By Sarah CR Clark
I first noticed Virginia Sohre’s name in a book at the St. Anthony Park Library about 10 years ago when my oldest child, Norah, was a toddler.
Snuggled on the couch to read together, I saw a nameplate on the inside front cover of the first book Norah handed me. It stated, Donated to Saint Paul Public Library in honor of: Virginia Sohre.
It turned out that every single book in Norah’s stack of St. Anthony Park branch library books had the same nameplate.
Since that day I’ve wondered about Sohre’s story. Who was she and what motivated her to give such a generous legacy to our neighborhood library?
Ten years, two children and thousands of library books later, my gratitude to Sohre is immense. She helped my children learn to love books and gain new perspectives on life.
I hope this story sparks in you some of the same sense of gratitude and wonder my family feels whenever we see Virginia Sohre’s name in a fresh stack of library books.
It has been difficult to find much illuminating biographical information on Virginia Sohre, or to identify neighbors who remember her well. If you, dear reader, have any information or insight on Virginia Sohre, please reach out to me via the Bugle!
Anne Schroeder and her family are loyal visitors to the St. Anthony Park branch library. During an average month of the school year, the Schroeder family makes up to eight trips to the building on Como Avenue.
“I remember distinctly seeing the name plates for Virginia Sohre in the children’s books we first started bringing home,” Schroeder recalled. “At first I thought she had just donated some of the books, but quickly realized she was the patron for all of them!”
Schroeder’s observation, as stunning as it sounds, is correct.
“Virtually all kids’ materials at SAP—including books, movies, CDs and world language items—come from the Sohre endowment,” said Claire Huber, SAP Library marketing and communications specialist.
SPPL’s 2022 annual report states the St. Anthony Park branch library counted 41,218 juvenile items in circulation. Sohre’s legacy is immense both in number and in its impact on our neighborhood.
Still, for as significantly generous as Sohre’s endowment remains, not much is known of the woman herself.
Virginia Sohre, née Gillespie was born in 1900 in Cresco, Iowa.
A Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and SPPL 2013 annual report stated, “Due to the time she spent in the local library, [Gillespie] considered the town’s librarian her closest friend. Her passion for reading started at a very early age.”
Gillespie trained as a teacher at Miss Wood’s Kindergarten and Primary Training School in Minneapolis, a prestigious institution that eventually became affiliated with Macalester College.
Gillespie became a teacher in Good Thunder, Minnesota, where she eventually met and married Walter Sohre, the town’s banker and mayor. Eventually the couple moved to the SAP neighborhood in St. Paul.
Her obituary states, “[Sohre] had a life-long interest in children, including many of those of friends and neighbors. She has said, ’My greatest treasures have been my faith, friends and my fond memories.’”
Some sources say Sohre had a son, while others—such as the 2013 annual report—claim, “Mrs. Sohre loved children, although never had any of her own.
“Considered a very private person, she played ’substitute mother’ to the neighborhood children of St. Anthony Park. … She taught the children to appreciate reading and to love the nature around them.”
The same annual report stated that toward the end of her life, Sohre was mostly blind but remained an avid reader via audiobooks.
Sohre died in October 1995 at age 95. Through her generous endowment, Sohre’s love of reading and spirit of teaching endures.
Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, said Sohre’s endowment fund averages about $25,000 annually.
“The Virginia Sohre endowment ensures that generations of St. Paul children and their families will have access to books and material,” Burns added.
Ruth Krider, a teacher at SAP Elementary School, said the SAP branch Library has been “unwaveringly supportive of SAP Elementary students” for the 20 years she’s taught there.
“From my lens of a public educator, this is a lovely example of what is best about strong community engagement,” Krider said. “For someone to create an endowment promoting literacy as well as a means for children to build personal relationships with new, multifaceted viewpoints and perspectives in order to be critical thinkers is farsighted and positive for all of us.”
Library associate and beloved storytime leader, Alisa Mee, never knew Virginia Sohre, but wishes she had. “For one woman to have had the vision and means to put thousands and thousands of those precious books into the hands of generations of children is awe inspiring,” Mee said. “I’d like Virginia to know that her gift sparks magic. That it builds relationships. That it helps children learn. That it adds beauty to our community.”
Anne Schroeder noted that a plaque hangs on the wall in the children’s wing of the SAP branch Library.
It states, “In recognition of her generous bequest to create an endowment to purchase children’s books and materials at the Saint Anthony Park Branch Library, the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library is honored to thank Virginia Gillespie Sohre.”
Schroeder agreed with the plaque’s sentiment. “Her devotion to helping children become lifelong readers is quite the special legacy.”
Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.