It was a 120th birthday party to remember.
On Monday evening, the Cottage Grove Library hosted over 75 people at The Axe and Fiddle to honor Opal Whiteley, the one-time Cottage Grove resident who has left generations of Oregonians inspired, angered and puzzled.
Whiteley, who died in 1992, grew to fame through her writing, particularly her diary, “Opal, the Journal of an Understanding Heart” that came out in 1920, chronicled her childhood in Cottage Grove and earned several accolades. A year later Whiteley was accused of being a fraud and then went to England where she was eventually placed in a mental hospital for nearly 50 years. She was never released.
But on Monday, it was a time of celebration.
The evening included the showing of an OPB documentary on her life, birthday cake and the singing of Happy Birthday complete with ukuleles from the library, a conversation about Whiteley from historian Steve Williamson and concluded with “Opal karaoke.” For this version of karaoke, individuals read various pieces of writing that she had done.
“Some people might dismiss her as a crackpot, some people might say she’s crazy, I think she was a visionary. I think she could see and hear things. She talked about the wind talking to her, for example,” said Eugene resident Tom Romano who has been reading about Whiteley for the last nine years.
“I think her memory will never die out. I think she’ll always be remembered, I hope she’ll always be remembered for what she did,” he said.
Wearing Opal Whiteley attire, that was provided to her by the library, twelve-year-old Whisper Pilling was excited for people to learn about someone she has grown fond of. Pilling, who participated in Opal Karaoke and blew out the birthday candles, prepared for the night by reading as much as she could about Whiteley.
“I like the part where she, like, instead of talking about how she cried when her mom apparently put her out so she fainted and her nose started bleeding, she just kind of said, ‘oh, this happened, oh well,’” said Pilling.
“She didn’t seem like she was interested in friends but I would be her friend,” she added.
In addition to celebrating a local icon, the Cottage Grove Library was also interested in showcasing its diverse collection of works it has to offer and are hoping to get the appropriate storage and display case for one of the first copies of Whiteley’s “The Fairyland Around Us.” The storage case the library is hoping to get would cost around $5,000.