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

The Old West

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.

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).

Right now the college library is closed on Saturdays, Sundays and through student holidays. That would be worked out, Eversole and Park say.

For Billie Goad, a senior citizen and community activist, putting a community college on the hazardous Texas 249 makes no sense. "I try to avoid that road as much as possible." Three small white crosses denoting traffic deaths are tucked into the corner of an entryway into the campus.

She is also afraid that "new citizens" might be intimidated by the college atmosphere and would never make it to the library.

When it comes right down to it, Angela Hunter's group is especially upset because they were left out of any planning or discussions, despite the years they've devoted to the library. Eversole says he had no chance to include anyone else because once word got out about the possibility of a county-college library, all he and Hawkins had time to do was field questions about rumors.

While Eversole insists that in some form or another the county will remain involved, many Friends of the Library believe the commissioner has found a way to dump the Tomball library from his to-do list forever.

Commissioner Eversole is clearly exasperated and a bit flummoxed at what's transpired with him and the good seniors of Tomball. To his way of thinking, he's worked up a great deal: an $8 million library with up to 200,000 books and more computers that would benefit both the community and the college that would share in its cost.

He understands the issues of community pride and identity.

"Tomball has a great deal of history and a great deal of pride," he says. "They're not by any means a selfish group, but what they wish is to retain that Tomball history, so they have a fear if all of a sudden it becomes a part of the college, then they've lost that part of their identity."

What he finds harder to comprehend, he says, is why anyone thinks there's anything ulterior about his actions. He absolutely denies that the college merger was a done deal all along and that talk of the James Street redevelopment was just a facade.

"Totally 100 percent false," he says. "We had the building ordered. We had the building on a truck to be sent to the location once the foundation was poured. I mean, why the hell would I do that?"

Equally false are the rumors the James Street land is going to be sold to the city, Eversole says. Harris County owns the land, he says, and will until a decision is made about what to do with it. But according to Dugan and the Harris County Appraisal District, the city already owns the property.

With no small amount of indignation, Eversole declares: "There are rumors I'm doing this simply to get re-elected. If that were true, I would have built the damn building right where it was. I mean, I wouldn't be going through all of this."

The beleaguered commissioner says that if people wanted to find out the truth, they should have come to the August 1 community meeting about the plans. That session did not go entirely smoothly.

"I had a lady tell me she was not going to vote for me unless I put that building right back where it was, and I said, 'Let me tell you, that ain't going to get it with me. You can vote for whoever the hell you want to. I'm not going to be intimidated in putting a bad situation in Tomball just to get re-elected, and just say, oh, look, the building's fallen into a hole.' "

He also told the group: "I do care about serving the county. If I didn't, I'd be home watching a John Wayne movie with my feet propped up."

Many in the audience say they found Eversole's manner arrogant and condescending, adding that he paced the room like a coach exhorting a team at halftime.

"He did everything but lift his leg and spit on us," Angela Hunter says.

More than 30 years ago, the story goes, Tomball residents felt they needed a step up from the bookmobile. The ladies put on bake sales and the men handled the car washes and they got themselves a library.

Jerry Eversole has given them a chance to come through again -- in a big way. On August 12 he met with Dr. Hawkins, but instead of announcing they were going ahead with a merger, Eversole said he'd give Tomball residents the chance to go to Tomball City Council and see what they could put together.

This seems like so much window dressing given the fact that the city of Tomball has never been involved with the county library.

Nevertheless, several residents seemed more than willing to take on the challenge, even though, according to Eversole, it will take up to $3 million to put together a 15,000-square-foot library. Park says about $1.2 million is left from the original bond money.

"James Street is our first choice, but if we had to compromise [on location], we would," Billie Goad says. "We would want them to stick to the designs originally spelled out, which would include enclosed rooms instead of just open space. We would want it to be a place where a person of any age and any race would feel comfortable and welcome."

"The college right now is the possibility," Eversole says, then listing what he says really would happen there. The library would be built on land at the front of the campus away from the other buildings. There would be close-in parking, with a covered canopy and handicapped spaces. The children's area would be separate from the rest of the library.

Since Eversole first officially proposed the merger, there's been a county-college feasibility study done of similar mergers in Cy-Fair and the College Hill Library in Westminster, Colorado. Eversole has also called for a community meeting with Harris County and the college.

"What those people have to realize [is] you're talking about 1,000 people, I'm dealing with 150,000 people who will be using that facility."

What it all comes down to really is vision and shared dreams. Eversole had a vision, the details of which he didn't share until after some of the townsfolk got all riled up. Now, instead of handling a few questions and moving on, he's got full-scale community forums to fit into his busy schedule.

And who knows, he may get to play out one more scene from the Old West. The one about one riot, one Ranger.


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