The Olga Walker Story

In 1964, the Duluth Public Library was notified that one of its regular visitors, Olga Walker, had died and left the library in her will. In fact, Mrs. Walker’s will identified the library as her sole beneficiary. The library was to receive a bequest of more than $50,000.

Library Director Lucille Roemer told the Duluth News Tribune that she “did not know Mrs. Walker,” and that there had been no indication why she left her estate to the library. But, she added, “It is a splendid gift, and the library is most happy to be the recipient of such a large sum.”

Mrs. Walker’s will specified that her money be held in trust for 21 years, allowing the interest earnings to be given to the library. After that, the Library Board could decide what to do with the gift.

In 1986, the Library Board voted that Mrs. Walker’s gift, valued at $83,000 at the time, become the seed money for an endowment to benefit the library in perpetuity, and created the Duluth Library Foundation to manage and grow it. Today, thanks to the contributions of hundreds of library supporters and thoughtful stewardship, that gift has increased $1.5 million.

Little is known about Mrs. Walker. She was born Olga Thompson in Winneshiek County, Iowa, one of three children. Her parents had emigrated from Norway. Olga came to Minnesota with her family as a teenager. She married Clarence Walker, who was originally from Missouri, and they lived in Duluth. Olga was a stenographer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Clarence was a clerk for Kelley-How-Thompson Company, as well as a member of the Order of Scottish Clans in Duluth. They had no children.

What is known is that Mrs. Walker loved the library. We honor her. Her kind generosity and vision for the library allowed the Duluth Library Foundation to be established; it is in the spirit of her giving that the Foundation’s endeavor of supporting the library’s life-changing work continues.

Karen Alworth, Esther Linden, and Royal Alworth, 2019 recipients of the Olga Walker Memorial Award.

In Good Company

Surrounded by friends and family, 101-year-old Katharine (“Kay”) B. Coventry stood at a podium in the library. She turned to look behind her at the names of the people on the Andrew Carnegie section of the Duluth Library Foundation donor wall, where a plaque bearing her name had just been added. She looked back at the audience and remarked, “What a lovely crowd I’m with.”

A lifelong bibliophile, Kay also wrote a memoir, titled Growing Seasons: A 20th-Century Memoir. Mrs. Coventry had supported the Duluth Public Library for many years, making use of its resources and regularly donating funds to the Foundation to build up the library’s videography collection.

In spring 2014, with a gift to the Foundation, she reached—and surpassed—the threshold of $10,000 of cumulative giving. To acknowledge this milestone, the Foundation held a reception in her honor. Foundation President Dan D’Allaird introduced Mrs. Coventry, and City Council President Linda Krug thanked her for her generosity to the city—a generosity consistent with Mr. Carnegie’s own philanthropy.

Mr. Carnegie grew up in a tiny stone home in Dumferline, Scotland. In his youth, he was forbidden to walk on the nearby grounds of the Pittencrieff Estate because he was so poor. Years later, a financially successful Mr. Carnegie returned to Dumferline, purchased the estate, and donated it to the city to be made into a park. Dumferline is also where he built the first of his public libraries. Some years ago, Mrs. Coventry herself visited Carnegie’s childhood home and strolled through Pittencrieff Park.

At the podium, Mrs. Coventry quipped, “I don’t even if know if my library card is up-to-date!” Then, after receiving applause, she made her way to the refreshment table, surrounded by well-wishers and admirers.

Katharine Coventry was honored for her philanthropy. A plaque bearing her name was mounted on the donor wall (background). Photo © Bob King/Duluth News Tribune.

500 Hats, 600 Books!

Don, a former Duluthian, shared his library story:

I owe a great deal to the Duluth Public Library because it was there that my academic future was shaped.

My father died in an accident when I was seven years old. My mother was forced to move herself and me to Duluth. I went from a one-room country school to a much larger city school where I knew no one in my 3rd-grade class. My mother took a job which was adequate to support us, but she began work each day at 7 am, was off from noon until 3 pm, and then worked until 6 pm. She had Thursday and Friday off but worked every weekend.

On Saturday mornings she would leave a silver 50 cent piece on the kitchen table for me. I would use five cents to take the city bus downtown. A movie at the Strand was 12 cents. The Strand consistently showed Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns, also Abbot and Costello comedies. After the movie, I would go across Superior Street to the Bridgeman Russell soda fountain and spend 18 cents on a double malted.

I soon discovered the public library about three blocks away. I wandered into the children’s section and began to read. One of the first books I read was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, and I was hooked. Nearly every Saturday after that, I checked out the maximum of five books, returning them the following week. I rarely called on any of the librarians but they were always kind and helpful. I would catch the bus home for another nickel and give my mother back the dime that was left. This went on until graduation from the 6th grade, with an estimated 600 books under my belt and a vocabulary and syntax which totally disgusted my contemporaries.

During the summer after the 6th grade, my mother moved us to Spokane, Washington. I graduated from Washington State University and went on to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I retired from the tenured faculty of the University of Missouri in 1998.

Oh, one final thing—I married a librarian.

Don and his wife gave a transformational gift to the Duluth Library Foundation that will help make it possible for the library to serve children like Don today and for decades to come—and to open up doors of opportunity for them.

Don, former Duluthian, and library supporter