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Randy's Ramblings: They've kept the faith and fought a good fight

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

By the time these ramblings are in print, Hudson-area voters will have decided whether to move the Hudson Area Joint Library into the former corporate headquarters at the corner of First and Vine streets.

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And a number of people who have given much of themselves to bring the proposal this far will be either elated or sadly disappointed.

I'll admit to some premature sympathy for the leading proponents of the library move. Given the economic uncertainty and general reluctance to pay taxes for anything, no matter how worthy, approval of the move in all four partner municipalities was a long shot, in my opinion.

I hope the voters have proven me wrong. And I hope the library backers aren't too disheartened if they've suffered a setback.

Their efforts reminded me of some words of instruction in the poem "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann.

"Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism," Ehrmann advises.

Jeff Zais, a member of the Hudson Area Library Foundation and former library board member, has been working for a better library for a decade or more.

I met Zais back in 2001, after he had authored a report on the space needs of the existing library. It was already substandard compared to libraries in other Wisconsin communities of Hudson's size.

Zais' push for an expanded library apparently cost him his spot on the library board. He wasn't reappointed to the board when his term expired a few months after the space needs report was released.

Zais, nevertheless, remained committed to the library. He joined the Friends of the Hudson Library, a charitable group that helps fund library programs, and the Hudson Area Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for library capital improvements.

Zais supported the formation of the Hudson Area Joint Library in 2003, which brought the village of North Hudson and towns of Hudson and St. Joseph on board as partners in what, until then, had been a city library.

Establishing the joint library brought in more revenue and more fairly distributed the expense of operating the library among the municipalities whose residents use it.

In 2004, Zais facilitated listening sessions in which the Friends of the Library gathered and got input from community members about what they wanted in a new library.

When Library Foundation member Susie Gilbert noticed in the fall of 2007 that the former Nuclear Management Co. building was for sale and suggested moving the library there, Zais again committed himself to the cause of a better library.

When I first met Zais, he told me that he developed his appreciation of public libraries as a youth growing up in Eau Claire, where he was a regular at the marvelous L.E. Phillips Memorial Library.

The intellectual curiosity that Eau Claire's public library helped cultivate in Zais has served him well. He's now an aerospace engineer for IBM.

While Zais and Gilbert gave much of themselves to bring the library proposal before the voters, a Bass Lake resident on the outer reaches of the Hudson area was the ramrod.

W.E. Bye Barsness built a summer home on Bass Lake in 1982 and made it his year-round residence in 1998.

Like Zais and Gilbert (a retired bank vice president), Barsness is hardly a wild-eyed, tax-and-spend liberal.

A graduate of St. Thomas University and Northwestern University (where he earned an MBA), Barsness was a vice president with The St. Paul Companies from 1969 to 1982.

From 1982 to 1990, he served as chief financial officer and director of Space Center Inc., a privately held corporation that owned several trucking companies, six radio stations and an oil and gas exploration company.

Barsness was the president and CEO of Pink Supply Corp., a major floor covering and office furniture company, from 1990 to 1996, and president and CEO of Pink Business Interiors from 1996 until his semi-retirement in 2002. He still has his hand in a variety of property and equipment leasing companies.

Barsness also has a long history of involvement in charitable foundations and organizations. He's a past board member of the $500 million Northwest Area Foundation (started by the James J. Hill family) and ran fund-raising drives for St. Paul Children's Hospital. He's the current president of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust and finance committee chair of the $25 million McNeely Foundation.

Also a former St. Joseph Town Board member, Barsness got involved in the Hudson Area Joint Library after being assigned to represent the town on the library board in 2005.

Barsness told me a few weeks ago that it became obvious to him that the community needed a new library and that the board wasn't making much progress on getting one.

"So I said one day, I know how to do that -- which I might rue," he related.

Barsness is largely responsible for putting together the plan to move the library to the NMC building. He's invested hundreds of hours in the project and attended countless municipal government meetings about it, including the 6:30 a.m. Monday meetings of municipal heads throughout the summer that produced a new joint operating agreement and capital improvement plan for the library.

I agree with Jeff Redmond, the Hudson attorney who drafted the agreements. Redmond told me that a quality public library is one community asset that Hudson still lacks.

I'm thankful for the efforts of Zais, Gilbert, Barsness and many unnamed others who have worked to give us a library to be proud of. I hope they'll keep the faith and continue pressing on.

We've got a first-rate community that deserves a first-rate library. And, yes, we can afford it. It's a matter of priorities.

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