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What makes one rich?

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Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2012 11:45 pm | Updated: 11:52 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The world’s all-time richest people list was unveiled last week by a website called CelebrityNetWorth.com. After adjusting for historical inflation, the Rothschilds family ($350 billion), John D. Rockefeller ($340 billion), and Andrew Carnegie ($310 billion) came in at Nos. 2 through 4, and 10 other Americans made the top 26, with Warren Buffet winning the red lantern with a paltry $64 billion.

The richest guy ever was Mansa Musa I, the 14th century emperor of Mali. His $400 million in gold financed his legendary pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. That jaunt featured a 60,000-man entourage, not including 12,000 slaves, each carrying four pounds of gold, and 80 camels bearing two tons of gold dust. He gave it all away as alms during his journey, causing hyperinflation in Cairo and other cities he passed through.

The glut of gold was such that it made a lot of Cairo-trading Italian merchants rich and leisurely enough to spark the European Renaissance. Musa returned to Mali with legions of architects, scholars and, yes, librarians, to build and staff his new mosques, universities and libraries in Timbuktu.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, an ancient Roman nicknamed “Dives,” or “The Rich,” had 200 million sesterces, chased Vestal Virgins, paid for the armies that defeated Spartacus, and was so rapacious that when he was executed, his beheaded mouth was filled with molten gold to satiate his greed.

However, “sestertius” meant “2.5,” and was a small silver coin originally worth 2.5 asses. A loaf of Roman bread cost half a sestertius, or about $2.50 in modern terms, so Dives was only worth $5 billion.

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was 19th-century American rather than Roman, but he strove hard enough to make a fortune, and his name sounded so Roman, that Crassus would have been proud. Coolidge, nicknamed “Cash,” was born in 1844 to a Quaker farmer in upstate New York. By age 28, he’d opened his hometown’s first bank, first newspaper and a drug store. A true go-getter, he also was a school superintendent and painted street signs and numbers on houses.

Coolidge had always sketched and doodled, and later in life he received a few art lessons, apparently the sum of his formal training. He started cartooning for local newspapers and became a “lightning artist,” drawing rapid sketches of people while others paid to watch. He did commercial work, illustrated books, and invented the “comic foreground,” portraits of musclemen, celebrities, and such with holes located where the head should be.

Coolidge’s lasting fame came from illustrating calendars with 16 anthropomorphic paintings, known as the “dogs playing poker” series. Only nine actually featured poker, however, with the others showing dogs reading the mail, testifying in court, smoking and drinking, and so on. And don’t forget that his wife was a librarian.

Cash Coolidge never made any richest person lists, but you have. Most Americans have access to free public libraries, powerful repositories of information, stimulation, and inspiration. Such libraries have existed for only 150 years. That’s not much out of the last 5,000 years of human history, but it demonstrates how lucky, and rich, we truly are.

I’m richer still, for I’ve spent my adult life in libraries, those great intellectual engines where curiosity and information interact. Better yet, when arriving at work this week I found the following voice message: “Greg Hill: you are my librarian, so I have to share this with you. I am 89 years old. When I was 5 years old my mother took me to a library. When I was 6 years old, I was capable of printing my name, so I got my first library card. Right now I have my last, my final library card. I cannot make it in the future, but I want to let you know, and all the other librarians in the United States know, that I have appreciated them since I was 6 years old when I got my own first card. I don’t want any call back; I just wanted to share my joy with a librarian. So thank you very much, Mr. Hill; I appreciated what you have done through the years for Fairbanks and Noel Wien Library.”

Hey, I’m the richest guy in town.

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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