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  • Dying Doctor
    Bequeaths a Library


    Mike Cox
    Dr. Eugene Clark must have been a particularly skillful and compassionate physician. Certainly, as events would show, he also believed in the importance of public libraries in a democracy.
    Lockhart, Texas - Dr. Eugene Clark Library building
    Dr. Eugene Clark Library, Lockhart, Texas
    TE Photo, 2002

    An 1883 graduate of Tulane University’s medical school, after a residency at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital he left his home town and moved to Texas to begin a partnership with a doctor in Lockhart. The older doctor soon hung up his stethoscope and handed all of his practice over to the 21-year-old Dr. Clark.

    For the next 13 years, the doctor from Louisiana tended to the people of Caldwell County, fixing or curing what he could, delivering their babies and standing at the bedside of those whose lives were ending. Not surprisingly, Dr. Clark earned immense respect in the community. In turn, the doctor really liked the folks who lived in Lockhart and made many good friends.

    Deciding to specialize in the ear, nose and throat, in 1896 Dr. Clark left Lockhart to study in Europe. A year later, he came back to Texas and began practicing in San Antonio. While in San Antonio, Dr. Clark became seriously ill and traveled to New York for surgery. On his way, he stopped in Lockhart to visit some of his friends for what turned out to be the last time.

    In New York he learned his medical situation was terminal and he returned to his native New Orleans to live out his final days.

    On his death bed, Dr. Clark dictated a will leaving $10,000 to Lockhart for a public library and lyceum. In his bequest, he earmarked $6,000 to cover construction of the library and $1,000 for the purchase of books to line its shelves. The remaining $3,000 was to go into a trust for the library’s maintenance and future books.

    Its design inspired by the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy, the library opened in 1899 and has been serving the residents of Lockhart ever since. In fact, it’s the longest continuously used library in the state.

    Until 1956, the library had a stage and auditorium style seating for public lectures, and for years, as Dr. Clark had envisioned, it served as the community’s cultural center. President William Howard Taft spoke there along with numerous lesser-known politicians and lecturers offering insight and opinion from religion to temperance. Opera singer, actress and self-help speaker Dorothy Sarnoff once performed there, at one point telling her audience, "If you are bored with my performance tonight, you can just reach over and grab a good book to read."

    One of the first books in its collection was “How to Win,” an inspirational book for girls by Frances E. Willard. Published by Funk and Wagnalls Co., the slim 125-page volume went on sale in 1894. Either someone forgot to return the book to the Lockhart library or at some point the library discarded it without marking it as such.

    Purchased years ago at an estate sale, the book has a pre-Dewey Decimal classification number of 1183 and bears the library’s stamp in several places. It still contains an old-style pull-out card for the borrower’s name and the book’s due date. The card is dated Nov. 3 with no year given. The last person to check the book out was listed as a Mrs. J. Fortune.

    Still pasted inside the front cover of the book are the library’s rules. Basically, a patron had one week to read a book and only one book could be checked out at a time. Keeping the book for that period of time cost five cents, plus a refundable $1 deposit. Back then, that was enough money to cover the replacement cost of the book.

    “At the close of the first week the loan may be renewed for another week at the same cost,” the rules note. “If the book is not returned at the end of the first week, and loan renewed a charge of 10 cents will be made for the second week, and if then retained 20 cents will be charged for the third week.”

    If the book was not returned by the end of the third week, the rules continued, the procrastinating patron would be sent a post card reminder with the cost of that card added to the amount due. If that didn’t work, the rules went on, “a messenger will be sent for the book with an additional charge of 25 cents.”

    Failure to respond to that netted the library user version of the death penalty: “Any borrower refusing to pay the charge will thereafter be debarred the privilege of the Library.” In other words, no more books from the library. On top of that, the offender lost his $1 deposit.

    On the upside, the 1899 rules allowed a book to be read for free inside the library, a privilege that still stands.


    © Mike Cox - December 6, 2012 column
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