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Column: WJC library was a community treasure

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Minnesota West Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- No one can know the total of structures destroyed in World War II. From London to Berlin to Stalingrad to Hiroshima to Tokyo, buildings -- houses, apartments, churches, cathedrals, temples, stores, shops, warehouses, factories, depots, government centers, colleges, universities, arenas, barns, hangars, prisons, palaces, castles -- buildings beyond knowing were bombed, burned and leveled.

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It is notable that amid all this destruction Worthington actually gained a "war building" that became a treasure.

After the surrender of Japan, after the fighting was ended, the U.S. government put its military collections, whether guns or uniforms or buildings, on the public market at bargain prices. Military surplus stores opened doors in many towns and cities.

Worthington Junior College, which then was confined to an addition to Worthington's 1909 high school, was nine years old at war's end. Save for some books and bookshelves in a room called The Lounge, WJC had no library. Students did research for term papers at Worthington's Carnegie Library.

The want of a library was something of an embarrassment for the young college and a discouragement for attracting new students.

The federal government began selling structures from bases it was closing down. Prices were little more than the cost of transportation. The board of Independent District 518, which controlled and funded WJC, bid for and was awarded a war surplus building. The long, white, frame structure was moved to Worthington and set on a foundation precisely at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street -- "out the front door and to your left."

So it was, while much of the world counted buildings lost in the war, Worthington counted one sturdy new building, carefully maintained, constructed during the war and for the war. WJC had a library.

It was often said, "This was an old barracks." Actually, it probably was not a barracks. In the U.S. Army's basic pattern, a barracks was two stories high. There were latrines. There was a central aisle along each floor with upright beams on either side of the aisle. The beams were set at intervals about eight feet from each wall. So it was, young soldiers slept on cots between the walls and the beams. First sergeants walked down the center aisles to wake their troops.

The WJC library was (probably) an army headquarters building. It was long and relatively narrow with a succession of French windows on either side. The entryway was on 14th Street. There was a highly polished, hardwood floor. The school board provided bookshelves, a librarian's desk, a card catalog and varnished wood tables with four chairs at each table.

This was a building that ordinarily would not be given close attention or a long description but for Worthington -- and, especially, for WJC students -- this was The Library. It was a place of importance as well an object of pride. No visitor failed to be told, "That's the library."

There were books?

This is the thing most important and somewhat mysterious.

Yes. There were books. The book shelves, floor to ceiling, filled rather quickly. The question was, "Where did all those books come from?"

The community was generous. Residents donated sets of encyclopedias, classics and biographies, geographies and college texts. Carnegie Library offered a collection of "extras." Other college libraries donated volumes. The school board provided funds for the purchase of basic reference works and for other books. There were the books from the college lounge. In a short while, The Library had a somewhat large and worthy collection.

A librarian was hired. There came to be, on what passed for the WJC campus, a research and learning center of a kind the local region had never known.

The Library was never a silent library. Students came together, studied together and talked. ("But keep it down.") It also became a place for special lectures and guest speakers. The Library was where the International Relations Club (among others) convened regular meetings.

The library was open to everyone from the region. Visitors stopped by with questions and, often, to research answers. The community kept a protective eye on The Library.

When President Kennedy was murdered in 1963, Leonard Neil of the college English faculty organized a WJC Kennedy Memorial. Residents were asked to make donations for the purchase of books relating to the presidency -- biographies, commentaries, books recreating the times and deeds of U.S. presidents. A memorial shelf was quickly filled by donations from residents of the region. Robert Kennedy sent Neil a letter of gratitude.

Of all the buildings which have housed students through 75 years, from WJC to Minnesota West, The Library, the war surplus building, was surely the least, but perhaps it was more treasured and perhaps it was a greater point of pride than anything else that has been provided.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays, and two more columns pertaining to Minnesota West will appear on this page in future weeks.

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