I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked through the front entrance of the library.
It’s familiar territory to many like me who have lived in Bartholomew County a good many years. So are the words above the entrance: Cleo Rogers Memorial Library.
That’s a reference to the woman who never lived to see the building that bears her name, a woman many believe was responsible for it being here in the first place.
Cleo Rogers has been dead 50 years. She passed away early in 1964. The library, designed by world famous architect I.M. Pei, would not welcome its first patron until 1969, but it was long before its official opening in 1971 that the board of trustees had agreed on its name.
They informed Cleo of their decision while she was a patient at the then-named Bartholomew County Hospital. She passed away shortly thereafter.
Steve Suckow, who followed Cleo as library director in 1967, pointed out the timing of the 50th anniversary of her death in a recent conversation, suggesting how important it was that her contributions, her legacy, not be lost due to inattention.
That’s a real possibility. While there are many still alive who remember her, there is little in the way of tangible and easily accessible information about who she was and what she did.
There is that name across the top of the entryway but nothing in the way of a plaque or permanent sign that could explain why the building was named Cleo Rogers Memorial Library.
Ironically Steve had never met Cleo. Neither had I. We both were very familiar with her, however.
From the time I came to Columbus in 1966, her memory was still fresh and people in all walks of life recounted stories about her. Steve heard those as well but he got even more telling details in reading minutes of library boards and correspondence from the 28-year period she served as library director.
During that period (1936-64) and the nine years that preceded it when she served as assistant director, the library was in a structure standing on what is now the Pei building’s plaza, which is in the midst of a major renovation.
It was a Carnegie library, funded largely by a grant from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had provided financial backing for hundreds of other libraries around the country.
The Columbus library was opened in 1903 and, for its time, was considered one of the county’s treasured institutions.
By the time Cleo assumed the directorship, the library was beginning to show its limitations. The main one was space. The library staff was forced to store books and other materials off site. Eventually, they had to restrict ordering new materials because there was no place to put them.
“Cleo kept bringing the situation up to the board,” Steve said. “She did it in polite ways but you can tell from reading the minutes that she was very forceful. Her only suggestion was a new building.”
Eventually her lobbying yielded results. In 1963 the board approved a decision to build a new library, one that would not only meet basic requirements such as space but would be a building based on architectural excellence. They contracted with a young New York architect named I.M. Pei, who by then was considered one of the country’s most creative designers.
“It wouldn’t be fair to give Cleo sole credit for the new library,” Steve said. “In a way it was a perfect storm. You had her drive but she also had an excellent board to work with, people like John Keach Sr., Bob Stevenson, Helen Rowell, Fred Meyer, Maxine Dunlap and Bob Rogers.”
Ironically, although the Pei library is considered a centerpiece in Columbus’ architectural success story, Pei’s fees were not directly funded by the Cummins Engine foundation. The foundation had developed a program to cover design costs for public entities whose boards could then select an architect from a list provided by the foundation.
“I think the board wanted to make clear that it was their decision from the start,” Steve said. “At the same time, I am pretty sure that they were aware that Cummins would eventually provide a sizable grant ($800,000) for the overall project.”
While she was driven by the desire for a new building, Cleo was really in love with the library itself.
“That library was her life,” recalled Shirley Lyster, a retired teacher at Columbus and Columbus North high schools who worked there as an afterschool and summer intern in the 1940s and early ’50s. “I can still remember going past the building on most nights after it was closed and I could see the lights in her office were still on.”
She was small in stature but a giant in the things she believed.
“She had strong feelings,” Shirley recalled. “But she never offended anyone in expressing them. She believed in people, some more than others.
She simply idolized Lee Hamilton (a Columbus attorney who would later go on to a 34-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives and is still regarded as an international statesman) and above all she was a rabid Bull Dogs fan. I don’t think she ever missed a (basketball) game.”
That there is nothing in the library that provides any background or insight into Cleo is really not a question of blame.
“I think that the decision to forego something like a plaque stems from the fact that the original board didn’t want to do anything that might be counter to the design of the building,” Steve said. “In the years since, I guess no one has really raised the question.”
Maybe it’s time, especially as work on the plaza goes into its final phases.
There should be something somewhere in that building that tells the story of Cleo Rogers.