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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 29, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 5
Time Out With... Champ and Debbie Sheridan, 'Library Visionaries'

Debbie and Champ Sheridan in the MSE Library, whose collections comprise the Sheridan Libraries. This week, a picnic/portrait-hanging will honor their support.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

At Johns Hopkins, the name Sheridan never seems far from a book. In his remarks at the rededication of the university libraries in 1998, President William R. Brody said, "In the past, the library has sometimes been thought of as an exceptional resource that someone else should support. Champ and Debbie [Sheridan] have showed us the library not only needed our support, it deserved special generosity of the highest order."

Former President William C. Richardson once said of the couple that they were "the library visionaries of our generation."

They both were speaking of R. Champlin Sheridan and his wife, Debbie, who in 1994 made a $20 million commitment to nearly double the library's endowment and support its planned renovations. Three years earlier the couple had endowed the library director's position.

Champ is the Baltimore-born son of a printer, and a Johns Hopkins graduate with a bachelor's in business. He worked for many years at his father's printing business and later scraped together $1,000 to buy Everybody's Poultry Magazine Publishing Co., where he then worked, from its retiring owners. He built that business into the Sheridan Group, one of the nation's leading scientific and medical printers. He was elected to the university's board of trustees in 1989, and from 1990 to 2001, he chaired the Eisenhower Library Advisory Council.

Debbie is a Penn State alumna and a former teacher who has been active in the leadership of the Friends of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries, an organization that champions the libraries through lectures, programs and the support of acquisitions, technology and access.

In 1998, the university honored the couple by rededicating Homewood's Milton S. Eisenhower Library and its collections at the Albert D. Hutzler Reading Room, the John Work Garrett Library at Evergreen House and the Peabody Library as the Sheridan Libraries.

On Thursday, the two will be recognized again when a portrait of the Sheridans (and their dog, Kermit) will be unveiled in the Eisenhower Library. The dedication ceremony, a picnic that is open to the entire community, will begin at 4 p.m. at the library's Q-Level.

The university libraries have come a long way, thanks in large part to the Sheridans' generosity. In 1998, the Eisenhower Library underwent a major renovation, and many amenities and enhancements have since been added, including an expanded Digital Knowledge Center and an updated electronic catalog.

The Sheridans recently sat down with The Gazette to discuss the upcoming portrait dedication/picnic, their philanthropy and, well, libraries.

Q: It's been said it was you who wanted the dedication ceremony to be an informal, picnic-style affair. Why

Debbie: We definitely wanted it to be more laid back, more informal, rather than something stuffy. We wanted to encourage students to attend, so we decided to go the hot dogs and hamburgers route.

Champ: We thought that all the people who used the library — students, graduate students, faculty, the community — would appreciate that whenever the portrait is hung to also be able to see and/or meet those who were in the portrait. And in part, it sort of helps the both of us because it's nice to remind ourselves we're still alive (laughs).

Q: What was your experience like working with the artist, Peter Egeli?

Champ: We had six sessions, other than the first session with Peter, in which each of us posed individually. He would reposition us each time in the exact same position, roughly two and half hours a session, standing there while he painted details and studied the lighting. If I had known it was going to be that much work to start with, I would have suggested a photograph [laughs].

Debbie: As we got to know him, it was really fun. He's the most interesting person — he can talk about any subject you can think about.

Q: There's a third subject in the portrait, your dog. Was that the artist's idea, or did you request that he be included?

Debbie: Actually, I would sit on that chair every time, and Kermit never left my side. He would just lie there the whole time. After about the fifth session, [Peter] said, "That's it!" I said, "What?" He said, "I need something for the bottom of the painting." So, he put Kermit in, and I think he came out the best of all of us. He did a great job capturing him.

Q: Would either of you describe yourself as a bibliophile?

Champ: No, I wouldn't say either one of us is. We both enjoy reading, and probably enjoy reading more than television, but the fact that all of my working career has been as a printer, I have a sort of natural affinity for books and journals.

Q: What is your favorite book, say in the past 10 years or so?

Debbie: Probably the one I just read, Seabiscuit.

Champ: I would say The Da Vinci Code. But if I think back over the years, one of my favorites is the one that is in Debbie's lap [in the portrait], which is John Rutherford's London. It tracks the area of London from almost prehistoric man up to the start of the 20th century. It's a wonderful book.

Q: Did either of you have a favorite book growing up, perhaps one that sparked your love of reading?

Debbie: When I taught, I used to love to read Charlotte's Web. I would read that over and over, and the kids just loved it. It's really a great story. When I was a kid, however, I used to love the Nancy Drew series. I wish I still had those books.

Champ: No real favorite sticks out in my memory. I've found that books are sort of like building blocks: You read one or two, and that would pique your curiosity in something you would otherwise never have thought about. I often come across a book I like and then look for other books on that subject.

Q: What led you to the generous commitments you made to the university libraries in 1991, and then again in 1994?

Champ: It really came out of being a longtime college friend of Ross Jones' [vice president and secretary emeritus]. Through Ross, I was given insight as to what were the areas of the university that needed help. So, first we endowed the directorship, knowing it could make a significant difference to the continuity and growth of the library and help us get topnotch, world-class directors, which we certainly have done. Then we made a larger commitment. As we explored different areas of Johns Hopkins and Hopkins Medicine to support, we saw that the library is sort of an underdog that needs attention and is often taken for granted.

Debbie: Yes. I think people are more apt to give to cancer research, which is needed and wonderful, but when you think of it, the library is so important because everyone uses it. It's not the most glamorous, but it's necessary.

Q: What do you think of all the changes made to the MSEL since 1994?

Debbie: I think there have been some incredible changes here.

Champ: I agree, but we've been very hands-off in terms of what or how the gift has been used, knowing that really should be the university's decision and the library's decision, so we haven't tried to steer that in any way.

Q: Do you enjoy libraries? I mean, when you are traveling, do you seek them out?

Champ: As we've traveled, we have gone and sought out libraries, just out of interest. I remember in Ireland we went to a small crossroads community, which maybe had a dozen houses at the most. There we went to a library that had books dating back to the 1460s. Gutenberg printed the Bible from movable type in 1454, I believe, [and] I thought, how remarkable that within 10 years after this world-changing invention, there were printed books in libraries throughout Europe. What is remarkable is how fast the technology spread, considering the complicated, lengthy travel of those times.

Debbie: One of the libraries we really enjoyed was in Nanjing. It is the only open-stack library in all of China, and it's owned and operated by Johns Hopkins University. That was very interesting, very memorable.

Q: Champ, were you a library denizen back in the day?

Champ: Yes and no. My first summer, between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked in the library here, hauling books. It was very physical labor, but jobs were not that easy to find back then. I was just glad I had a summer job.

Champ, what do you feel is the responsibility of a JHU trustee?

Champ: My personal viewpoint is to help ensure that this and the next generation have the same or even greater opportunities than each of us had when we were students here. We were all the recipients of somebody else's kindness, love and generosity. In a sense, a trustee is not only preserving Johns Hopkins but enlarging upon it and passing it on to future generations.

Q: How do you react when you hear people say "the Sheridan Libraries"?

Debbie: I just think it's great that it's here, and that people are using it.

Champ: Both of us have stopped trying to correct people from saying it's ours; they should be saying "their" library.

Q: What was your reaction to the renaming of the libraries in your honor?

Champ: I would have been just as pleased and satisfied if they had not, personally. The satisfaction hasn't come from the naming, but I do recognize that it can be helpful to encourage other people with a philanthropic bent to be donors and contributors.

Debbie: I agree with Champ on that. It does help, and we have seen that it has helped others to want to do something. So, in that way it has been very beneficial.

Q: When you walk in the library door now, on a busy day like today, how does it make you feel?

Champ: Like Debbie said, that [the library] is used so much is wonderful. And the fact that the library staff, students, university staff and faculty are so supportive of it makes us feel that we did the right thing.


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