Library elephant is unforgettable

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by Mark Price, courtesy of Akron Beacon Journal

It’s the elephant in the room, and no one can ignore it.  Tusks in the air, a wooden pachyderm greets patrons near the main entrance of Akron-Summit County Public Library on South High Street in downtown Akron (OH).  The hand-carved elephant lumbered more than 8,500 miles before finding a refuge at the Main Library. This month marks the 40th anniversary of its public unveiling.

According to Mary Plazo, manager of Special Collections at the library, the elephant was a 1979 gift from Louis and Mary Myers of Myers Industries in Akron. It was carved from a single piece of teakwood in Thailand and shipped to the United States.  “The figure is 40 inches long, 56 inches high and 20 inches wide,” Plazo noted. “It weighs over 500 pounds.”

Trish Saylor, manager of the Children’s Library, said former librarian Ione Cowen once told her that the Myerses donated the elephant because “it was so heavy that it was making their foundation sink.”

It took five men to roll the elephant into the library — perhaps the city’s first pachyderm parade since the days when circuses marched into the Akron Armory.  With its curved trunk, flared ears, pointed tusks, gaping mouth and raised front foot, the whimsical carving made a good first impression.

In February 1979, the library sponsored a contest to name the elephant. Children in preschool through sixth grade were invited to cast ballots in the children’s room of the Main Library.


"I  just always remember that when we’d go to the Akron library downtown, it was always so majestic,” he said. “Granted, I was 5 or 6 or 7. And the elephant was a little bit of a majestic thing as well.”  Sharnsky, the son of Barbara and Richard Sharnsky Sr., used to visit his grandparents Al and Helen Sharnsky at their Zeller Avenue home on North Hill. He and his grandpa would cross the North Hill Viaduct and later the All-America Bridge to go to the library. 

They might get a haircut at Akron Barber College, visit the Main Library and then cross Main Street to eat at McDonald’s in the Orangerie Mall.

During one such trip in 1979 when Rich Jr. was 5 years old, he unexpectedly became a poster boy for the name-the-elephant contest. Beacon Journal photographer Marcy Nighswander took his picture with the carving and the image was used to promote the event.  “It was a really good memory of sharing something with my grandfather,” Sharnsky recalled. “My Grandpa Sharnsky actually just passed away this past May.”

‘Cool’ event

The lovable elephant also made a big impression on another boy and his grandfather.  Akron native Scott Mitchell, 48, a resident of Arizona, remembers visiting the library when he was a third-grader at Herberich Elementary School in Fairlawn.

"In short, my grandfather, Laurence Gervais, took me to the public library that day because they were unveiling a new sculpture,” Mitchell said. “Larry, as he was known, was quite active in the Fairlawn and Akron communities and always had knowledge of cool things like that.”

The library was packed with families. Mitchell thinks there may have been hundreds of kids there during that pre-internet era.  “When we arrived, we learned that there was a contest to name the sculpture,” he said. “I don’t remember if we knew that ahead of time. I’m pretty sure that was a surprise.”

He recalls reading a fact sheet at the library that explained how the sculptor made the elephant from teakwood.  “I asked my grandfather where teak came from and I remember him telling me it came from Thailand,” Mitchell said.

The 8-year-old son of Barbaranne and Steven Mitchell jotted down “Thai Teak” on a slip of paper and entered the contest.  “I believe that the name was simply the result of seeing the ‘T’ in Thailand and the ‘T’ in teak ... and then putting them together,” he said. “Sounded cool to me as a kid.”

And the winner is...

It sounded cool to judges, too. Thai Teak was selected as the winning name Feb. 17, 1979.

“They presented me with a certificate and a Shel Silverstein book, ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends.’ I believe I still have that book somewhere,” Mitchell said. “Inside the cover is a little green elephant sticker with the name ‘Thai Teak’ written on it.”

And that is the story of Thai Teak.

The library elephant has made a few moves over the past 40 years and has needed a few repairs. Originally located in the children’s room, the sculpture now stands in a concourse for all to enjoy near the security desk where guards can keep a watchful eye on it.

In the past, excited kids occasionally tried to climb on Thai Teak, and the tusks eventually broke off. After the library reopened in 2004 following a major remodeling, the elephant sported new tusks with rounded ends.

“It continues to be popular with children,” said Saylor, manager of the Children’s Library.  Whether you are a child or a grandparent or somewhere in between, Thai Teak is waiting patiently for your next visit.

“Forty years later, the Thai Teak elephant continues to delight and welcome visitors of all ages to Main Library,” said Carla Davis, marketing communications director. “To quote Dr. Seuss: ‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful 100 percent.’ ”