By Pat Centner, AFA Journal staff writer
August 2002 – The Southern Christian Writers’ Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was winding down, and the participants’ thoughts were turning homeward. During the final session, an attractive woman with aristocratic bearing stepped into the aisle. Gesturing gracefully with her hands and speaking with a melodic Southern accent, she announced that she needed donations of Sunday School books and other religious materials, as well as books of all kinds, for placement in “reading outreaches” being established in poor, rural areas of Alabama.
Of all the people in the room that day, Margaret Zehmer Searcy was surely the one most likely to be heading a project that would bring the written word and opportunities for enhanced learning into the lives of needy people whose opportunities, and options, are few.
This Tuscaloosa resident has devoted the better part of her 75 years to serving the Lord by serving others. And because of her firm belief that everyone in America should have access to the Word of God and to good books, untold numbers of people from all walks of life have benefited from the thousands of books she’s collected and distributed at no charge.
Margaret’s deep commitment to serve stems from her obedience to a favorite scripture, Luke 12:48: For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required. She readily admits that she has been given much. The “much” of which she speaks, however, is not that which the world holds dear — an over-abundance of money and material “things.” Margaret refers, instead, to matters on a much higher plane.
Passion came early
“My earliest memories are intertwined with my love of God, family, and books,” she says. “These loves have lasted for a lifetime and have guided me in many ways.” Margaret was blessed with parents who brought her up to love the Lord, and who introduced her to the alluring world of books at a young age.
“Daddy read the ‘funnies’ to me when he came home from work,” Margaret reminisces, “and Mother read a Bible story and heard my prayers each evening.”
Growing up was an adventure. Margaret fondly remembers the Saturday trips in Birmingham with her mother, where they frequented the Avondale Public Library, and also visited the zoo where “Miss Fancy,” the elephant, gratefully accepted their peanuts. Twice a year, the Zehmer family visited their Virginia relatives, and Margaret’s very first job was as a librarian for her Aunt Deenie and Grandmother Zehmer who had set up a free lending library in their home.
In 1946, Margaret graduated from Duke University and, two years later, married former Navy man, Joseph Alexander Searcy. The couple has three children. “Through the years, I was always involved in service projects: the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Junior League, the Scouts, the Presbyterian Church, and various Juvenile Court organizations,” she says.
The reading outreaches are Margaret’s latest endeavor. With the help of her husband, four new centers have been established in the past four months. A center evolves by the Searcys first verifying that there is interest in setting up a reading outreach in a particular area. They then determine whether certain criteria can be met:
1) no public library or bookmobile stop in the community
2) no money exchanged for the books or materials
3) responsible individuals or groups in the area take charge of the books and materials at a place open to the public on a regular basis
4) books are for everyone’s use
Once the requirements are satisfied, Margaret and Joseph put out the word, and books and other items come pouring in.
“These [outreaches] are in some of Alabama’s poorest rural counties: those having some of the lowest academic achievement scores and highest illiteracy rates,” explains Margaret. She and Joseph hope the readily available books will result in more reading by community residents and higher scholastic scores for school children. Several reading outreaches provide juvenile and adult reading classes for patrons. “I also include religious material in every reading outreach I set up,” Margaret adds. “This is a wonderful way to spread the word of God and to show His love.”
To name and describe all the service projects and ministries this amazing woman has developed or participated in throughout her life would be impossible, but three are noteworthy.
When the Searcys’ friend, Hester Norris, left part of her estate to Joseph’s favorite charity, they decided to use the money for reference materials for the state’s juvenile detention homes. However, when publicized, thousands of books were donated: enough to furnish all the detention homes, several rural libraries and the local jail. Miss Norris’s funds were used for scholarships and magazine subscriptions instead.
During the years Margaret taught anthropology at the University of Alabama, she became involved in two projects that involved prehistoric people of the Southeast. Since no children’s books had been written about the inhabitants of Alabama’s Mound State Monument area, the museum curator there asked Margaret if she would research and write books on that subject. She agreed, and wrote two series of books, several of which won prestigious awards. The popularity of the books “changed her life forever,” and resulted in speaking engagements before thousands of people nationwide.
The Mowa Choctaw Indian Tribe in South Alabama also benefited from Margaret’s work. “[The tribe’s] antebellum house, used as a museum-library, was in danger of collapsing from the weight of books,” she explains. “This year they received a grant of $90,000 for a brick structure to house their books and museum.” Margaret started a Reading Outreach for the Choctaws and helped secure numerous books, supplies and materials for their new building. The tribe honored this great lady by naming the library after her and officially “adopting” her as their own.
Margaret’s “regular projects” include collecting used religious materials and passing them on to small churches. “No church should ever discard old lesson books,” she says. “I also collect religious materials for a nursing home and for a project that houses former mental patients.” Tuscaloosa’s “Feed My Sheep Ministries,” of which Margaret is also a vital part, feeds the underprivileged daily. They can also enjoy a relaxing reading room filled with books.
“In our land of plenty, for anyone, anywhere to be without books is terrible,” Margaret asserts firmly. Certainly, there are few who have given so much so that others will have books to enjoy.
To start a reading outreach in your state, or to donate books and materials, write to Margaret Z. Searcy, P.O. Box 870-210, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0210.