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Helpful smile in the library aisle: Jo Haugan retires after 36 1/2 years amid the books

Jo Haugan will retire at the end of the month after more than 36 years at the Nobles County Library. (Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Jo Haugan never set out to be a librarian. It was more of an accidental career, something she fell into but resolved to make the best of for the duration -- which turned out to be more than 36 years. She joined the staff of the Nobles County Library on Sept. 20, 1976, and will officially retire on the last day of this month.

"I'm the last one of the original (employees) who were here when I started," said Jo, recalling a time when a longtime colleague retired after a mere 30 years on the job. "I thought she was nuts, staying here that long, but one year just rolls into the next. If I'd hated what I was doing, it probably would have been different, but I didn't."

Jo's first career choice would have been art education. A native of the Twin Cities, she majored in art at Concordia College in Moorhead.

"But I was only able to go there two years," she said. "Then I had to go home and work and help pay the family bills."

Knowing that her time at Concordia would be short, Jo took every art course she could fit into her schedule. She departed without a degree, but did gain a boyfriend -- future husband Dave.

"I had a biology class at 8 in the morning, and he would pass me in the hall every morning going the other way," she recalled about their first encounters. "He said that I always had a big smile on my face, and he couldn't figure out why anyone would always smile if they were on their way to biology class at that time of the morning. So he decided he had to meet me. At least that's what he says.

"I was a freshman, and by the end of my sophomore year, we were pretty well committed."

The romance continued after she left campus.

"He would come to the Cities to visit. He always had riders and would charge them $5 each, which would end up being enough for gas and for us to have a meal and see a movie."

Dave graduated with a teaching degree in 1962, and they were married shortly thereafter. His first teaching job was in Regent, N.D.

"It was the end of the world," said Jo of the isolated town of 250. "We were there for two years. He did everything at the school except clean the toilets. ... I had nothing to do. He'd come home, and I'd be in tears. There was nothing else to do, so I had a baby."

From Regent, the Haugans moved to Bristol, S.D., for another two-year stint.

"During that time, we lived in what I called an 8- by 38- hallway," Jo said, referring to the narrow mobile home. Their first son, David, "never walked by himself until he was 16 or 17 months because he could always touch something. It had pink fixtures -- pink stove, pink refrigerator, pink sink. ... But it was better than anything else we could rent."

After another year teaching in Faulkton, S.D., the Haugans landed in Worthington, where Dave's first post was working with distributive and office education -- early vocational training -- making use of the business part of his double major in business and physical education. Later, he became the physical education teacher at Central Elementary School.

Jo, in the meantime, was a stay-at-home mom who moonlighted occasionally at the J.C. Penney store in downtown Worthington.

"I was working at Penney's when I got this job by default," she explained. "Someone else was hired for it, but there was an issue with child care or something, so they couldn't take the job."

Jo had also applied for the position, and the then-library director came to Penney's to see if she was genuinely interested.

"I have always been a people person, and I'd worked in the catalogue department at Penney's, so it was a natural transition," she said.

And so Jo became the friendly face welcoming library patrons from behind the checkout counter. She's always made an effort to do more than check out books.

"It's extended family," she said about her co-workers and clientele. "Everybody has a story. One guy told me, 'You're just like a bartender. People tell you everything.' ... But sometimes all people need is a friendly face."

That attitude is what made Jo good at her job, reflected Nobles County Library Director Julie Wellnitz during this week's Nobles County Commissioners meeting.

"Jo has helped define the Nobles County Library as a place and organization that genuinely cares for the community, the county and all its people," said Wellnitz during a retirement recognition. " Jo has always realized that she may be the first point of contact for patrons after a visit to their lawyer, their doctor, their priest or their therapist. Some want to continue therapy right there at the front desk with Jo! She handles our patrons with grace and a sense of humor that somehow makes them feel better about themselves and lessens their worries of the day."

During her lengthy tenure at the library, Jo has come to realize the important role a library plays in the life of a community -- not just as a disperser of books, but of all sorts of information and services. She had hoped to see a new library built before she retired, but decided she just couldn't stick around that long.

"There are people who say libraries aren't going to be in existence for much longer" because of the information now available on the Internet, she commented. "But everybody can't access that. All they'd have to do is sit in the lobby and see what all goes on here. Here there's no age limit, no socio-economic situation, no race barrier. It's the biggest bang for your tax buck, and those who don't feel that way are uninformed. We are a service agency, and we'll bend over backward to give the best service we can."

While she was busy dispersing books and information, Jo gained her own education along the way, particularly with technology.

"I've been very thankful that I've been working all this time as far as technology is concerned," she said. "I never would have taken the initiative to learn all this if I hadn't been forced into learning some of these things. When we got our first computer program, we closed on a Saturday to get some training. I can remember after that first session, walking to my car in tears and thinking, 'I'm too old for this.' I was a wreck, thought I'd never make it."

When Jo first started at the library, every book was checked out with a card, and each card was filed alphabetically by hand. If the book was returned without its card, the librarians had to search through all the cards to find the right book. Now the library is on its fourth or fifth computerized circulation system, and Jo can talk knowledgeably about eBooks and help patrons access the Internet on one of the library's many computers.

"Now we have audiobooks, we check out cake pans, and the computers are usually all full," she said. "And we have a tremendous interlibrary loan program; there's virtually nothing we can't get."

After more than 36 years, Jo has more than a few anecdotes.

"Way back when zip codes were first implemented, we got these thick books with zip codes for the whole U.S.," she recalled. "This man came in asked for them, and I said, 'You need a master's degree to figure them out.' He said, 'Well, I've got a doctorate, so hopefully I can figure them out.' I was so embarrassed.

"Another time, when we had the reading area where the children's room is now, this lady came in, and she was supposed to meet her husband but he wasn't here. She said, 'I'm going to go back and look at the magazines. If you see a guy come in who looks lost, tell him I'm back there. So this guy comes in, and he's looking around, so I asked, 'Are you looking for a wife?" He said, 'No, I've got one of them. I'm just looking to make a photocopy.'"

They may have been embarrassing at the time, but both stories are now accompanied by Jo's trademark smile and a soft chuckle.

"I've always had the philosophy, if one person's going to have fun, it's going to be me," she said. "It's been such a joy to watch the families who come here -- first the mom who comes in pregnant, then comes in with her children, and then those children coming in with their own children -- to see the generations."

As her last day of work looms on the horizon, Jo has fielded many inquiries about her retirement plans. She does want to rekindle a few interests that have fallen by the wayside.

"I've been a golfer, but the last two years I've not been able to golf because of a bad knee," she said. "But I had knee replacement surgery, and it's doing great, so one of my goals is to golf more.

"We live in an old house, and there are some projects I want to do, too," she added.

Like many retirees, at the top of her to-do list is spending more time with her family --husband Dave, children Dave, Paul and Laurie, nine grandchildren and one great-grandson, with another on the way. But she also bought a sketchpad with the intent of reviving that long- dormant interest in art.

"I loved drawing and pottery," she said. "I loved working on the potter's wheel. But there's always been something else to do. ... I want to see if I still have the eye."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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