huffington Post and public radio, some of her recent articles have focused on the threats to the U.S. economy posed by hackers and efforts to help women in the midst of turmoil in Egypt.

Chair given to Dean Gillian M. McCombs

The chair presented to the retiring dean.

Pederson’s latest book – The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of A Nation – tells the remarkable story of Suu Kyi, now First State Counsellor of Myanmar, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Of all her work over the years, Pederson’s columns to sons Greg and Grant were her readers’ favorites, she said, setting the stage for this apt anecdote:

“As part of my sometimes quixotic attempts to be a better mother, I volunteered to teach the Fourth Grade Sunday School. One day, one of the little girls came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Pederson, what does Heaven look like?’

“After some thought, I told her: Well, I think you’ll have to decide that for yourself when you get older, but I can tell you that I like to think Heaven looks a lot like a Great Big Library … quiet and peaceful … full of knowledge and ideas and wisdom … and full of people who value those things.”

Pederson looked around the reading room filled with library supporters as she declared, “Like you.”

A token of esteem and a farewell toast: Tables of Content came to an emotional conclusion as Jeff Rice (right), chair of the SMU Libraries Executive Board, presented retiring Dean Gillian M. McCombs with a chair – it is similar to one owned by her late husband, Richard Halsey – for her Taos home; and Bobby B. Lyle ’67 and Lottye Lyle, honorary chairs of Tables of Content, delivered a heartfelt toast.