Among the hundreds of keepsakes I’ve collected over the years, one alone holds the title of most cherished. It is a charm-sized “key” that belonged to my grandmother, evidence that a simple farm girl from Morrill, Maine, had been elected to the nation’s most prestigious honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

This “key,” bestowed upon Brenda E. Smith’s grandmother, a native of Morrill, in 1919, recognized that she had earned an A in at least 18 of 20 courses in her first two years at Brown University. Photo courtesy of Brenda E. Smith

It is engraved with her name, Frances Merriam, and May 14, 1919, the date, when as a junior at prestigious Brown University, she was recognized for her outstanding academic accomplishment of earning an A grade in at least 18 of 20 courses in her first two years of study. The reverse side of the gold “key” was engraved with the Greek letters Phi, Beta and Kappa, meaning “love of wisdom, the guide of life.” Below the letters, a small finger points to three tiny stars at the top of the key that symbolize and guide the recipient’s lifelong quest for friendship, morality and learning.

Not only did Frances complete her bachelor’s degree, but two years later Brown University conferred upon her a master’s degree in mathematics, a rare achievement for a woman in 1922. Armed with these stellar credentials, Frances was appointed to a faculty position at Wellesley College. However, her marriage two years later ended any prospect for a professional career. In deference to societal norms of that time, her priorities shifted to motherhood and homemaking. After her children were grown, her restless, curious mind led her to accept the position of head librarian at the public library, where she served the community for the next 26 years.

As soon as I could read, I spent countless hours at the library that my grandmother ruled over like a benevolent queen. She taught me to appreciate great works of literature and explained that books were gifts for our souls. She showed me that books can teach, can make you laugh or make you cry, can allow you to reflect or help you heal. My grandmother knew which types of magic dwelt inside the covers of each book.

She was the ultimate matchmaker for each book with the perfect person for whom its message was meant. When a patron asked for advice, she would lead them into the stacks, later emerging with five or six books to stack neatly on the circulation desk, while recording the temporary transfer of their custody. She became a trustworthy friend to thousands of patrons, eagerly recommending meaningful books to help guide their lives, proof of her lifelong commitment to the Phi Beta Kappa ideals.

Today I treasure her precious key for the memories it imparts of a strong, determined woman who achieved goals far loftier than were expected of her farm girl origins.  She instilled in me the love of stories and the intriguing, sometimes exotic worlds in which they existed. She encouraged and inspired me to follow my own dreams of traveling, learning and making friends. I find my grandmother’s key still unlocks vivid recall of her priceless lessons.


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