Literacy and Legacy

by Hazel Flewwelling

Growing up as an only child in rural Alberta in the 1950s would have been a bleak, lonely journey indeed, had it not been for the public library. Our family library consisted of the local weekly newspaper, a Bible, a current American encyclopedia set, Reader's Digest and a book of bedtime stories. The Ponoka Library, as it existed then, was a modest creature, born of the efforts of the women of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.

Thanks to an inspiring Grade 1 teacher, Ruth Larson, part of my Saturday ritual included a stop at the public library housed on the upper floor of the Town Hall. It was a long climb to what I recall was a rather dark, dingy, small place, but it was a banquet hall for me, a feast in faraway lands with intriguing people who had lived fascinating lives. There was a cheery smile and encouragement to "Try this one" or "I read this one when I was your age." It seemed to me that this person had read every book in the library. She was my guide, my mentor, my hero! Somehow this person knew instinctively what I would need in my literary diet. There were ample helpings of fables from Aesop, Greek myths, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. There were folk tales and ballads. Burgess and Carroll became my friends. Dickens and Kipling became my lifelong companions. How often I would return to die comfort of a book.

The best reward for completing chores was an uninterrupted time to read. I saw an early bedtime as an opportunity to read. A long car ride became much shorter thanks to a book. For me, the perfect gift was a book. Thus my love affair with libraries and books was kindled carefully and deliberately by persons now unknown to me, who shared a passion for literacy. What began as a fragile cobweb became one of the anchoring cables in my life. As a teacher, I shared this passion with my students; as a parent, I wanted more and better books for my children. I wanted bigger and better libraries for them. It was this very passion which fueled my commitment as a library trustee for nine years — eight years as board chairman — and as fundraiser for the Literacy and Legacy campaign for library expansion.

The Red Deer Public Library was one of the first public libraries in Alberta. It was begun in 1914, and was housed in the Town Hall. To commemorate Canada's centennial in 1967, the present building was constructed. As the population and library demand grew, a second storey was added in 1977. By 1986, library usage had once again outgrown the facility. Poor economic times are good times for libraries. Library usage soars! Space also becomes scarce, and it was lack of space that caused the library board to consider expansion. Should we add more storeys, expand onto City Hall Park, or move to a new site? A building study showed that the most cost-effective way to provide the new space would be to connect the Centennial Library to the old Armoury with a link and renovate both buildings. That would double the size of the Library at only 75 per cent of the cost of new construction, and include the imaginative re-use of the elegant, sturdy 1913 Armoury. The Armoury at the time was being used as Fire Hall #1, but plans were underway for the fire department to move to a new building. This proposal solved a number of problems. It provided a cheery ground-floor location for the children's department, a single circulation point, full disabled access to all floors of the library and a beautiful auditorium. The project, known as Literacy and Legacy, would cost $2.5 million. I completed my nine years as a library trustee by assuming the role of campaign chairman with the announcement of the capital campaign in the fall of 1991.

The Library has an enviable history of solid community support. When a site for the Centennial Library was being selected, Charles Snell provided the $55,000 needed to assure its prominent location in City Hall Park. The gift was a memorial to his late wife, Mabel Besant, one of Red Deer's first librarians. The Galbraith family augmented the book inventory in 1967 by providing a large collection of works on Western Canada and its history. When a second storey for the Centennial Library was being considered in the late 1970s, Norman and Iva Bower provided $250,000 to assure the project went ahead. Literacy and Legacy, our $2.5- million fundraising campaign, was a opportunity for continuation and growth of community support. The Armoury building, vacated in July 1991, became a perfect campaign office and programming centre. It was an ideal setting for creating awareness and building constituent support. The campaign was the epitome of networking and sharing, as strong alliances were forged with the Red Deer Museum and Archives, the Red Deer Native Friendship Centre, the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra and many other agencies. The Red Deer Symphony performed a symphonic zoo for more than 1,500 children; the Lettering Arts Guild of Red Deer made their home with us; and the Native Friendship Centre supplied us with dishes for catering. We held massive book sales and garage sales. The Old Armouries Tea Room became a favourite meeting place for tea and a sweet.

For a period of 42 months we averaged $57,000 per month. Who were we? The "we" consisted of the Literacy and Legacy Campaign Committee, a group of high-profile community leaders who were advocates for the project. The members of the campaign committee were Marvin Bishop, Sigmund Brouwer, Frances Craigie, G. Harold Dawe, Mr. Justice James L. Foster, Terry Green, Ray Heard, Doris Jewell, Dr. Sadie Lampard, Harry Linskog, Kathryn Marriott, and Dr. Mattie McCullough. They provided inspiration and wise counsel for our corps of more than 200 volunteers. They reminded us that all contributions, large and small, were important to the success of the campaign.

Literacy and Legacy was thoroughly supported in the community, and the project was an integral part of planning initiatives adopted by City Council. The City of Red Deer contribution of $1.25 million to the project was pivotal. Through the Community Facility Enhancement Program and the Community Cultural and Recreational Grant Program, the Provincial Government contributed $350,000. The Government of Canada, Canadian Heritage provided $100,000. Once these commitments were secured, we received overwhelming support from local service clubs which generated $450,000, and foundation support of another $200,000. With the assistance of the local media we were able to generate the final $150,000 through a persistent public appeal. With more than 1,800 items being circulated daily, we were able to keep information before the public.

On May 9, 1994 we turned sod for the construction. A year and a day later the library link was opened to serve the public. Remarkably, the library remained open throughout the construction. The use of the Children's Department has increased 35 percent. Sir Francis Bacon was right: "Knowledge is power."