The Old West

He looks like Clint Eastwood and loves John Wayne; now this county official faces a showdown with Tomball's elderly

Virgil Dugan doesn't get around too well anymore. He walks carefully through his house, tethered by a lengthy oxygen cord that wraps around his legs when he turns and threatens to trip anyone trying to keep up with him.

Breathing heavily, shaky, a little hard of hearing but resolute, the man who became addicted to reading while serving seven years on navy cruisers before and during World War II has spent a lot of computer time lately amassing a file on the Tomball library. He and several other elderly members of the Friends of the Tomball Library are assembling all the information they can, afraid they may be welcoming a Trojan horse into their midst.

The way the Friends of the Library see it, all their 30-year-old library needed was a bit more space and a little improvement in the plumbing and electrical wiring systems. So when they heard that Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole was willing to help them out, it sounded great.

Dugan is fighting to preserve the Tomball library.
Margaret Downing
Dugan is fighting to preserve the Tomball library.

The library, a 7,000-square-foot facility, worked well on James Street next to Tomball Pines, just a step or two over from the burgeoning medical center in the far north Harris County town. Librarians knew what books to put aside for certain people. If a book wasn't part of the collection, they'd order it on loan. They were so successful at what they did that the library started feeling a little cramped.

Along came the 1997 bond election, with $15 million set aside for libraries, $2.1 million for the Tomball facility. By November 1999, the engineering study was done. Everything was fine; a new building of 15,000 square feet could go in right at the site of the old library. There would be more parking, too.

Last November, the groundbreaking was held. By summer 2002, Tomball would have its new library.

The one odd note struck at the ceremony was Eversole's observation, as reported in the Houston Chronicle, that "in a certain period of time we will look at this building and wish we had built it bigger. We have already begun talks with the [North Harris Montgomery Community] College District and will join with them to expand the library when it is needed."

Talk about foreshadowing. If this were a movie, someone would be hitting those deep organ notes pretty heavy right now.

Between January and March rumors went airborne. While the official plans for the site remained unchanged, word had it that the library would never be built on James Street, instead it would be merged with the Tomball College library in a secret deal engineered by Eversole and college president Raymond M. Hawkins.

In April, work on the site (such as it had been; most folks say dirt was just pushed around the lot to little effect) ceased. Drilling had revealed a previously undisclosed "perched water table." The '99 soil tests had been done in normal weather conditions. But heavier rain hit once work had begun, and water began flowing into the lot in a way that meant trouble, Eversole said. To build on that same site would mean another half a million dollars in fill-dirt work, said Jackie Freeman, Harris County engineer.

According to Eversole, it would also necessitate a costly redesign of the building's foundation. The project was abandoned.

Enter Plan B, which some less charitable folks in Tomball are saying was Plan A all along. Eversole proposed merging the county and college libraries.

The seniors greeted the news with cries of betrayal and scorn. They'd thought Eversole was going to fix up their library. Now they were looking at it being absorbed by the college. Their warm little center would be replaced by long-distance parking lots and indifferent college students with little tolerance for the elderly.

Faced with the prospect of seeing one more chunk of their past gone forever, the seniors decided to fight.

Angela Hunter and David Clark are not senior citizens, but both are leading the charge in trying to get some other library options considered. Hunter is president of Friends of the Library and has been point person for many of the questions from the public. Clark has Parkinson's disease and doesn't want the long walks that a library of 80,000 square feet would entail, let alone the possibility of no close-in parking.

Both of them discount the alleged problems with the James Street site. While Eversole refers to it as remote and difficult to find, they insist the townspeople knew where it was. They also say there has been no problem with flooding in that location. Meanwhile, the college is located on 100 acres of flood land, Hunter says.

They also complain that Tomball has always been a low priority for the Harris County library system.

It took 90 days for the county to get a book drop to the library's new temporary location in Klein's supermarket on Main Street. They gave up on ever getting signage from the county, so Klein's itself paid $400 for a library sign, Hunter says.

And while Catherine Park, director of the Harris County library system, touts the broader array of services a merged library could provide and points to other areas of the country (Denver and Florida's Broward County) where such joint efforts have been successful, Hunter and other Friends are suspicious of exactly how much of the merged library would be set aside for their interests and for the children's area. They want to know what will happen to the county librarians -- the county says they would be relocated, if necessary -- and are pretty sure they don't want a library run solely by college staff (that hasn't been determined yet, Eversole says).

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