For Books For Africa founder, a journey that speaks volumes

Talking books
Tom Warth, founder of Books For Africa, talks with students at St. Paul City School in St. Paul, Minn. about reading and getting books into African students' hands Monday, April 21, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Tom Warth once came upon a school library in Uganda that held nearly everything a library could want, except books.

"It had a card file, it had a librarian, it had tables with students around them, and bookcases," he recalled. "But it had no books."

Stunned by the absurdity, he took it on himself to fill libraries with books across the African continent. Twenty-five years later, he hasn't stopped.

• Part of: Minnesota Sounds and Voices

Warth, a Brit who's called this country home since the 1960s, founded St. Paul-based Books For Africa. The charity has gathered more than 30 million books donated by publishers, schools, libraries, individuals and groups and shipped them to 49 countries since 1988.

At 79, Warth remains an enthusiastic fundraiser, enlisting people from corporate boardrooms to elementary school classrooms. On Friday, he'll start a weekend fundraising walk from Taylors Falls, Minn., to the state Capitol.

Meeting with students
Tom Warth, founder of Books For Africa, gives a student a prize for answering a question at St. Paul City School in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, April 21, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

On a recent day, he invited second-graders at St. Paul City School in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood to join him to raise money and collect books for children in Africa -- and to tell the kids what life is like for students in some African schools.

"They knew how to read and write because in Africa they love education," Warth told the St. Paul children. "But they don't have materials so they learn from the blackboard and maybe writing in the dust in the schools."

Warth was born in Cambridge, England, and came to America in 1960 at age 19 for adventure. He traveled the country, often hitch hiking. He returned to England to enter business, but was lured back to the U.S and Minneapolis, where he worked in financial services and then started publishing mail order books about cars.

Uganda, though, was a revelation. He sold the business in 1988 for a sum he characterizes as seven figures and turned his work to growing libraries in Africa.

Warth hopes the Taylors Falls-to-St. Paul walk will help collect 22,000 books and raise the money to send them to Somalia.

Warth on a walk
Tom Warth, founder of Books for Africa, leads a walk from Menomonie to St. Paul last spring to raise money for Books for Africa.
Courtesy of Lori Gordon

"I love the vision of us carrying the book that's donated in Taylors Falls and then we carry it on the first step of its long journey to Africa."

He's still excited about collecting books, raising money, and then giving it away. He's already thinking about next year's fundraising walk, a trek across Zanzibar.

"It's much more exciting to do it when you're alive," said Warth, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at age 70. "These people who save their money and give it away when they pass away -- what excitement is that?"

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