A remembrance by Harvey Pekar's 'personal' reference librarian

Reference librarian Carole Wallencheck with the CH-UH Library's display in tribute to her friend Harvey Pekar.

Comic lovers everywhere are mourning the death of writer and local legend Harvey Pekar. He was found dead by his wife, Joyce Babner, at his Cleveland Heights home just before 1 a.m. on Monday, July 12. Though the exact cause of death of the 70-year-old is still being investigated, Pekar had a history of poor health including lymphatic and prostate cancer, high blood pressure, asthma and - most famously - clinical depression. It was his melancholy outlook on everyday worries that gave Pekar’s comics their distinctiveness. Pekar's American Splendor comic book series, which was first published in 1976, illustrated his cynicism regarding daily life in the aging neighborhoods of Cleveland. In 2003, the series inspired a critically acclaimed film adaptation of the same name, with Paul Giamatti portraying Pekar. 

To many, the self-proclaimed curmudgeon was just that—a grouchy old man who found success in broadcasting his amusingly honest grumbles on the tribulations of life. According to one of his friends in Cleveland Heights, however, Pekar was more gentle soul than cranky old man. Carole Wallencheck, a reference assistant at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, where Pekar was a frequent visitor, began her friendship with him around five years ago when she became his go-to reference assistant.

“I would help him find books he was interested in or reviews that had come out about one of his works,” said Wallencheck with a warm, reminiscent smile on her face, “He would come in and ask for me when he needed help and soon after I was calling him Harvey instead of Mr. Pekar.”

After hearing of Pekar’s death, Wallencheck posted a blog remembering some of her fondest times with the late author. She tells of the time when she called him out on his secret—that he is really a “pussycat.”

“I have seen his grumpy side before, but I saw Harvey for who he really was, and that was a gentle soul with a large heart.” When Wallencheck helped Pekar in the library, he sent her copies of whatever his new book, with a personal note thanking her for lending a hand. “He was always very grateful,” remembered Wallencheck, “Once you got Harvey one-on-one, he let that wall down and anyone could see that he was really a kind man.”

The library has set up a display case of Pekar’s works as a small tribute to him. The Cedar Lee Theatre held a screening of American Splendor on Thursday, July 29, followed by a post-screening discussion on Pekar’s work led by Wallencheck and a coworker.

“People are often described as one-of-a-kind, but in Harvey’s case that really is true,” expressed Wallencheck, “There is no one like Harvey Pekar. He will be missed.”

Tara Johnson is an intern with the Fairmount Group.

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Volume 3, Issue 8, Posted 10:43 AM, 07.22.2010