Thumbing through a scrapbook that chronicles the renovation of the old Northside Elementary School building into the present day El Campo Branch Library, Jessie Gonzalez and Annette Balcar recall the excitement and transition of the project. They are the only remaining employees who were there 25 years ago when the doors opened to the new library on Church Street between Depot and Fahrenthold.
They also remember the collaborative efforts of those who served on the Northside Center board and other volunteers who had the vision for a larger and better accommodating library. The El Campo Branch was completed by December 1996 with the official dedication in June 1997.
Gonzalez, who has been with the El Campo Branch Library for the past 41 years, still works part time as a shelver while also serving as branch manager for the Louise Library. Balcar has been the children’s librarian for the past 34 years. Both worked at the former library building located on East Hillje that was built in 1966 and was a little more than 4,000 square feet.
“It was just too small,” Balcar said. “Our programs got so big, we just couldn’t contain it all.”
The present day library is more than 15,000 square feet.
In 1988, the non-profit organization Northside Center Inc. was formed to develop the old Northside School campus into a community center. That vision has since produced the El Campo Boys & Girls Club that opened in 1995, El Campo Heritage Center and Northside Education Center as well as the library.
As Northside Center board members began exploring the possibility of a larger library, “they asked our opinions,” Balcar said. “Beverly Russell spearheaded a lot of things. She talked to groups (to raise funds).”
Russell, who is a member of the Northside Center board, chaired the library fundraising committee in 1995.
“The community is the one that made it happen,” Russell said. “Every organization in El Campo contributed funds.”
Donations for naming rights of rooms, bricks and contributions from businesses, clubs and individuals helped to fund a portion of the library. According to an article published in the El Campo Leader-News Dec. 23, 1995 issue, county commissioners approved $400,000 in county funds for the project since the El Campo community had raised more than $350,000.
“In a couple months, the balance was raised,” Russell said. “It was amazing.”
Russell recalls two individuals who did in-kind services that saved on costs. Vic Romig and Mike Brodsgaard, an adult probation officer soliticited the help of fellow probation officers and 27 male and female probationers to knock down walls, remove debris and clean up the inside for work to begin.
Romig volunteered his services by assisting with plumbing and electrical issues, as well as building a wheelchair accessible bathroom. Leslie Collins, who had helped build the original ceiling joists, added additional support and pillars before they could knock the walls down.
BLS Construction was the contractor and a ground-breaking ceremony was held in June 1996.
By December that year, the library was ready to be filled with books. Balcar and Gonzalez recall the staff who worked with them during the move.
“LaVerne Bacak was the branch manager when we moved to the new library,” Balcar said.
“I was there 27 years at the old location on Hillje Street,” Bacak said.
Bacak, who was a student at the former Northside Elementary campus, remembered the building that had been abandoned for many years.
“It was horrible. It was dusty ... crews started knocking down walls,” she said. “They knocked everything down except the back rooms where the meeting rooms are. They really transformed things.”
Weather on move-in day was cold and icy, according to Bacak.
“When we moved in, we were trying to figure out where to put things,” Bacak said. “There were so many empty shelves and we wondered how we would ever fill them. Now it’s full.”
Shelves had to be dismantled and moved to the new location, as well as books, furniture and other items.
“Some shelves, about half from the old location, were moved,” Gonzalez added.
“They had to hire someone to take them apart and put them back together,” Balcar said.
Once books were moved, library staff got busy sorting them and putting them on the shelves.
Others who worked there at the time were reference librarian Frances Arrambide, now deceased.
“Lori Kocurek was in circulation,” Balcar said. “Mel Kopecky and Dezda Hyer were part time.”
“Since the move, we have expanded programs,” Balcar said.
One such program, or project, is the annual Great Pumpkin Bash.
“We have had over 90 pumpkins entered ... they’re everywhere,” Balcar said.
Over the past 25 years, the library has expanded, offering more programs for adults and children during the year and especially during summer time with the reading programs for chances to win prizes.
Bacak retired as branch manager in December 1997. Aileen Terry took her place and has since retired. Presently, Brigitte Smith-Vaughan serves as manager. Staff members are Renee Harrell, reference librarian; Ruthie Buzek and Donna Merta, circulation librarians, as well as Balcar and Gonzalez.
The Northside Center board members at that time were Guy F. Stovall III, president; Dayle Aulds, Randy Clapp, Randy Collins, Ronnie Collins, Cecil Davis, Guy Gordon, Brian Hale, Leigh Ann Johnson, Art Keinarth, Ruth Kainer, Bill Kyle, Donald D. Naiser, John Richards, Terry Roberts, Linda Clapp Raun, Irma Rocha, Beverly Russell, Larry Russell, Pam Shanks, Gordon Sorrell, Joe Thedford and David Wendt.