Bearly Believable: Library Archives Help Answer Decades-Old Family Question
Sonnet Ireland grew up hearing stories about her Uncle Joe –– a bear-fighting poet who stood up to authority and always believed in the power of libraries. Joe Ireland was Sonnet’s godfather and the two were very close, but Sonnet never had the pleasure of knowing him when he worked for the New Orleans Public Library.
“I’m the baby of the family. My mom had me very late in life, and most of my cousins are at least a decade older than me. So, they would tell me stories about going to see Uncle Joe at the Library and how fun it was,” Ireland said. “But by the time I knew him, he was already retired.”
Joe worked at the Library for over a decade, including as manager of both Norman Mayer and Algiers Regional Libraries. His love for Algiers Regional in particular was strong, and he was always looking for ways to bring new people in. And that’s where the bear comes in.
“My whole life, we’ve always had a photo of him wrestling a bear, but I was never really clear on why or how it happened. All I knew was that it happened in a mall, and I guess I just always assumed, ‘Well, weird things used to happen at the mall, maybe that was one of them,’” Sonnet said, laughing. “I wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t had pictures.”
After years of wondering, Sonnet’s curiosity got the best of her, so she reached out to the New Orleans Public Library’s City Archives and Special Collections to see if they could help her piece the story together. Sonnet was connected with archivist Brittanny Silva, who dove into the project, digging up more than Sonnet ever expected.
“I scheduled an appointment to come in and see what Brittanny was able to find. And when I got there, there was a table set up for me with all of these papers, all of these reports, and documents that he had written,” Sonnet said.
Among the materials was an Algiers Regional Library monthly report from June 1976 stating, “In a noble attempt to ply his trade as a quasi-professional librarian, Algiers Regional’s Dr. Iceland aka Joe Ireland wrestled an 8’2” 700lb. (sic) Alaskan brown bear in the Mall at the Oakwood Shopping Center amidst tumultuous cheers (for the bear) in a valiant attempt to garner publicity for AR branch.”
Brittanny was also able to corroborate the story when she found a newspaper article reporting that Victor the “Rasslin’ Bear” was, in fact, at the Oakwood Mall in June of 1976.
“You can see in the photo that it looks like he’s wearing an Algiers Regional Library shirt, which just goes to show how far he would go to get the word out about the Library. He literally fought a bear in the name of the Library,” Sonnet said. “It felt so great to be able to finally get confirmation, once and for all, that it really did happen.”
In addition to answering her decades-long question, Brittanny gave Sonnet access to something she felt she missed out on all her life –– spending time with her uncle at the Library.
“It was really a special gift,” she said. “He had a kind of hidden-but-amazing sense of humor and it’s so great to go through these documents and be able to see that shine through. It was nice to be able to get in touch with that, especially seeing all these whacky, tongue-in-cheek reports he wrote that feel so uniquely Joe. In a way, I felt closer to him than ever because I was able to get to know this side of him that I didn’t get to see, but so badly wanted to.”
For Brittanny, working on this project was a way to combine her love of libraries, history, and family stories.
“Sonnet and I started with a photograph and a wild family story she had heard about her librarian uncle wrestling a bear,” she said. “After digging through our records, we were able to paint a really full picture of Joe, his adventurous spirit, and sense of humor, and confirm that he did, indeed, wrestle a bear.”
She said the project was especially gratifying because it gave her the opportunity to connect with the history of her own workplace.
“Reading through New Orleans Public Library records from the 60s and 70s, you get a feel for the real sense of community that existed here among staff,” Brittanny said. “People seemed to be having fun and really loved the work they were doing, although no one seemed to be having more fun than Joe.”
Sonnet ultimately followed in Joe’s footsteps and became a librarian herself. Currently the manager of St. Tammany Public Library’s South Slidell Branch, she also recently served as the president of the Louisiana Library Association.
“Libraries have always been a fundamental part of my life. My godmother, Virginia Henley, also worked for the New Orleans Public Library, and Joe was such a huge father figure in my life. He influenced me in so many ways, so it just makes sense that I would end up being a librarian, too,” she said.
Joe Ireland died in 2012, but his legacy lives on through Sonnet and the dozens of records he left behind in the Library archives.
“I have pictures of him wrestling the bear in my office to remind me of the kind of librarian I want to be,” Sonnet said. “Which is, you know, the type that is kind of daring and takes chances and doesn’t always stick with the norm, and who thinks outside of the box sometimes.”