Berenice Ruprecht took a job in 1915 as the assistant librarian at the Union City Carnegie Library.
She retired 57 years later.
She became the library director. She married World War I veteran Clarence C. Keffer. An Oak Street dentist, Dr. Keffer served a half-century on the library board.
He was tall and she was short. They were inseparable.
She believed books were relaxing entertainment and a library should be like a home. So she decorated the main room to look like a parlor. She furnished it with antiques and framed photos of historic Union City folks.
One of her favorite paintings was of Isaac P. Gray, a Civil War colonel in the 106th Indiana Regiment and later an Indiana governor. The Soldiers and Sailors monument on the circle in Indianapolis was his proudest legacy.
She established a genealogy area with special attention to her passions: Civil War veterans and tiny Indiana crossroads towns that went extinct.
Facts were important to her. Either you got facts right or succeeding generations had information all wrong. Indianapolis reporters phoned her to factcheck stories.
She answered all research questions from patrons and non-residents alike. Once, she acknowledged, it took her a whole year to get accurate information for an elderly man’s request. By then he was dead.
Mrs. Keffer checked out as many as 19,000 books in one year. She personally purchased every book from nearby bookstores. If a patron wanted a book, she’d order it. If she considered the book risqué, she ordered it but never put it on display.
Each Christmas she threw a party for area children. After Story Time with refreshments, the kids made ornaments for the library fir tree and exchanged 10-cent gifts.
Mrs. Keffer ruled her domain like a permed-haired despot.
She personally greeted patrons from her perch behind the circulation desk. If you disturbed others with idle chatter, she was all over you like a holy terror.
“SSSSSShhhh. Hush now.”
Former Union City High School teacher Rick Clear, now living in Georgia, recalls her with awe. “She was a fixture at the library, just as the library was a fixture in Union City,” he said by phone.
Mrs. Keffer and the Carnegie Library were always “just there” as long as anyone could remember. “But she was gruff and a stickler for keeping order in the library,” Clear said.
Union City historian and preservation expert Ted Leahey also remembers her. “She served the library very well,” Leahey said. “She kept up-to-date materials and was always helpful to the community.”
Woe to you if you had an overdue book and kept someone else from reading it. She would send a police officer to your house to pick it up.
After Dr. Keffer passed away in 1977, Mrs. Keffer lived alone in her South Columbia Street house with its manicured landscaping.
In 1982, Mrs. Keffer, by then a frail 85-year-old, was raped and suffocated in bed with her pillow. She had been bludgeoned before dying. The murderer killed her in a fury.
Her yard lacked a fence. The killer entered the house through the back door.
A Winchester, Ind. newspaper misspelled her first name in a story headlined “Elderly Woman Is Found Dead.” If the librarian were alive, she’d be telling that editor a thing or two about the need for accuracy.
Her murder terrified South Columbia Street neighbors.
The case remained an unsolved mystery until 1993. A Texas convict and onetime Union City resident was charged with homicide and eventually convicted. The state had trouble getting a conviction. State police had discarded evidence in the cold case.
The Union City police force was widely praised in the press for obtaining justice for Mrs. Keffer.
How was it solved?
An ex-wife and a brother fingered Anthony (Antonio) G. Hernandez, a former boyhood neighbor of Keffer’s.
He lived on Carter Street when the murder occurred. Hernandez used the aliases of Delgado Juan Garcia and Frank Lopez.
Hernandez had confessed to family he had possibly killed “an old lady” the night of Keffer’s death.
“They finally were conscience-stricken,” a former policeman told me. “But it took them almost 20 years.”
Hernandez denied involvement in the murder. He admitted knowing the librarian and complained that Mrs. Keffer had chewed him out as a boy if he trespassed in her yard.
A former Union City policeman told me Hernandez was “plain mean, drunk that night, and out to hurt someone.” Hernandez is in prison now while serving a 60-year sentence.
So ends the story of the unsinkable life and unthinkable death of Berenice Keffer.
I imagine that when we get to Heaven we’ll find her at a desk flanked by St. Peter.
Don’t you get rowdy or you’ll hear her sharp rebuke. “SSSSSShhhh. Hush now.”
Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.