Kathy Johnson settles in as library directorPublished 9:41am Tuesday, March 9, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Dowagiac District Library didn’t have far to go to find its new director.
Kathy Johnson, who succeeded Mike Shamalla March 1, ran the media center at Union High School for nine years and directed Mathews Library at Southwestern Michigan College during her 35-year career in public education.
Johnson, who has a master’s degree in teaching reading (“I know the struggle people go through”) and taught for 15 years, also worked for the Brandywine school district in Niles between SMC and Dowagiac Union Schools. She had been interim director since December 2009.
Johnson learned to love libraries and to be a “voracious reader” from her mother dropping her off at the one in South Bend, Ind., on one Saturday each month.
“I discovered it on my own, which made it a great adventure,” she said. “I got so I so looked forward to that Saturday. Gosh, I had so much fun there. I learned to read well and that there were different books than at school. I had a library card and could check out kids’ books, but not adult books, so I read all day, the entire time I was there. I read the ‘forbidden books’ of Ian Fleming” – James Bond, 007 – when I was 13. I read every single one of them in the library clandestinely because I couldn’t check them out and my mom wouldn’t let me buy them at the drug store. Those books were mild, and we’re not talking great literature, but I also read histories you don’t find in the children’s department. I would get lost in these books until it was time for my mom to pick me up, then I’d go and check out kids’ books. That’s what really got me going in libraries and what they are, the treasure that’s here.”
She recently loved “Shutter Island,” which before it was a Martin Scorcese movie was a Dennis Lehane novel.
Lehane is May’s Dogwood Fine Arts Festival visiting author.
“It’s a spooky book,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I carry books with me in the car in case I get stuck in traffic. I don’t have a cell phone anymore. I got rid of it. I decided I didn’t want to be on-call in an office all the time. People can call me and leave a message and I can get back to them.”
She’s also learning to play harp.
Her son, Christopher Fox, teaches high school industrial technology in Maryland.
“His robot club competed in Washington, D.C., last week.”
Daughter Sarah, Miss Dowagiac 1999, married Brent Peterson five years ago and is a military wife in Jacksonville, Fla., soon moving back to San Diego, Calif.
She has worked as a pharmaceutical representative. Her pilot/engineer husband has been in Afghanistan after Iraq.
“It’s tough, but she handles everything with aplomb. Sarah’s got a great network of friends.”
Kathy’s first week back at the Carnegie library on Commercial Street, where she also served as interim director after John Mohney left, “felt like an open house,” she said Monday morning.
Mohney submitted his resignation as Dowagiac Public Library director, effective July 3, 2000, to become director of Paw Paw District Library in Van Buren County.
It meant less of a commute for Mohney, a Mattawan resident who joined the library here in 1985 and became director in 1998.
“Basically, it was supposed to be a summer job because I was fulltime in Brandywine,” she said. “I left in February because I couldn’t do two jobs.”
Seated at a table in the research department, a fresh coat of paint brightens her “fish bowl” office, which used to be shielded by blinds.
She “felt like a Keebler elf” cooped up inside a tree in that dark space.
Indeed, a man who knows her from church and the framing business on Front Street, approaches her to renew their acquaintance.
He worked at Ameriwood for 28 years before his layoff 2 1/2 years ago.
“It was a blessing for me,” he explained. “I was 61. Unemployment overlapped Social Security. I did not really like my job. I’m retired. I’m happy, I’m content and I’m at peace because I’m a Christian. My sins are forgiven and I don’t have issues with anybody else.”
She asks how he uses the library.
“My wife is an avid reader,” he says. “She comes here and gets books. But I do not. I’m not a reader. I come here to make out birthday cards or if I have a letter to write.”
He does flip through reference books about coins he collects.
“The books you have are outdated,” he does not surprise her with his appraisal.
“There’s a lot of potential here, which makes it exciting,” she said, recalling that previous tour of duty to the public library that lacked the financial stability the district library created in 2003 affords.
“It’s incredibly better,” said Johnson, who reports to a seven-member library board headed by Judy Lawrence of Dowagiac. “Becoming a district library fixed the physical library itself – furnace, air conditioning, roofs – but lighting, painting, rearranging the books, making an elevator, fixing up the bathrooms and providing really good service with the computers. People rely on this library for information about the outside world. With the added territory” from surrounding townships that make up the school district, “the number of people served has grown substantially.”
Toward the end of the DDL’s life as a city public library, “There were some rough times here,” she said. “It was touch and go with no budget for anything new. No subscriptions. This place has completely turned around having secure funding and a board which actually directs it and thinks of it as a district library. They don’t have to weigh whether or not we buy a fire engine or fund a library.
“State funding was cut this year by 2 1/2 percent and we expect it will be cut more or disappear altogether. We have wisely, before me, looked at state funding as if it’s here, great, we’ll use it, but if it disappears we’re not going to be destitute. Realistically, the State of Michigan is not going to be funding its libraries the way it should in the next few years. We know that and have been able to make adjustments. That’s the beauty of having a district library – having a stable budget you can count on.
“Plus, we’ve enjoyed a couple of endowment-type gifts. Property values have gone down, so that’s going to impact our income. We just have to ride it out while times are tough, but we’ll be okay. It’s just so head-over-heels better than it ever has been, it’s tough to complain because we’ve been through worse than hard times.”
“Granted, I’m still in a honeymoon period,” Johnson said, “but the board went through the growing pains of being brand-new and learning what boards do and the responsibilities it has and divergent points of view. It hasn’t been a district library that long. We don’t usually get a chance to observe a fledgling board evolve. The board at this time is extremely cohesive. It has grown to where everybody doesn’t always agree – which they shouldn’t; if they do, it’s weird – but they are respectful to each other and they listen to each other. I have personally seen people change their mind, which is a healthy thing, so there is consensus.”
Newest member Teri Frantz is retiring from Union High School as an English teacher and taking the place of former library director Jackie Baker.
“I’m really thrilled that Teri’s on it,” Johnson said. “She’s a positive force, very community-minded and connected to the school to know the needs of teachers, students and their parents. She brings that perspective.”
“The biggest challenge is handling the job of making sure the library is a part of everyone’s life in some way within its district,” Johnson said. “It can’t rest on book checkouts and story time and the occasional visit to look up stuff on the Internet. We have reading groups and we’re going to be doing a lot more community service and outreach. This summer is going to be amazing with some of the things we’re going to be able to offer.”
Johnson said the program on digital photography (with Jack St. Pierre of Gene’s in South Bend, Ind.) proved “extremely successful.”
Thirty people turned into almost 50 people upstairs.
“Men, women of all ages. It was just a great evening. What an awesome guy. Techniques of taking better pictures could be considered dry, but the interest was there in the room. People loved the program. We had to kick them out so we could close the library because it was getting late.”
The Penny-Pinchers Convergence, after the initial three book reviews, expands into a four-program monthly series starting in April.
The former Katie Seifferlein feeds her family of four, including a husband in law school, with cash-stretching couponing techniques.
“She’s developed incredible savings and does these programs for libraries now. She’s going to do this series for us” through July. “This thing in March introduces it and builds a core audience,” Johnson said.
When people attend programs, it’s an opportunity for the library to acquaint them with its collection, including DVDs, magazines and newspapers.
“These people we’re bringing in get you going and help you out,” Johnson said. “That type of thing is going to be more and more prevalent here to make the library something people discover they can’t live without. It’s an essential part of the fabric of the community.”
Genealogists’ “go-to person,” Kay Gray, marks 25 years on the library staff in April.