The old photograph album in a pile of donations looked like one of many Pat Blumenthal has come across in the past decade: maybe a little worn, its pages yellowed and empty, stripped of the old family treasures it once contained.
Blumenthal is manager of the Friends of the Palo Alto Library's "Curious Books" section, which takes in and organizes the odds and ends that defy identification: not fiction, medical, mystery or science or other easily identifiable categories. She has seen dozens of the old albums, which, in the digital age, no one wants anymore, she said.
On June 27, Blumenthal received four albums. As usual, the pages were blank, but something led her to flip through one. As she thumbed through, Blumenthal made an unexpected find: two pages of small black-and-white photographs in the middle. Some had the year "1939" marked. They seemed to be of a college graduation.
All the people pictured were African American. The captions were written in black ink. One was by a different hand and in tiny handwriting: "Mother, Sister, Me, John, Mamie."
Blumenthal looked more closely at the handwriting. "I noticed a name, George I. Lythcott II, and a place, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine," she said by phone on Tuesday.
Blumenthal was intrigued. Acceptance of Black people into white colleges was rare in the 1930s and Lythcott graduated during the Great Depression, she said. She wondered how an African American man got into one of these colleges and what kind of person he might have been. (The 165-year-old Bates College was founded on the principle of accepting students without regard to race, religion, national origin or gender, according to its website. It recruited former African American slaves, many from refugee camps during and after the Civil War.)
She recalled that a few months before, Karen DalColletto, another volunteer, discovered an album filled with singer Joan Baez's baby pictures. A Friends of the Palo Alto Library member delivered a note to Baez during a concert, and the singer and her baby pictures were later reunited, Blumenthal said.
Now Blumenthal wanted to reunite Lythcott's family with the long-lost pictures. She searched through phone books seeking the name Lythcott in Palo Alto and came upon two: writer Julie Lythcott-Haims and her mother, Jean Lythcott.
When the phone rang, Lythcott almost didn't answer it.
"So often I get calls from every organization imaginable," she said of the landline.
The call came up with a name, however, "P. Blumenthal." Intrigued, she answered.
"Before I say anything else," Blumenthal said. "I need to ask you: 'Do you know a George I. Lythcott II?'" Lythcott recalled.
"I know him well. He's my husband!" Lythcott said.
Blumenthal invited Lythcott to her home to discuss the discovery.
"It's incredible. It was astonishing," Lythcott recalled upon seeing the photos of her late husband for the first time.
George Lythcott II, a prominent New York City pediatrician and medical educator, died in 1995. They met in Ghana, Africa, when he was doing medical research in pulmonary diseases and was a regional director for five years in a U.S. assistance program helping 19 African countries fight smallpox and measles. Jean Lythcott, who holds a degree in botany with chemistry and is a native of England, was teaching science in Ghana and arrived there just two months after he did.
The two fell in love. They married in 1966. He was 20 years older; she was born the year he graduated from Bates, she said.
George Lythcott was asked to be one of four sprinters who paced Jesse Owens when he trained for the 1936 Olympics. He worked in West Africa as an American member of a team for the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s. President Jimmy Carter appointed him head of the Health Services Administration and as assistant surgeon general in the 1970s. He was a New York City assistant commissioner in charge of the health department's Bureau of Schoolchildren's and Adolescent Health, and he held prominent positions at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the University of Wisconsin.
The women talked for two hours, discovering overlaps between George Lythcott's career and that of Blumenthal's father, Dr. Sidney Blumenthal.
"They were both pediatricians in New York City at the same time. George was a dean at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons while my father was teaching there. President Carter appointed George to head up the Health and Human Services Administration; my father was the director of the Heart Division at the National Institutes of Health. It is when he was in that position that Jean told me she recognized his name," Blumenthal said.
Lythcott was not familiar with the photographs in the album, she said during a phone interview on Monday. She's baffled by how the photographs came to Palo Alto, since she doesn't know of any relatives who live in the area. She had moved to Palo Alto in 1999 to be near her daughter and family after her husband died. Now 81 and retired from a long teaching career that took her across the globe, she wants to meet the person who donated the photo album.
Already, she said, "I started to do some sleuthing."
She contacted her husband’s children from his first marriage, but none knew of the photographs, nor did they know of anyone who would have possessed them. The photograph with five people at the Bates graduation had to have been sent by her husband to someone he knew fairly well, she said.
"It's highly probable that they had only known George when he was really young and would not have recognized him," she said.
Lythcott said she has many questions.
"How did (the album) get to California? Who received them? What hand did that person have in terms of receiving it? Why would they have emptied (the album) except for the Lythcott photos? It feels like whoever received the photos kept them until now. Perhaps the people with any connection to the photos just died," she said.
One story offers a plausible explanation, she said. When her husband was about 2 years old, his mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Agatha, an unmarried aunt who lived in Guyana, was summoned to New York to take care of the young boy. His father, who was also a physician, had gone to Oklahoma to work. When George II was about 8 years old, his father married a Cherokee-African American woman. They summoned Agatha and the boy to live with them, Lythcott said.
She didn't last long in the undeveloped state in the 1920s. One day Agatha walked down the dusty dirt road to a nearby church, dressed entirely in white from her hat to her shoes.
"Everything was covered in red-brown dust. She said she couldn't stay there," Lythcott said. Plus, it was clear she could not share responsibility for raising George II with his new wife, Corrine. Agatha returned to New York. A niece also lived there, Lythcott said. It's possible that George II sent the photographs to Aunt Agatha and somehow they passed down through her.
Memories fade as families and friends die, but Lythcott wonders about who might have kept the photo album until now and if they knew his history. Photographs were rare when she and her husband were young, Lythcott said.
"Taking a picture was a big deal when we were growing up. During the Methodist holiday Whitsuntide, we always had a photo taken, so there was one picture a year of me," she recalled.
Those rare photographs couldn't capture the many stories of a person's life the way pictures do today, with thousands of digital images shared on social media and stored on thumb drives and laptops. But Lythcott thinks there's something about people living longer and being healthier that propels an interest in the stories of the past and "the notion that someone would want to know your story," she said.
The old photographs and the mystery surrounding them reminded her of one of her favorite lines from the musical "Hamilton," she said.
"'Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?"