Obituary: Margaret Mary Kimmel / Former chairman of library science at Pitt

May 12, 1938 - June 10, 2014


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One day when Maggie Kimmel was 4 years old, she got confused about how to coordinate her brace and crutch — a common occurrence after her polio diagnosis — and fell at her home. Her father wiped her tears and asked if she was hurt. When she said she wasn’t, he hugged her and said, “Then my darling, get up and walk.”

It was a story Ms. Kimmel told repeatedly over the years in her work as one of the nation’s leading experts on children’s literature, chairwoman of the library science department at the University of Pittsburgh and advocate for the disabled.

“That story epitomizes so much of how Maggie was in the world,” said Kristy Trautmann, executive director of FISA Foundation, one of the many groups where Ms. Kimmel was a board member. “There are hard times for all of us. It’s about getting up, walking, getting on with it and not letting barriers and obstacles hold you back.”

Ms. Kimmel died Tuesday from leukemia. She was 76.

Born in Gary, Ind., Ms. Kimmel went to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., to study teaching. One summer during college there were no vacancies at her previous summer job in her hometown at U.S. Steel, and she worked at a bookmobile at her local public library instead. She traveled to school parking lots, getting paid to tell stories to children. And she found her calling as a librarian.

She got a master’s degree at Dominican and then worked at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore while teaching graduate courses at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She worked at universities in Wales and Boston before moving to Pittsburgh in the 1970s to get a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh.

She became a full professor at Pitt in 1983 and chaired the department of library science from 1990 to 1995, specializing in children’s literature. “She was one of the true leaders in the field of children’s literature in this country,” said Bill Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Company. “Maggie was passionate about quality children’s literature, the fact that every preschool program should focus on books and literature as much as blocks and arts.”

Ms. Kimmel was a founding members of Beginning with Books, a nonprofit that provided books to low-income children for 26 years. When Ms. Trautmann recently went to visit Ms. Kimmel during her illness, she found her quizzing her health aide as to whether she was reading to her 3-year-old child.

She also worked as a longtime consultant to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and appeared in an episode, telling a story from her wheelchair. She would regularly stand in giving speeches for her close friend Fred Rogers, and she co-edited a book about the show.

Friends knew Ms. Kimmel as an incredible storyteller, and it was through her narratives that she was sometimes able to effect change. She helped create the Center for Women with Disabilities at Magee Women’s Hospital, advocating for improved facilities, sharing personal anecdotes about her difficulties getting medical services such as a simple mammogram.

“Maggie was not somebody who could walk past a problem,” said Ms. Trautmann. “She really worked to leave the world much much better than she found it.”

Ms. Kimmel is survived by a sister, Cathy Kimmel, of New York City, and a brother, Mike Kimmel, of Houston, Texas. There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. James Catholic Church in Wilkinsburg.

Donations in memory of Ms. Kimmel can be made to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Development Office, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, 15213, for children's books; or to Canterbury Place, 310 Fisk St., Pittsburgh 15201


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.

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