Our view: William H. Laird would be proud, as are we

February 3, 2019

A little more than 120 years ago, William H. Laird opened the doors to a new city library — then called the Winona Free Public Library. The lumber baron funded the $50,000 project — worth about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

“It is indeed a most generous gift,” the Winona Republican reported Jan. 21, 1899, “one that will work for the uplifting of the community, and benefit all classes of citizens. It is not every community that is favored with such public-spirited citizens as Mr. Laird.”

Laird would be proud of how his gift was used last week.

In the 120 years since the library opened, few stretches have been as devastatingly cold as the one we endured last week. As the mercury on our thermometers dropped, schools closed, businesses told their employees to stay home, and life, for the most part, stood still.

Except at our library.

A few days before the polar vortex made its way over the state, bringing life-threatening cold along with it, library director Lezlea Dahlke and youth services librarian Tricia Wehrenberg kicked around the idea of keeping the library open a few extra hours — at least until the Winona Community Warming Center could open its doors at 9 p.m.

As we reported in our stories last weekend about homelessness in the city, Winona lacks places for people without a place to stay to keep warm until the Warming Center opens.

So Dahlke tossed out the idea to the staff. What if they stayed open a few extra hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?

Everybody was in. No hesitation.

But it went beyond just opening the doors. They provided food. They provided drinks. At 6:30 p.m. each night, they showed a movie.

Others followed the library’s lead. Bluff Country Co-op donated coffee, snacks and soup. Subway donated food. Patrons dropped off baked goods and monetary donations. Pizza arrived.

The city arranged for fire trucks to take people who needed to go from the library to the Warming Center, saving them a bone-chilling walk in temperatures that reached nearly 30 below.

The coldest week in more than 20 years was no match for the warmth of the hearts of so many.

There were other examples of exceptional altruism last week. When a young family was in need after their car broke down in Alma, Katherine Goodman let them stay at her bed and breakfast, the Blue Door Inn, for free. She then extended the invitation to others, an offer that included breakfast. Across the river, Turning Waters Bed, Breakfast and Adventure did the same.

When a Goodview woman went missing, strangers who saw the bulletin come across their Facebook feeds jumped in their frozen cars and checked every back road and county highway between here and Rochester, even though law enforcement didn’t ask for volunteers.

When power was knocked out on the west end of Winona, the county’s emergency management team sprang into action and opened shelters around town. The Goodview Fire Department opened its doors as well. As news spread on Facebook, those with warm beds available offered to take in those without power.

The Winona Republican was right. Not every community is favored with public-spirited citizens like Mr. Laird.

And, 120 years later, the same can be said for many who follow in his footsteps.

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