May Dickson Exall was quite a gal. Born in McKinney 159 years ago this month, she was a woman who would have been right at home in the 21st century. While still a teenager, she attended Vassar and “lived in various places in Texas, including Clarksville and Galveston, before moving to Dallas in 1883.”
It was there that she met the widower Col. Henry Exall, who had earned quite a reputation for his business acumen and community leadership. Why, there were many who had encouraged Henry to run for governor, but he shied away from taking on such a role.
It was in 1887 that 28-year-old May married 39-year-old Henry. While some writers recalled May as “a most attractive and accomplished lady, who makes their home a haven of rest from the many cares of his busy life,” others claim that May should be remembered for more than keeping the hearth fires burning.
In addition to serving as president of the original Dallas Shakespeare Club for 50 years, she “helped organize and establish the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art)” and the Texas Federation of Women’s Literary Clubs that evolved into the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Dallas Woman’s Club.
Perhaps her ability to organize women and her insight in providing for the needs of the growing city were best encapsulated in one example — the Dallas Public Library. May started off by putting together the Dallas Federation of Women’s Clubs “to unite and direct the efforts of Dallas women toward the establishment of a public library.” Serving as its first president (1898-1899), as well as the president of the Dallas Library Association, she managed to get industrial titan Andrew Carnegie to donate a whopping $50,000 for the construction of the first library building in Dallas at the corner of Harwood and Commerce streets. The two-story Carnegie Library opened October 20, 1901, with a head librarian, three assistants and 8,852 volumes.
To honor this driving force of the Dallas Public Library, the Friends of the Dallas Public Library created the May Dickson Exall Award to recognize champions of the library.
This year’s recipient would have delighted May for her leadership, love of books and dedication to Dallas — Charlene Howell. Not only did Charlene “establish an engineering library at Frito Lay Inc., and serve as executive director of The Rosewood Foundation,” she is a voracious reader (a book every five days for more than 50 years) and a dedicated supporter of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, where she has served on the executive board and advisory council for nearly 40 years. In addition to helping branch libraries form their own “Friends” groups, she “spearheaded” the effort to “restock the library shelves during a budget crunch in the 1980s, and organized a conference on African-American literature in 1990 that included Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison.
As Charlene puts it, “Since I was a child, books and libraries have always been an indispensable part of my life. I think I have Type L blood.”
Charlene will be honored at the Friends of the Dallas Public Library fundraising banquet on Thursday, October 25, at O’Hara Hall on the seventh floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library. Matching the importance of the occasion will be Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, “whose latest book, ‘God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State,’ is being acclaimed as ‘his most personal work yet, an elegant mixture of autobiography and long-form journalism.’”