Once upon a time ...

Becky McDonald, Founding Member, NCCIL

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It’s a great story. It is often told how two extraordinary men conceived the same idea.  William Joyce--artist, filmmaker, author, dreamer, genius--and Gary McCaleb--mayor of Abilene, communicator, leader, Renaissance man--had the idea of honoring the best of children’s picture book art in the form of a museum in Abilene. The two men met in March 1994, and soon the blueprint for the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature was drawn.

No real story is as simple as words written on paper. The NCCIL’s story is no exception. If only we had art to tell the story! In the finest picture books, art extends the stories, illuminates them, and clarifies them. We must ask our readers to imagine the many thousands of hours of work, meetings, research, and, yes, blood, sweat, and tears made the NCCIL the jewel of Abilene that it is today.

In addition to the two founders, Lynn Barnett, executive director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, left no stone unturned in her quest to help the project become a reality. With her tenacity as a guide, the Junior League of Abilene put its monetary and volunteer resources behind the NCCIL. The League sponsored the first fledgling exhibition of art in the fall of 1995, a small but memorable exhibit in the lobby of the Civic Center featuring the work of William Joyce, Mike Wimmer, and Brian Selznick.

A board of directors supplemented the League leaders. Mary Cooksey became the first director and began building the foundation of the NCCIL. A solo exhibition of the work of Deborah Nourse Lattimore was organized and hung in the Civic Center in 1996. Abilene’s first picture book-related bronze sculpture, based on characters from William Joyce’s book Santa Calls, was created and installed in downtown Abilene in December 1996.

After its state charter was adopted in February 1997, the NCCIL organized full-scale exhibitions, beginning with “Going Home,” a collection of works by David Diaz in September 1997, closely followed by an exhibit of art by the versatile Paul O. Zelinsky in November 1997 and a Janet Stevens exhibit “Tops ‘n Bottoms” in January 1998. The NCCIL opened “The World of William Joyce” in June 1998 and “Journeys,” featuring work by Diane Stanley in the fall of 1998. “Tuesday,” a remarkable exhibition of David Wiesner’s art, opened in May 1999. The final NCCIL exhibit at the Civic Center, “Lilly and Friends” (November 1999) featured works by Kevin Henkes. The NCCIL acquired its own beautiful space in September 2000.

Looking back, we are amazed at the sheer number of high-quality exhibitions organized in a short period by a skeletal staff and dedicated volunteers. We are grateful for the help of the Civic Center staff while the NCCIL held its exhibitions in its lobby.

In addition to numerous groups and individuals, some of whom are mentioned above, our knight in shining armor tirelessly performed nearly impossible tasks and steadfastly found a way to make the NCCIL a grand success. That person is David R. Durham.

Another unsung hero of the NCCIL is “not from around here,” as we are wont to say in West Texas. This champion is Leonard S. Marcus, whose expert advice, encouragement, and incomparable knowledge helped to breathe life into, and sustain, the NCCIL.