Lee's Library

A senior citizen takes on City Hall the old-fashioned way-- she charms it

Jeanette Lee points to the pepper spray on her key chain lying on the table at St. Luke's Love Field United Methodist Church. "I have one on each key chain, and I have an authentic police whistle," she says. "Once I found a bullet in here, but I don't know where it came from."

The safety devices belie Lee's syrupy approach to life and wooing city government. She sees sweetness and tenacity as the two main tools needed to pry action out of an entrenched and inefficient city government. The pepper spray shows her realistic and practical side. She knows it's "put up or shut up" out in the real world, and her latest City Hall coup is a testament to her effectiveness.

Lee is the indefatigable senior citizen who, for the past three years, has been a nonstop advocate for the creation of a "Love Field West Branch Library." Over the course of three years, Lee has almost single-handedly brought the new $3 million to $4 million library into existence.

Or at least to the verge of existence; only $280,000 has been allocated for site acquisition and preliminary architectural plans. Four sites have been located for possible construction, but the money needs to be voted into existence with the next bond package, due in 2002. "At the moment, we don't have the money to build it," says Sherry Grieb, internal operations administrator for the libraries.

Still, Lee is the stream of water gaining ground on the rock of the city government. Tell her this and she'll smile. "That's how the Grand Canyon was formed."

When she first started, it seemed like a quixotic quest. "Get way down in line; we have so many people ahead of you," she says of the city's overall reaction. "In other words, forget it...I haven't given up because these kids haven't realized their potential." Lee began her crusade with actions, founding and becoming the main volunteer for the Love Field After School Library Program, run out of St. Luke's with donated books and money. Her actions speak to the need for a library more than her words ever could; it's impossible to argue there's no need for a new library with someone who spends five nights of every week volunteering at a makeshift one.

"When all is said and done, the library will be built largely because of Jeanette Lee," Councilman John Loza says. "We see so many people complain and focus on the negative, but she focuses more on the positive...She's definitely stepped up to the plate and done something."

On a Thursday afternoon, Lee sits on a cold chair at St. Luke's, dressed smart in a green sweater and matching jacket and skirt. Fake pearls hang on her like Christmas ornaments, dangling loosely around her neck and adorning her ear, with one big one forming the nucleus of her brooch. The pearls are as white as her alabaster and thin-looking skin. Yet she has deep reserves of energy and moves more smoothly than her 73 years would suggest. "My doctor says I don't look it, and I don't feel it," she says, almost too sweet to be smug.

The auditorium of St. Luke's is drafty and takes hours to heat. Sheets of plywood lay across the windows in a simple attempt at insulation. About 15 kids daily use the 6,500 donated books, with more attending holiday celebrations and weekend puppet shows. As she touted it to anyone who would listen, the volunteer library and reading programs began to attract attention and garner the kind of accolades that city government loves. Some of "her" kids participated in Mayor Ron Kirk's reading program, an encouraging and politically shrewd move. She buddied up with the council members in and out of the Love Field area, so that they all knew her name and her game. The mayor and every council member receive handwritten cards from her at least four times a year.

After an initial skirmish with some members of the library commission (who she refuses to name for the record--she's not politically naïve), her project began to make headway. She figures they thought she was "a fly-by-nighter," but they were wrong. Lee was in it to stay, and for more than three years she kept the pressure applied. Her project was easy to get behind, especially with scores of children and Lee's face personifying it. Lee's approach is dogged, dynamic, charming, and thorough, a far cry from the typical mewling gadfly vigilante.

"Every morning when I get out of bed I look at my calendar and think what I can do for the library, and every night before I go to sleep I make a list of what I can do," she says. "I'm turning over every rock I possibly can. We're coming along, but way too slowly."

Lee was born into a wealthy family in Texarkana, but family health crises and the Great Depression ended the good times. Before the Depression, Lee sold $150 handbags to Texarkana's well-to-do. This fashion-design experience helped land her work in Dallas, where she moved in 1949 to attend Southern Methodist University. Her first job was as an assistant designer for a hat manufacturer while she took classes during the day. Her hat designs made their way from Texas to the cover of a French magazine in the early 1950s.

"I'll be glad when they come back," she says of fancy hats. "And they will!"

Lee left SMU for steady day work as a switchboard operator at a Ford dealership owned by Edward Maher, who was also the Dallas County Hospital District chief at the time. His community involvement drew Lee into activism, and she credits him for her "organization skills."

Over the years, a careful observer could have caught Lee's involvement in a litany of local causes, from nursing-home reform to the creation of community centers to church charities to CrimeWatch patrols aimed at prostitutes. Her ladylike charm mixed with pit bull stubbornness is a combination that is hard to deny.

By her count, she spoke about the library before the city council horseshoe 13 times, on top of meeting with every principal in the area and haunting community meetings. There she is at a town hall meeting during the budget process, pestering Loza sweetly. There she is, waving at the mayor at a city council meeting. There she is speaking at another neighborhood hearing, talking well under her allotted two minutes but getting her point across: Build the library already.

At a budget hearing last year, in front of the horseshoe, she told the council that children approach her at stores, calling her "the library lady" and asking when the city is going to build the library. The appearance was emblematic of her style: No library business was before the council members during that budget cycle, but she wanted to keep it high on their minds.

Loza is the obvious target of this effort, and he responded. "She's been persistent but a pleasure to deal with. She's made it easy," he says. "That tenacity paid off."

Of course, at City Hall it must be said that if there were a need, the good city officials would have found it with or without Lee's involvement. "We're just finishing up a master plan [study for the library system] to see where the areas of most need are. Had it not been on the table already, it would have been in the master plan," says the city administrator Grieb. "There's a great need."

The need for a branch library in the small Love Field neighborhood is easy to highlight. The area is geographically cut off by the airport and Bachman Lake and dissected by wide highways. The growing Hispanic population in the area could use library services for English classes, computer access, and after-school reading programs. Libraries have become more than book depositories and reading rooms; they've become intellectual community centers.

Lee sees the library being built in three years, if she's lucky. For her, the race is also against time; she wants to see the library standing and knows that pressure must be maintained until the groundbreaking occurs. During the crucial bond election, you can expect to see Lee back on her lily-white horse, pushing a voter registration drive to create pro-library numbers. "I hope my health holds out. No one has shown interest in devoting more time to this," she says. "I see a lot of hard work and campaigning ahead for me, but I'm used to that."

For her efforts, the unsinkable Lee may be rewarded with a monument to her civic prowess; there's been talk the Love Field Branch Library will be named after her. The problem, city officials say, is that to name a library after a person would violate their internal policy. (This, despite the moniker gracing the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library. Don't expect City Hall to make too much sense.)

Not to worry, says Loza: "The libraries are named after the neighborhoods, but when push comes to shove, we'll name something in the library after her."

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