Remembering Mary Ann Harmon
by Robert E. Wagenknecht
Mary Ann Harmon, President of the Friends of the Chesterfield County Public Library and past Chairman of the Board of the Library of Virginia, passed away on April 12, 2003. She is worthy of being remembered by those of us connected with libraries; for nearly two decades she devoted her life to the improvement and support of public libraries in Chesterfield County and in the Commonwealth.
When she moved to Chesterfield County in 1983 she was determined to do something she had not had time to do before. "I wanted to give back to the community" she is quoted as saying in a 1998 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. Fortunately for us she focused her interest on public libraries. In her advocacy for libraries she said "there is nothing more American than public libraries. Besides being one of our best spent tax dollars, they are barrier free and abound with opportunities for education, entertainment, and adventure. Public libraries serve people of all ages and backgrounds without discrimination." In the same article the reporter quickly caught sight of Mary Ann's soul when he said, "what drives her is the notion that if a young person discovers reading, that person is sure to be a lifelong reader." Her interest in library services to young people came as no surprise to those of us who had the privilege of working with Mary Ann. She truly had the heart of a dedicated librarian.
The library was always on Mary Ann's mind and she was an indefatigable worker. Mary Ann's twentythree years of business experience in public relations was of great benefit to the library. She approached her work, or rather her passion, with unbounded flair, enthusiasm, and imagination. She had an eye for what would attract attention for the Friends and for the library. She never missed an opportunity to discuss the library's needs before the Board of Supervisors, who always held her in the highest esteem. She reveled in celebrations. The 25th anniversary of the Friends was perhaps her most noteworthy and sustained public relations effort. Activities lasted a year and included a bookmark contest and a major essay contest which attracted more than 500 students and resulted in publication of an anthology of winning essays, as well as a presentation to the Board of Supervisors. The essay contest was financially supported by a generous corporation. Other celebrations included participation with a major retail bookstore. She created a Library Ambassador Awards Program to recognize individuals and corporations who had made significant gifts to the library; to the surprise of no one the Friends Board saw to it that Mary Ann was honored by her own program.
Organizing and managing skills were second nature to Mary Ann. One does not raise the Friends annual budget from $2,500 to more than $90,000 without an ample supply of both. She always did her paperwork and communicated. She was anxious for the Friends to do the kinds of things that would benefit the library. She always sought out the best ideas and did not rely solely on her own, as evidenced by her engaging Virginia Commonwealth University to undertake an organization assessment of the Friends with focus on membership and corporate fund raising.
Working with Mary Ann was a delight. She enjoyed mixing with staff, both socially and over work issues, and staff enjoyed being with her. She and other members of the Friends always attended and participated in annual staff days, which the Friends supported financially. She was modest concerning her own accomplishments. She worked to promote the Friends and the library and not herself. When Mary Ann was honored by the Eckerd Corporation for her outstanding public service a news reporter noted that she "was pleased to have light shine on the accomplishments of the group but deflected it from herself. 'It's not my personal achievement. It's for all the people who work for libraries who love the written word,' she said. 'There are 400 people standing behind me' who comprise the Friends of the Chesterfield County Library."
Yet Mary Ann was widely recognized for her successful advocacy of public libraries. In addition to awards already mentioned the Chesterfield Friends under her leadership received recognition for outstanding service and achievement from the Virginia Library Association in 1993, 1994, and 1998. In 1995 Mary Ann received the first annual Friends of Virginia Libraries Award for Individual Achievement, and in 1999 she received the Virginia Public Library Directors Association Award for Outstanding Library Friend. The Library of Virginia Board passed a resolution honoring Mary Ann "for her volunteerism in support of the Commonwealth's public libraries," and the Virginia Library Association's Volunteer Management Forum honored Mary Ann with its Special Volunteer Recognition Award 2000. Perhaps the award of which she was most proud, however, was the naming of the new La Prade Library the "Mary Ann Harmon Building" by the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors in recognition of her many achievements, which act was formally recognized by resolution of the Board of The Library of Virginia.
In addition to serving as President of the Chesterfield Friends from 1986 until her death, Mary Ann was appointed in 1997 by Governor George Allen to a fiveyear term on The Library of Virginia Board, the fourth year of which she served as Chairman. She also served as Board representative to the Virginia Center for the Book and as President of the Friends of Virginia Libraries, 2001–2003.
I know the library community throughout Virginia shares my great personal loss at Mary Ann's passing. She was an informed, powerful, savvy, and politically astute ally in our quest to bring quality library service to the citizens of Chesterfield County and the Commonwealth. Though of average stature physically she stood head and shoulders above us all.
Dr. Robert E. Wagenknecht was Director of the Chesterfield County Public Library from May, 1982 until his retirement in February, 2002.