Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, still smarting from the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion that aimed to overthrow the Castro administration, had just about 13 months left to live. Superstars Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Dionne Warwick all began their recording careers. And a major library was born on the Coral Gables campus of the University of Miami.
Over the years, the school’s Otto G. Richter Library, built for $3 million, has grown into one of Florida’s largest repositories for some of the region’s most significant collections of memorabilia and history. The Pan Am airline collection soars here. The departed Orange Bowl is documenting every step of the way. The Charles Deering and Marjory Stoneman Douglas collections afford visitors and researchers a tantalizing look into South Florida’s history.
Additionally, the Cuban Heritage Collection on the library’s second floor gathers more than 50,000 books, periodicals, photographs and newspapers from colonial times to the present.
Friday evening, the 50th anniversary of the 1962 dedication was celebrated at an invitation-only event before more than 150 UM dignitaries, donors and alumni.
The group included humorist Dave Barry, who, upon learning from UM President Donna Shalala that the library was students’ favorite hot spot on campus, theorized “that’s because of the free heroin program.” Barry quickly corrected the misinformation. “It’s crack,” he said.
Barry, 65, who contributes columns for The Miami Herald, sat for an interview session conducted by Shalala. On the eve before polls opened for the 2012 presidential election, they discussed very important world matters.
Barry, at Shalala’s questioning, opined on why he didn’t much like Neil Diamond’s 1971 hit song, I Am...I Said , and how that viewpoint triggered a firestorm with Herald readers. (“They say people don’t care about issues.”) He talked about the futility of using explosives to remove a rotting beached whale off the storm-tossed coast of Oregon — makes quite a mess, for one thing.
What any of these discussions had to do with the celebration of the library’s silver anniversary is a mystery Barry might have to unravel in a future column. But the funny man was an inspired choice for the occasion, said Cristina Favretto, head of special collections for the Richter Library: “We wanted to bring a speaker who was a Miami person who has written about Miami and who could engage with President Shalala. What can be better than someone who is smart and who cares about the city and where it’s been and where it’s going?”
The Richter has become a resource for the community, researchers and producers who want to find out about South Florida’s past and potential future.
“We’re used by students’ classes every week as they are learning about a variety of topics. One might be looking at Latin text, rare books from the early 1500s, then, next week, a class might look at our Haitian Women of Miami Collection,” Favretto said, adding that the Pan Am Collection is one of the most popular draws. This was especially the case last year when producers of the defunct ABC series Pan Am called on the Richter’s staff to authenticate images they planned to replicate on television.