Lessons from the library lions

The qualities embodied in the statues' nicknames came in handy during college and beyond.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom/File
Stately statue: The marble lions outside New York's public library are cultural icons in the city.

Two large lions live in New York City.

Their counterparts in the wild are bold, brave, fearless, and strong. That, plus their resounding roar, has made them the undisputed King of Beasts. Long ago they roamed over several continents, including the Americas, but now their numbers and stomping grounds are dramatically reduced. I have always dreamed of traveling to Africa, to see for myself where the remaining ones reside.

But long before that trip could take place, I got to meet two of the fabulous felines much closer to my home. Right in the center of Manhattan, they sit in all their glory, each ensconced on his individual pedestal. From their elevated vantage points, the awesome animals gaze out toward Fifth Avenue, flanking the front of the Central Research Building of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

My parents introduced me to the lions on a bright and sunny autumn day. I was still a girl and craned my neck up toward the majestic marble cats sitting peacefully in repose. With heads erect and front paws placed precisely pointing forward, they face the busy city's daily crowds and cars, its holiday pageants and parades.

Seeing them was a surprise for me, but the lions had been there long before I arrived. They assumed their posts when the library was dedicated in 1911, and were then nicknamed Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the library's founders, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox.

During my senior year of high school, I walked alone through the library's ornate doors. Our English class had been assigned a major research project, so I, too, could finally be one of the studious people busy there. College years found me more frequently in the huge reading room, delving into texts and manuscripts. But before beginning the day's work, I often paused beside the lions, reluctant to go inside on a gorgeous day.

"See you later, Leo," I would say – until I learned that the lions had been renamed. It happened during the Depression years in the 1930s. Patience and fortitude, Mayor La Guardia had said, were the qualities New Yorkers needed to withstand those challenging times. So the Leo on the southern end became "Patience," and "Fortitude" was the lion on the northern side.

The Depression had receded into history by the time I came to the library's research rooms. But those endless hours of digging out data, following footnotes, and formulating coherent, precise prose about my findings did require considerable patience and fortitude.

Week after week the work continued through the winter months, when the steps were all ice and slush and my lion friends wore holly wreaths around their necks. And it continued as spring arrived, when trees began to bud and balmy breezes blew over city streets, the faithful lions now adorned with floral wreaths.

Yet that was just a preview, as reflected in the words of an elderly professor invited to address our college class. She advised us to avail ourselves as fully as we could of all the opportunities our student years provide; to acquire all the tools and traits we would, no doubt, need in the many years to come.

"You can't even begin to imagine," she said, "what challenges life has in store for you."

We were then indomitable, with the arrogance and invincibility of youth, certain we would achieve whatever we set out to do. But life does teach you the truth. And patience and fortitude, as it turns out, come in quite handy. Even during years of economic plenty, and even when success occurs.

Nowadays, whenever I return to New York, I always leave a little time to sit beside the lions that have become my friends. I rest my hand on the marble coolness of their pedestals, trying to absorb a measure of the majestic creatures' commendable qualities.

And there they remain, the library lions, as perfect mascots and elegant examples for every passerby.

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