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A West Chester University alumna’s ‘The Night Before Christmas’ book collection provides virtual holiday joy

The idea was made possible by a long-standing donation from alumna Barbara Loftus Perrone, a retired librarian whose life passion was book collecting.

Brigid Gallagher, West Chester University's assistant director of alumni engagement, with the collection of books that were read during the school's virtual holiday storytelling series.
Brigid Gallagher, West Chester University's assistant director of alumni engagement, with the collection of books that were read during the school's virtual holiday storytelling series.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Like many events this year, the coronavirus put an end to West Chester University’s annual evenings with Santa, one for children of alumni and another for kids with special needs.

But the enterprising staff in the state university’s alumni office came up with another idea, made possible by a long-standing donation from alumna Barbara Loftus Perrone, a retired librarian whose life passion was book collecting.

And the books she collected were illustrated renditions of the nearly 200-year-old poem “The Night Before Christmas,” formally titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

Thanks to Perrone, the library has more than 600 books, clippings, recordings, and other memorabilia with various interpretations of the classic holiday tale by illustrators from around the world. Why not tap alumni and current students to read some of them to children virtually? thought alumni staff.

Out came 13 virtual readings by a volunteer cast, some donning Santa caps and winter scarves. The university has the readings posted on its website and started releasing two per day on its Facebook page last week.

Perrone’s daughter Susan Perrone Walthall, also a West Chester graduate, read one illustrated by her mother. The wife of university president Christopher Fiorentino, the president of the alumni association, and a sports anchor for CBS3 are among other readers. New alumni and older ones participated and read books with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa themes, too. One reading is done in Spanish. Even West Chester’s mascot, Rammy, participates in a reading.

The readings are targeted for offspring of alumni, but the school also has shared the link to them with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Easter Seals of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the YMCA of Greater Brandywine, and other groups that serve children.

“We were able to turn this into something more accessible to a lot of people ... and really spread that holiday cheer as far as we could,” said Brigid Gallagher, assistant director of alumni engagement.

Perrone, 87, a West Chester resident, has a long-standing relationship with the college. She got her bachelor’s in 1956, and she also met her late husband, Charles, a 1950 graduate, at a summer school function there. The couple spent their lives and careers in West Chester, she working as a librarian and he as a teacher and administrator in the school district. The couple’s three children also graduated from the university. Perrone retired in 1987 and has spent more than 30 years volunteering at Paoli Hospital.

Over the last half century, Perrone has been collecting the books, hitting house sales, auctions, shops, and flea markets and shopping online, said Ron McColl, West Chester special collections librarian. She had always been interested in children’s literature and was excited when she found an 1896 McLoughlin Brothers illustrated version of the poem.

“That sort of got her excited and she went from there,” McColl said.

The collection also has a copy of the earliest book printed that included the poem, an 1837 anthology where Clement C. Moore first took credit for writing it, McColl said. (The poem first appeared anonymously in a New York newspaper in 1823.)

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Perrone illustrated two of the books, one that included a silhouette of her twin granddaughters and the family cats, with one wrapped around Santa’s shoulders, similar to a family photo of her son, Michael, with a cat curled around his neck.

“Among Barbara’s favorites are Anita Lobel’s urban Victorian New York City version published in 1984, Tasha Tudor’s quaint 1975 rendering of her Vermont farm complete with Welsh corgis and dollhouse, and Tomi de Paola’s homey New England setting incorporating colorful quilt designs c. 1980,” her daughter Susan wrote in a preface in a catalog of the collection’s editions.

Along the way, Perrone became friends with Nancy Marshall, who amassed a similar collection that she donated to the College of William & Mary, Gallagher said. Other colleges have collections too, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Michigan.

When Charles C. Perrone died in 1999, his wife began donating her collection to West Chester in his honor, noting that he always supported her artistic endeavors. In 2006, she established an endowment so that new and rare out-of-print illustrated editions could continue to be added to the collection.

“Barbara wants to share with the West Chester University community not only the rich educational resource that the collection will provide, but the less tangible spirit of this gift,” her daughter Susan said in a statement on West Chester’s website. “It is a living testament to the power of the written word, the beauty of the artists’ brush, the passion of a shared dream, and the joy of a true love.”

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West Chester houses the collection, most of it donated by Perrone, in the special collections department on the sixth floor of the library. The pieces can’t be checked out, but students and faculty can make appointments to view them for research or class work. The collection isn’t heavily used and that’s something McColl said he’d like to change. He hopes the publicity around the virtual readings will get the word out about the availability of the collection.

The books also can be used to entertain, which is what West Chester decided to do this holiday season. The school got a videographer and filmed most of the readings, each about six to 10 minutes long, in its alumni and foundation center.

Perrone continues to add books to the collection each year, McColl said.

“I picked up books from her just before Thanksgiving,” he said. “She has more she wants to donate. It’s going to be part of her legacy. I think of her. I think of Christmas. She just gives and gives and gives.”