“Let me take your coat, my dear.” I heard her voice as I stepped off the elevator, into the penthouse suite at the Chicago Hilton on a snowy day in late December.
The tall, white-haired woman standing there, holding out her hands to me, drew me over the threshold, welcoming me. The color of Forget-Me-Nots, the cashmere sweater hugging her slender shoulders matched her eyes. I’d never seen eyes so blue; not even my Danish husband’s eyes came close.
I’m not a celebrity seeker. But that day my tongue filled my mouth like a half-chewed wad of bubblegum, as I mumbled, “No, thank you, Ma’am, I won’t be here all that long. I’ll keep my coat.” And I pulled it closer to my chest, twisting the brass buttons like so many worry stones.
Behind the woman, I caught a glimpse of the man I’d come to see. Also tall, thatches of thinning white hair framing his head, thick glasses, and an off-kilter smile reminding me of my grandfather.
Dr. Lewis Ulysses Hanke, president of the American Historical Association, the first Latin Americanist in that coveted position, director of the Hispanic Foundation of the Library of Congress, professor, prolific writer/ researcher on the Spanish colonial period in the Americas. And the subject of my master’s thesis in history, focusing on historiography, evolving into a bio-bibliography.
Not a household name, Dr. Hanke’s wasn’t, but nonetheless a name well-known to those with a love for Latin American history and culture, a pioneer in the historiography of the region, especially in regard to the so-called Black Legend.
“You’ve met Kate, my wife,” Dr. Hanke said, smiling at her as he stretched out a hand toward me. I gave him my damp hand to shake, regretting that I’d not worn gloves, or at least mittens, wishing my hands would stay dry for a change.
Kate led us down a short foyer and into a large sitting area, where a cranky fire sputtered in a small fireplace. Through the tall floor-to-ceiling windows, a million-dollar view of the Chicago shoreline gleamed in brittle winter sunlight. Christmas lights still twinkled here and there down below, strung on the leafless trees. Or maybe those sparkles anticipated New Year’s Eve, just a few days away.
Dr. Hanke pulled out one of the padded chairs at a small round table in front of the fireplace and gestured for me to sit. I sank into the chair, my pens, papers, and notebook clattering on the table. The Hankes sat in the other two chairs.
“So, tell us about yourself,” Dr. Hanke asked, as Kate poured coffee and pushed a platter heaped with Christmas cookies and small cucumber sandwiches toward me.
Between mouthfuls of food, I told the Hankes some of my Peace Corps stories, about the goose that chased me in my Paraguayan village, about the glazed doughnuts I once made after going to the mill to have the flour ground on the spot. Dr. Hanke laughed and shared a few stories about archives where he’d done research. Kate said nothing, and just smiled at her husband’s tales. I soon realized that my allotted time with him might slip away if I didn’t shift the focus from me to him. I opened my notebook and started in with question number one.
For the next hour, he answered my questions, explaining his work, focusing on Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish Dominican friar who, Hanke believed, epitomized much of the Spanish intent in the conquests in the New World: to spread Christianity, not necessarily to subjugate and enslave the Native Americans. The Black Legend and the issue of justification ran through Las Casas’s work. And Hanke’s as well, creating some controversy in the field.
Kate began clearing away the cups and crumbs, the signal that time was up. She wiped her forehead with one of starched white linen napkins. I stood, reached across the table, and we shook hands. Dr. Hanke held my hand for a moment as he said, “Wait, just a minute,” and rushed into the bedroom. He came out with copies of three of his books, all signed to me personally.
“Thank you, thank you for everything,” I gushed, overwhelmed by the whole experience. I – a mere graduate student – just spent an hour talking with one of the pioneers in Latin American historiography, a very open, natural person, along with his wife.
Kate hugged me as I stepped into the elevator and Dr. Hanke waved goodbye.
Six months later, I sent Dr. Hanke a copy of my thesis and received a nice long “thank you” letter in return.
By coincidence, a few weeks ago, I found my thesis listed in the Lewis Hanke papers at Tulane University. I also learned that Kate Hanke was a gifted poet, with one book to her credit, Notes on a Journey.
For some reason, I thought of Shakespeare’s sister … .*
Note: Kate Gilbert Hanke died on March 18, 1993 and Dr. Hanke followed her only eight days later, on March 26, 1993. He called her “la Querida Compañera de Mi Vida.”
Why am I telling you this small anecdote? Nothing dramatic happened, the story arc didn’t swing sky high. It’s simple, though: behind any bibliography lie a great many lives. Days filled with sunshine and snow, love and loss. Libraries and dusty books, too. And the compiling of a bio-bibliography especially allows the compiler the opportunity to know, or at least attempt to know, the subject, the author and the people surrounding him or her. I see now that Kate Hanke likely deserved a lot of credit for the smoothness of Dr. Hanke’s writing – reviewers remarked on his fluid prose, a departure from the usual academic style.
* Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “Let us imagine. . .what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. . .as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was.”
Llama photo by Phil Whitehouse from London, United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons.