Voices of the Ozarks – John Mertens

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Voices of the Ozarks: Recording an Oral History of Madison and Iron Counties

A man wearing glasses and a blue shirt stands in front of books on a shelfToday we are interviewing John Mertens, former director of Ozark Regional Library, interviewed by John Jones.

First, some background on you.

Where are you from?

What did you do before coming to the Arcadia Valley and so forth?


Okay, I grew up, partially grew up in Wisconsin.

My family, when I was very young, lived in Wisconsin.

I lived there until I was 12 years old, had an unfortunate situation.

My father was an excellent businessman.

He worked hard, worked long hours.

He owned a clothing store in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

That’s the home of the Land’s End, their main place of business is Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

But my father died at age 44 of a heart attack, and so that was the end of his business.

My mother sold the business and so we were sort of out of a place to live.

So we moved to Fulton, Missouri.

Of course, between Jefferson City and Columbia, and that’s where I was born, in Fulton, Missouri.

I have a twin brother, and he’s living in Bowling Green, Missouri.

We sometimes don’t have much contact, being that far away, but I’m going to see him this coming Sunday, so looking forward to that.

I lived in Fulton, Missouri, partially through my college years, from sixth grade on through most of my college, and I don’t know, Fulton was a great place to grow up for a kid back then.

I’m talking about the late fifties, early sixties, and living in Fulton, good grief, I was close to half a dozen different colleges and universities, I had my choice of a lot of places to go to school.

The main college that I went to was Lincoln University, and of course that was Missouri’s black university, I guess it still is, but what a pleasure it was to go to Lincoln University.

You know, I’d spent time in, like at University of Missouri in Columbia, and a lot of the courses at the University of Missouri in Columbia were taught by graduate students, who left a lot to be desired as teachers.

When I got to Lincoln University, all the courses were taught by PhD professors, and it was so enjoyable to the professors with doctor’s degrees, what wonderful teachers they were, and I really enjoyed that, I enjoyed being taught by PhD professors.

Same thing about Lincoln University, and some of the other schools back then, fifteen hours a semester, you could take fifteen hours at Lincoln University for sixty dollars a semester, that was the cost of fifteen hours of college education back then, a whole semester.

But very soon, the price went up to seventy-five dollars a semester, and three years later, when I graduated from Lincoln University, tuition had gone up to a hundred dollars a semester, and I had just gotten out of the Army when I went to school at Lincoln University, and I had the advantage of the military paying for my education, and for five years, I received money from the military for my education, five years of college, through master’s degree, and the total cost of my college education was five thousand five hundred dollars for five years, eleven hundred dollars a year got me through college, and that’s the thing I appreciate most about my military experience, was that it paid for my education, and I of course graduated from Lincoln University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and from there I went on to the University of Missouri in Columbia and received my master’s degree in library science, so that’s my background, and had a wonderful time growing up, and really enjoyed my college education, so while, also while I was in the military stationed in Germany, this was about the time, nineteen sixty-five about that time period, they were sending everybody to Vietnam, and so I ended up in Germany, which was a wonderful situation, I was stationed in Germany for two years, and I spent more than six weeks touring Europe, that was my military experience, grand tour of Europe, gosh I went to Italy, the best food, I was in Europe sixty years ago, and the best food was in Italy, I bet it’s still the best, and so I spent time in Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, England, so and as I traveled Europe I spent about a week in the major cities, Rome, Bern, Switzerland, Paris, France, the Rhine River in Germany, London, in England, so those were wonderful moments in my military assignment, and I ended there, so what brought you to Ozark Regional Library, well I had worked in high school, I had worked in public libraries, and public libraries were something that I was interested in, and I came to Ozark Regional Library because I found out the position was open for director of Ozark Regional Library, and it was a promotion from my previous employment, and of course an increase in salary, so I was very happy to come to Ozark Regional Library, and so that’s mainly why I’m here.

What was the library system like when you arrived, were there any surprising things about it, either good or bad?

Well I was very pleased with the library system when I arrived at Ozark Regional Library, of course things were pretty traditional as far as library service, books were checked out with signing your name on a library card, and the book being stamped with a date due, and do you remember what the fine was back then, was it a penny a day or two pennies?

The lowest I remember was two cents a day.

I guess when I started a library fine was two cents a day, and I’d never changed it for 35 years that I was here, it was two cents a day, and of course deliveries were made to the seven branch libraries that were part of Ozark Regional Library, and of course the headquarters library was in Ironton, and seven branch libraries were in St.

Genevieve, Fredericktown, Annapolis, Viburnum, Steeleville, Cuba, and Bourbon, and we had regular delivery of books to those branches, and any special book that was requested by a patron, they were delivered to each branch with vehicles that the library owned, and also at that time the Ozark Regional Library had bookmobile service to area schools, and we had a monthly schedule and we had an old bookmobile then, and a day on the bookmobile involved putting a quart of oil in the bookmobile, because it would use oil, and putting in antifreeze, the bookmobile leaked antifreeze, so we had to be sure that the bookmobile was topped off, the radiator was topped off, and the engine, so that was very important, and if you didn’t do those things, the bookmobile didn’t go.

I was very pleased with our staff, and I tried, did my best to support staff, and believe it or not, what the staff wanted most were the little supplies that the library used, you know, date due slips, and cards for the patrons to sign, and pencils, and date due stamps, and just little things like that, and of course supplies, cleaning supplies, if I kept the branch libraries supplied with those items like that, things ran well.

So I enjoyed meeting all the, our people working at the various libraries, and thought that they all worked hard, and did their jobs admirably, and what a delight it was to work with the workers at the library, and the branches, and I paid special attention to the making sure that there were back up people to cover sick leaves, and vacations, and I know that the branch librarians appreciated the effort that the regional library made to have extra staff available that they were called for.

What changes did you make to the library system once you got here?

Well basically I kept the buildings, the library had eight buildings, and vehicles also, so I kept the buildings in good repair, if problems with buildings were reported to me, I made sure to get on fixing problems right away, especially you know, heating, air conditioning, plumbing, that stuff has to be addressed immediately to keep people happy, and also changes that were made.

After being here for a few years, I started improving library buildings, adding, well modernizing buildings, building new buildings, and improving equipment, things like that.

Well building improvements, I was lucky enough to be involved with some new buildings, and repairs to existing buildings, and some of the new buildings at Ozark Regional Library built, we built a new building in Ironton, and I’ve always been amazed by the building in Ironton, amazed mainly, this building is almost 8,000 square feet, I think 7,700, and it cost $26.41 a square foot, and you know, most buildings today are at least $100, I don’t know, $150 a square foot, so it was built very inexpensively, and it was built to national specifications, national building specifications, you know, there were no, at the time, 1984, there were, whatever the national building code was, has been applied to this building, and there was no requirement that this building be built, that’s stout, stoutly, but this was built to national, to the national building code, and probably the only thing it doesn’t have are sprinklers, sprinkler system, it’s got everything else, and of course that was in 1984, I don’t know what improvements have been made to the national building code since then, I’m sure, a lot, and it was built to the handicapped code back then, and so anything that the library built that was new was built to the national building code.

What was amazing to me, as director of the library, I told the board that we could build a new library here in Ironton.

I said build this new library, and I think something like ten months later we moved in, we moved into this building, and any other building that I had the privilege to work on took three years, we built a new building in Steelville, that took three years of planning and getting the financing, and of course also had the privilege and pleasure of building a new building in St.

Genevieve, and what amazed me about the building in St.

Genevieve, of course the building there is owned by the county commission, but I worked with the architects and interior designers that built that building, what was it, the building, John, the senior the St.

Genevieve County Community Center, yeah, that was built by an architectural firm in St.

Louis, and of course they worked with me planning the library that was going to be in the community center, and it was really interesting, those architects, they worked all over the world, it was a St.

Louis architectural firm, and they had a lot of experience with building internationally, they had all kinds of, they had interior designers that worked with the planning, and there were things that were added to that building that were really unusual, and the, I don’t know, the interior, the architectural firm had interior designers and they paid special attention to color, equipment, and things like that, so it was really an unusual experience to plan that building in St.

Genevieve, learned some things that I wasn’t expecting to with that building, and all of the, those were the new buildings, and then all of the other buildings that the Ozark Regional Library had were modernized and updated and made to look very nice, so I was pleased to work with all of the buildings in Ozark Regional Library and improve them all to a certain degree, which I was very pleased to do.

And which library developments are you most proud of?

Well, the, I’m most proud of the improvement to the buildings, the library buildings that we’ve made throughout the time I was here.

I guess the Bookmobile was a pretty big achievement also, and the providing computers and internet service for our patrons, that was a pretty big, pretty big item, and one that was expensive, with the expense of computers, and probably, maybe I would consider that that was probably computers, and internet access was something the patrons were looking forward to the most, so I guess those were some of my proudest achievements.

Through your time here, were there any library goals that you would have liked to have met?

Future goals for Ozark Regional Library, I sort of left that to the people that would follow me.

I thought that the people that followed me had graduated more recently from library school, and that they would have better ideas and better goals that I would have, so that was time for me to leave.

You came to making any future improvements to Ozark Regional Library, and I’d like to, this is a comment, I had wonderful, a wonderful time working with the library board.

They were always very supportive, and wishing to make improvements to the library, and I can’t thank them enough for what our library board did for this library.