Of goats and good books: Lowndes' longest-tenured library employee, Kay Langford, to retire

March 6, 2011 11:24:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Ask Kay Langford about the funniest thing that''s happened to her in the almost 45 years she''s worked for the Columbus library system and she won''t miss a beat. 


"The day we had to catch a goat!" she laughs, her eyes merry and smile broad.  


The wily four-legged culprit had escaped from his young owner, a bookmobile patron, on McHall Drive in East Columbus. Langford and the fast-thinking bookmobile driver saved the day, rounding up the critter for a relieved little boy. 


That''s only one of the memories surfacing for Langford these days. After more than 44 years with the Columbus and Lowndes County library family, she will check out her last book April 16.  


Columbus-Lowndes Public Library Director Alice Shands said, "We are really losing a resource; Kay has been here since she was 16." 


In all those years of sharing her love of books with thousands of people, Kay married W.J., her husband of almost 44 years, had four children and suffered the loss of one of them. She''s witnessed more library history than any staff member remaining, from the era of card catalogs to the tech revolution. She has also amassed enough good will to sweeten a lifetime. 




Remembering when 


In the cozy, colorful Caledonia branch library, where Kay has been the welcoming face since 2002, she sat down to talk, often animated and laughing, but occasionally, wiping a tear. Retirement is bittersweet. 


Langford was indeed 16 when she was hired as a "page" at the Columbus Library by director Chebie Gaines Bateman in 1966. 


The library at the time was a small affair, housed in what had once been the S.D. Lee High School band hall. It''s still there today (the home of Three Oaks Pottery), behind its much grander successor, the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library at 314 Seventh St. N. 


"Mrs. Elizabeth Smith at Lee High sent me to Mrs. Bateman, who hired me on the spot. I went to work as a page through the school''s DE (Diversified Education) program -- for a whole $1 an hour," Langford grinned.  


It was, as it turned out, the start of something beautiful. Langford and Bateman would work together for 38 years before the latter retired. Kay even went on to name one of her daughters "Gaines" as a middle name, in honor of the woman she held in such respect. 


"It wasn''t just her Southern charm; she worked hard, and she instilled in you a sense of pride," said Langford. "She gave many young people jobs and would encourage you to go to college. But, if you couldn''t she would teach her skills to you. Work ethic was her ''gold.'' I know that''s why so many of us stayed the course at the Columbus Library all those years." 


In four and a half decades, Kay has gone through her share of job titles. 


"I''ve been called a page, the bookmobile librarian, extension librarian over the Caledonia, Artesia and Crawford branches, and now an outreach specialist," she stated. "I''ve also been a professional beggar and called a book pusher," she chuckled. 




Mobile books 


Langford loved the 13 years she worked on the bookmobile, from 1968 until 1981, when the aging panel truck finally had to be retired. Every two weeks, the rolling library would show up for its date with eager children and adults at regular stops like Fairlane Shopping Center, Mullins Well, Smith''s Beauty Shop and Grant''s General Merchandise country store. The arrival of the trundling vehicle was an occasion to look forward to. 


"Oh, we went everywhere. I''d meet people all over the place," Kay enthused. "If it fell near break, people were always trying to fix us something to eat. We got to know the families, their marriages, sicknesses and babies." 


Susan Reese started working at the library the same time Kay did. They two are still close today, even though Susan lived out of state for a while. 


"She just can''t help but get involved in her patrons'' lives," said Reese of her compassionate friend. "She has always done from the heart."  


Nowhere was that trait more visible than in Langford''s advocacy of the hospital, nursing home and homebound book delivery programs. 


After the bookmobile quit running, she delivered books, including big print books and talking books for the blind, in her car until a new 1984 Plymouth Reliant station wagon was purchased with support from the Friends of the Library.  


When the time came, it was even Kay''s honor to deliver books to Chebie Bateman at home, and later a nursing home. 


Cuts in the library''s budget finally brought the program to an end. Kay has seen many times over how important a lifeline it is to so many and hopes it can be reinstated as soon as possible.  






Nine years ago, Langford stepped in at the Caledonia branch library after director Mary Betts Williams retired after a loyal 40 years.  


"I really learned a lot from Mrs. Mary Betts and Mrs. Bateman," said Langford. "And people like Mary Helen Waggoner and Charon Hardy I worked with so long in the library system. I''ve worked with some of the best. Some have retired, some have died, and some have become directors themselves." 


Earlene Egger is a Caledonia mainstay and a regular patron. Her name is on the Egger-Rook Nook, a corner of the library dedicated to community memorabilia donated by Egger and Mary Rook. 


"We were just stunned to hear Kay is leaving," Egger said. "She''s been just wonderful. She knows the readers preferences and helps select books they would like." 


Reese echoes the sentiment. "She''s been so faithful, especially to the homebound and nursing home residents." 


Library visits at Caledonia currently run 300-400 a month, and 2010 check-outs numbered more than 8,000, Langford said. The numbers reflect Kay''s hard work and a growing community. 


"People in Caledonia have treated me like one of their own," she shared. 




Don''t chew gum 


Kay still adheres to lessons drilled into young library workers by Bateman all those years ago, including, "Don''t chew gum; don''t point, and never, ever say ''I don''t know.''" They''re just as relevant today as they were then. 


At 16, she never dreamed she''d be at it this long. Retirement will mean more leisure time for fishing in Arkansas, a pastime she and W.J. enjoy. There may be more trips to Branson, Mo., and more time to spend with their six grandchildren. 


But the relationships gained through the library won''t be far from her heart -- the little goat herder, the nursing home resident who refused to eat until Kay came to see her, the sisters who plied their librarian with pies, vying to see whose was better; or maybe the tyke who one day showed up at the bookmobile with a tuna sandwich. Kay teased him, "What do you mean comin'' with that sandwich? I''m hungry, too." Two weeks later, when the bookmobile rolled back to that same stop, there he was, tuna sandwich in hand, just for her.  


"It''s the little things like that ... I''ve loved it," Kay said, with emotion. "God put me in the position I was in. I think helping people helps a person. Giving is better than taking."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.