By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Dewey the Library Cat was a star. His story, told by Iowa librarian Vicki Myron, was on The New York Times best-seller list and earned him fame across the nation and around the world. Myron's book, "Dewey's Nine Lives: The Legacy of the Small-Town Library Cat Who Inspired Millions," released in 2010, also has a solid following.
But the story of Thomas and Kitty is every bit as good, maintains Baxter Springs librarian Betty Burrows, who heads up Johnston Public Library.
"Thomas was famous in our town," Burrows said. "He was the rock star of library cats."
Born on Aug. 10, 1990, he started off life as a house cat. After his mistress's death, he was taken to a local, privately owned cat shelter. Burrows, who adopted two cats from the shelter for her own home, met Thomas there.
"I watched him all summer. He had no claws, and he couldn't fight back when the other tougher cats got after him," she said. "I didn't think he'd last the winter."
Burrows recalls deciding one day, "OK, we're going to have a library cat."
Library's first cat
Cats in libraries are not a new idea. Historical records show that libraries in ancient Egypt, where cats were worshipped, made the animals welcome. There was an "army" of cats -- presumably to keep down rodents -- in Russia's Hermitage Museum.
The website Iron Frog Productions, which maintains a database of library cats around the world, says there are currently 236 library cats in the U.S. In Kansas, one of the state's earliest known library cats was documented in 1938 in Topeka: Mrs. Cat lived in the library where her kittens were born, but their names are unknown.
Also in the database: A cat named Libby, who lived at the Girard Public Library from 1996 to 2001, and a cat named Lucky, who has been living at the Pretty Prairie Library since 2008.
So, Burrows approached the Johnston Public Library's other employees -- all cat lovers -- about taking in Thomas, and they agreed. In November 1992, he was officially adopted by the library, and donations from patrons and a percentage of sales from library gift items and used books began providing his care.
Meanwhile, Thomas earned his keep by writing a column for the local newspaper and agreeing to share his story with attendees at a state library workshop about library cats. He signed autographs after being featured in "The Library Cat Newsletter" and the "National Examiner," Burrows said, and generally led a cushy life among the stacks of books.
Thomas also liked to take strolls through the surrounding neighborhood, and on one such outing he met Kitty, a privately owned feline who lived nearby. Thomas and Kitty became friends, and he continued to visit her.
But at age 13, Thomas' health began to decline, and Burrows decided he'd have to stay inside for the remainder of his days. Each of those days, Kitty came up the steps to the library door and just sat, looking in at Thomas through the glass as he looked out at her.
"We started feeding her, and one afternoon it got really cold, so we let her in," Burrows said. "She'd spend day after day here, then went home at night."
Moving ON and Moving IN
Thomas died in the library on Jan. 28, 2004. During their time of mourning, as is often the case with pet owners, Burrows and her staff didn't think they'd ever want another library cat. But when Kitty's owner announced plans to move, Burrows worried that Kitty would run away to return to the library.
"So we relented," Burrows recalled. And Kitty became the second official Johnston Public Library cat.
Staff and patrons agree that it was a smart move.
"She's gentle, she's quiet, she loves people," said Linda Fitzpatrick, who works in circulation. Her second, unofficial job is Kitty's medicine giver and veterinarian-taker.
"I'm a cat person," she said. "I have two at home, and so it suits me just fine."
Kitty quickly made herself at home. She finds entertainment in hiding in boxes, bags, big purses and strollers that make their way in and out of the library.
"I always kidded about library ghosts," said Burrows. The Johnston Public Library is, after all, a 105-year-old, slightly creaky, two-story brick structure that, in an historic town like Baxter Springs, might make a good home for one.
"One morning I walked in, and there were Wal-Mart bags everywhere, strewn from one end of the library to the other," she said. "Of course, it wasn't a ghost. It was just Kitty. She'd found them under a desk and decided to redistribute them."
Kitty is a thoroughly modern cat, with her first perch of choice being on top of one of the library's public computers. She also enjoys browsing the stacks and hopping up to watch patrons at the circulation counter, where a small donation box kindly requests donations for her care.
"She has required some health care, like allergy pills and shots," Burrows said, but she doesn't hesitate to say the cat is worth it.
"Some of our regulars come in for book club or to check out books and they won't do a thing until they find her," Burrows said. "One lady last week was all over the library looking for her. They just have to say hi to Kitty. She's an attraction."