I had been clued in a week earlier that the call would be coming, so it was no surprise when at last it did. At the time I was the executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, and on the line was the mother of a member of our board of overseers. Happily, though I had never met the caller, I knew what the conversation was to be about. “Would HMML be interested in having two medieval manuscripts?” she asked.
Even in the best of times the acquisitions budget at HMML did not permit the purchase of real live medieval manuscripts of this quality. These were items that the staff at HMML preserved on microfilm and now in digital format; but the offer of two Books of Hours seemed to good to be true. But true it was.
Of the two, the earliest dated from the late 14th century, and the other from the 15th. Scribes and illuminators in Flanders had made these prayer books for well-to-do lay clients, and through the centuries they had passed from one collector to the next. By the early 1900s they had ended up in the hands of Mary Hill Gavin, daughter of the railroad magnate James J. Hill. Then they passed to a relative, who now wanted to gift them to HMML.
Over the phone I tried to sound cool, calm, and not desperately eager to have them; but I suspect my enthusiasm showed all the same. And when the invitation to examine them came, my answer was an immediate: “Yes, at your convenience!” The truth was, I was ready to bolt out the door and drive down to her home then and there.
Three weeks later I did visit, and a quick inspection confirmed what I had expected. These would be wonderful additions to our collections. I then thanked her for thinking of HMML, and as an afterthought I asked why she had considered HMML as a fitting repository.
The answer I anticipated was not what she offered, however. With her daughter on the board and the library named for her family, the decision seemed to me a no-brainer. But she surprised me.
“Well, last summer the person who mowed our lawn was such an impressive young man, and he was a student at Saint John’s University. And so we thought these books should go to Saint John’s. That’s the main reason, I guess.”
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Who could have imagined that such a wonderful gift might come to Saint John’s, and all because the Saint John’s student who mowed their lawn had been so conscientious and hard-working.
Today Gavin Manuscripts I & II have a home at Saint John’s, and along with them came a 17th-century Italian kneeler that had also belonged to Mary Hill Gavin. Since their arrival they’ve been securely stored in the special collections vault, and in a few months time they will move with all the rare books and manuscripts into the new Special Collections and Archives Department in Alcuin Library. With a purpose-built reading room and offices for a librarian and archivist, students will at last have easy access to all the research collections at HMML and Saint John’s University. Included in that number will be Gavin Manuscripts I & II.
For many good reasons it was appropriate that Mary Hill Gavin’s two manuscripts should find a permanent home in the library named for her family. And for that we are grateful for the generosity of one family member in particular. But in this instance we also have to give our thanks to a young student who represented Saint John’s so well that summer. I wish I could thank him personally, but I never learned his name. So to the unknown alumnus who did a great job — in ways he never imagined — I am grateful. Thank you, even if you don’t know who you are!