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A Memory Keeper of New Orleans

Last week I received word that John Kennedy Toole’s childhood friend, John Geiser III, passed away.

John was a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans history. He didn’t own a computer or a television. You could not reach him by social media or email. But if you happen to catch him on the phone, he would go out of his way to give you a tour of New Orleans and afterwards he’d probably take you out to eat at Joey K’s in Uptown.

His memories and knowledge helped me see how the places and experiences in Toole’s life inspired A Confederacy of Dunces. John loved sharing these stories, although he would admit he was not one of Toole’s closest friends. They were inseparable as young boys, but lost touch with each other after second grade. And yet, John Geiser was crucial to preserving Toole’s legacy.

John Geiser (left) and John Kennedy Toole (right)

After the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces in 1980, eleven years after JKT's suicide, John visited Thelma Toole to congratulate her on the accomplishment. She embraced him as a dear friend. For the last few years of her life, John checked in on her, drove her to local events, and helped with daily tasks. After she died in 1984, he discovered she had named him the executor of her estate, an honor and a burden.

Thelma's estate was to be divided evenly between seven people who had been by her side in her final years. She didn’t have much money or property, but she had hundreds of historical documents. Back in 1983, she had organized her son’s papers, filing everything from his correspondence with Robert Gottlieb to his third grade math homework. She wanted to preserve the collection and offered it to the Louisiana State University library. It seemed like a natural fit, given that her son's novel had generated—and continues to generate—a substantial source of revenue for LSU Press. But LSU declined her offer and the collection sat in her small home on Elysian Fields until the day she died.

John recognized that Louisiana law could compel the executor to auction the collection in order to evenly distribute the value of the inheritance. In fact, this is what happened with Toole’s first novel, The Neon Bible, which Thelma never wanted published. If the collection went to auction, a private buyer could sell off the letters and the public would never have access to their entirety. Recognizing this likely outcome, John had the papers appraised. He then convinced the six other heirs to donate their interest in the papers to an archive, and use their percentage of the appraisal as a tax write-off.

Once all the heirs signed the agreement, Geiser turned to Toole’s Alma Mater, Tulane University, which agreed to preserve the John Kennedy Toole Papers and provide public access to them.

Tulane Special Collections Reading Room where researchers can access the Toole Papers

In the spring of 2008, I visited New Orleans to see if there was enough foundational material in the Toole Papers for a biography. On my first day at the archive, I overheard an archivist tell another researcher that many of their historic newspapers had been lost in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. I asked if any of the Toole Papers had been damaged. The archivist said no, those boxes were five inches above the flood water. I then asked if the library had digitized the Toole Papers and the archivist responded, "No, not yet."

At that moment, my goal changed.

Damage of Tulane Library collections from Hurricane Katrina

I spent five full days at the archive, from opening to closing, hunched over a table with my camera, capturing every page of the twenty-six boxes of the collection. At the end of the week, I had not read a single word from the archive. I flew home exhausted and sore. But I had gained something invaluable—a digitized version of the Toole Papers. And that became the backbone to Butterfly in the Typewriter.

Since then, I have spent countless hours reading and contemplating the holdings in the Toole Papers. I often get questions from readers or researchers, which send me back into the digitized folders. Once there, I always think of John. Without him, it is likely we would not have this remarkable story so well-preserved.

I will miss talking with John. His voice, so soothing as he meandered from story to story. He was a kind soul who quietly contributed so much. But I was pleased to learn that he sat for an interview a few years ago. I encourage you to sit down and listen to some stories from old New Orleans. He begins talking about Toole at the 36:40 mark.

Today, there will be a memorial for John Geiser at St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church. To me, his memory is already a blessing.

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