By Betsy Bleck
Appeared in the Oconomowoc Enterprise February 2, 2017
What is it about the Oconomowoc area that makes people stay forever? Of course, different folks have different reasons for arriving in the first place, and for staying — I’m sure we all do. Perhaps you are continuing the tradition of your family, who has lived here for generations. Or perhaps, like me, you came to town for a new job and stayed, unable to imagine a better place to live, barring a move to Tahiti.
One example of Oconomowoc’s ability to charm people into becoming lifers: From 1917 to 2014, the Oconomowoc Public Library had just three library directors: Anna Jones, Josephine Machus, and Ray McKenna. That is staggering — three people in nearly 100 years! To be fair, there was a time between the passing of Ms. Jones and the hiring of Ms. Machus when assistant librarian Clara Emery stepped in on an interim basis. But as far as full-time, permanent library directors, there were only three in all those years. Today’s column is dedicated to those three library directors.
Between the library’s birth and the hiring of Anna Jones in 1917, the library had several directors. According to a May 12, 1900 article in The Oconomowoc Republican, the first directors were Julia A. Lapham and H.W. Goodwin. At first, the head librarian was a volunteer, but in 1894, the library trustees granted the salary of $2 per week. Histories of the library written by both Anna Jones and Josephine Machus fill in the roster of early library directors: Clara Weber held the post from 1894 until 1900, when Gabriella Ackley took over. When Ms. Ackley moved on to the New York Public Library in 1906, Jennie Walther became head librarian. Next in line was Esther Humphrey, who was followed by her cousin Lillian Humphrey from 1914 to 1917.
Then came Anna Ruth Jones, who would stay from 1917 until her death on Christmas Eve of 1949. Besides her leadership of the library, Jones was noted for keeping a large black cat that stalked the library. I wonder if the cat was more than a sweet welcome to visitors — perhaps the feline was also in charge of pest control. I also learned, in the course of researching this column, that Jones wrote a regular feature for the Oconomowoc Enterprise, a trait which seems to run in the “family” of local library directors. According to Jones’ obituary in the Dec. 29, 1949, issue of the Enterprise, she lived in Oconomowoc all her life, and was one of six children of Simeon and Katherine Jones. Upon her passing, Mayor Frank Dumbeck said Jones “was devoted to her work and built the library up to its present status as one of the best libraries of its size in the state.” In honor of Jones, the library was closed on the day of her funeral, and the flag was lowered to half-mast over City Hall.
Jones was succeeded by another Oconomowoc native, Josephine Machus. Machus became library director in September 1950, a position she held until 1980, at which time she became director emeritus until her retirement in the mid-1980s. Machus was a graduate of Carroll College and the Library School of the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Machus was known for trekking daily from her home on Walnut Street to the library, which was located on North Main Street at the time. According to a newspaper article by Robert J. Higgins, neither wintry storms nor summer heat could deter her from making the walk. Machus’ parents and two of her grandparents were born here, and she lived in the family home with her brother Frank until her death in 1992. Machus wrote, in a 1960 submission to Landmark Magazine, that she remembered the proud day of first receiving a library card, at the age of five, from the Oconomowoc Public Library, and the first book drawn on that card was ‘Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch.’ Machus started the Great Books program in Oconomowoc, and she was part of their discussions throughout her life. The Great Books program was founded to support and celebrate discussion of the world’s great thinkers and writers, and was a cause dear to Machus’ heart, according to Ray McKenna. Machus was also a music lover who saw a need for music in the library, a passion which gave rise to the library’s large record collection. Machus also loved to travel, and went on lots of educational trips and study tours.
McKenna remembers Machus as a great person who was very gentle, and who was also very committed to the library. If the library’s security alarm was set off after hours, the police would swing by her house and pick her up on their way to the library.
Ray McKenna served as library director from 1981 to 2014. McKenna came to town from the Zion-Benton Public Library District, where he was the Young Adult librarian and assistant director. McKenna was also lucky enough to meet his wife, Rhonda, (also a librarian!) there. He received his Master of Library Science at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, Ill.
During McKenna’s childhood, his family moved around a fair bit. But when it came time to choose a place for their growing family to call home, the McKennas settled in at Ashippun, where they still live. McKenna ushered in many important changes at the library. He oversaw the design and construction of the library’s current building on South Street. He also shepherded in the technologies of the digital age — taking the library from vinyl records to e-media, and from card catalogs to computer catalogs.
As far as what drew him to the Oconomowoc area, McKenna said he liked the city’s size and beauty, and he knew it would be a good place to raise kids. He liked that he could be the director of the library and still be involved in his children’s lives. In fact, when his kids were little, McKenna discovered a passion for coaching youth sports that continues to this day — he has coached since 1986, with just one brief hiatus. That’s a lot of kids’ lives he’s touched. He also touched this kid’s life, when he took a chance and hired me as his children’s librarian when I was still in graduate school. Six years later, Ray trusted me with the product of his professional life’s work, the Oconomowoc Public Library, when I became his successor as library director. He is one of the most important people in my professional life.
Special thanks to Ray and Rhonda McKenna, Anne Olson, and the reference staff of the Oconomowoc Public Library for their help with this column.