Libraries were a big part of George Latimer’s life growing up on Seward Place in Schenectady.
“The first love I had was for libraries,” said Latimer, a Schenectady native and former mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, honored when the St. Paul Central Library building was officially named after him in a ceremony on Tuesday. “I had two of them right in our neighborhood, and they were both wonderful places.”
A 1953 graduate of Mont Pleasant High School, Latimer served as mayor of St. Paul, a city of nearly 300,000 people, from 1976 to 1990. He is also a past chairman and longtime member of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. He learned of the honor in May.
“They’d been planning this event for some time, but they kept it a secret from me,” said Latimer. “I found out when [current St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman] showed up at my house two weeks before the event with a cardboard box and told me he had a present for me. I opened it up and there was the plaque. I was totally stunned and so moved. I was so moved I couldn’t say anything, and the mayor joked about how he had always wondered what it would take to silence me.”
The two libraries Latimer grew up next to were the old Schenectady Public Library, which is now Webster Hall, a Union College dormitory, and the Nott Memorial, which was Union’s main library before being replaced by Schaefer Library in 1961.
“I always loved books, and both of those places were about halfway home for me on my way home from St. John’s the Evangelist School that I went to,” said the 79-year-old Latimer. “I loved the public library — a librarian there was so nice to me and served me hot cocoa a few times — and I was awestruck by the Nott. What an incredible building. The interior was really something to behold, and the outside was beautiful.”
After graduating from Mont Pleasant, Latimer went to St. Michael’s College in Vermont and eventually earned his law degree from Columbia University. A Democrat, he decided to run for mayor of St. Paul when he was 39.
“I had been practicing law and doing quite well, and I had always been interested in public policy,” said Latimer, who had served on St. Paul’s school board for two two-year terms before running for mayor. “Politics was not really in my head, but sometimes you reach a point where you feel like you want to have a bigger canvas to work on. Winning a case now and then is great, but I was interested in doing a bit more.”
One of Latimer’s successes as a politician was the revitalization of St. Paul through a commitment to the arts. The $46 million Ordway Center for the Arts in downtown St. Paul was built over five years and opened in 1985.
“We didn’t use a lot of public money, but I was still cheerleading the whole way,” said Latimer. “The arts are so much a part of people’s daily lives, and I just don’t mean the wealthy and the elite. You go to any home, no matter how humble, and you’ll see people trying to bring beauty into their life. The arts are very important, a very deep part of our culture.”
Latimer’s wife, Nancy Moore Latimer, who died five years ago, was also a Mont Pleasant graduate. The couple had five children, and Latimer is now the grandfather of nine, with two more expected soon. His parents, William and Dorothy, ran a small grocery store, Latimer’s Foods, on Albany Street for 50 years, and his brother Bill, a Charlton resident, was the owner of Latimer’s Pub on Eastern Avenue. A third brother, Phil, lives in Niskayuna.
“I’m not involved in much these days,” said George Latimer, who also served as a regent at the University of Minnesota and worked in labor arbitration for much of his legal career, “but I guess they felt I was a fit for the library. Everybody knew my love for them because of my work with the Friends group. It’s a great feeling to have my name associated with that beautiful marble building and all those books in it.
“And it was incredible to have so many people show up for the event. That made it really special.”