Maria Jesup called, I answered

By Ron Beard

Over the last couple of months, I find myself humming “Maria,” that classic Leonard Bernstein tune from “West Side Story.” My inspiration is not the memorable character by that name played by Natalie Wood, but the generous donor behind the Jesup Memorial Library, Maria DeWitt Jesup.

When I was recently asked to consider leading the board of the Jesup, it didn’t take long to say “yes.” The Jesup is a cornerstone organization in Bar Harbor. I believe in its mission to nourish minds, advance lives and build community.

Getting a library card was one of my first acts of citizenship. The year was 1970. On summer break from the University of Maine, I had been hired as a ranger at Blackwoods Campground, housed in a bleak brown trailer. Looking to broaden my horizons, I enrolled in an art class conducted downstairs at the Jesup. I didn’t produce any masterpieces, but what a treat to try my hand.

Later on, in graduate school, with the help of the Jesup historical archives, I developed and completed my thesis – an economic perspective on the history of Mount Desert Island. (Don’t ask me now about shift-share analysis!)

Today’s Jesup maintains what I found in the 1970s – good historical references, librarians who point you in helpful directions, current fiction, nonfiction, periodicals. I appreciate the grace and beauty of the building, the airy marble rotunda, book-filled balconies and alcoves dressed in oak paneling, the arched window framing a reading nook – an oasis of calm in a busy world. As of old, there is a respectful silence in the classy building, but if you listen for a while, you might hear children hushing themselves in anticipation of a story by “Miss Mae;” the claketa, claketa, claketa of someone on the keyboard of a public computer; the satisfying slip of a book into its slot on the shelves (Jesup volunteers and staff handle over 58,000 books and publications each year.); the scraping of chairs as guests settle for a public program (over 8,800 guests attended 411 programs last year); the sweet harmony of piano and strings in a classical concert featuring Masanobu Ikemiya; the lively bowing of fiddle and bass at a Big Moose Band contra dance; the verbal fireworks of Henry the IV, Falstaff and Prince Hal brought to life by the confident young voices of the Crooked Road Home School Shakespeare Class; hearty applause after a poem or story shared at an open mic event; and, the soft thud of a box full of books lifted to the sorting table for the annual August book sale.

As one of the “third places” that makes Bar Harbor hum year-round (not work, not home), the Jesup welcomes all. When you visit, you’ll see your neighbors and guests in all their wonderful diversity.

In the short time since I said “yes,” I’ve learned more about the origins of the library, dedicated in 1911 to the memory of Jesup’s husband, Morris, a banker, philanthropist and early president of the Audubon Society. At the request of Acadia National Park founder George B. Dorr, Maria Jesup financed the design and construction of the library and established an endowment to secure the building in good working order in perpetuity.

The incorporators and successive boards of directors oversaw operation of the library. They didn’t ask for much in the way of public support, but welcomed it when it came.

Modest donations shored up book purchases and salaries. That philosophy served the library well for a century, but resulted in significant deferred maintenance and lack of space for expanded collections and staff. As board chair, one of my first meetings with the library director was held in the boiler room. Every other nook and cranny was already occupied by staff, patrons and books.

Our current budget supports five full-time and four part-time staff. More than 125 volunteers help with interlibrary loans, reshelving books and organizing the annual book sale. That sale provides about 3.4 percent of Jesup’s annual income. Town support provides 4.6 percent. Over the last few years, the annual fund drive has grown to shoulder 42 percent of expenses and will have to grow even more to sustain core services and programs.

I always have tried to give back to the community, to use some of my time and financial resources to make a positive difference. During my working life, I have served on the Planning Board and Town Council, and on the boards of the hospital and the YMCA. When I retired after 32 years as a faculty member of University of Maine Cooperative Extension, I supposed I would focus on some writing, woodworking projects, all while enjoying time with my new grandson. And then the Jesup called.

If we want a community library that welcomes all citizens and visitors, and adapts to their needs over the next century, we’ll all have to roll up our sleeves and make it so. The Jesup’s staff, its board of directors and its volunteers are well along the path of turning community input into plans for a significant expansion, enabled by the farsighted purchase of the Brignull building along School Street in 2012.

We’ve completed the feasibility study for a capital fund drive and have begun to shape its implementation.

I take heart from our sister organizations, who didn’t stop when they reached the initial visions of their founders. The MDI Hospital, The MDI YMCA, The Abbe Museum, College of the Atlantic, Friends of Acadia, MDI Biological Lab and The Jackson Lab all have grown to meet and anticipate new needs and aspirations. With community support, they are major employers who contribute significantly to our economy and sense of place. The Jesup is proud to partner with them and many others in our diverse programming.

I see a new Jesup, blending the legacy and architecture made possible by Maria Jesup’s generosity with a new facility, new space and new programs that will animate community life for the century to come. Come visit. And when Maria calls you, I hope you’ll say “yes” and join our effort to build a community library for the next century.

Ron Beard of Bar Harbor is a retired University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service educator, community facilitator and now chairman of the Jesup Library board of trustees.

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