Commentary: Put Lucille Kuehn's name somewhere on the library

An appropriate tribute to the late Lucille Kuehn, one of the most important women in Newport Beach's 106-year history, would be to name something in her honor at the Central Library.

Lucille, who passed away peacefully last week at 89, was the unrelenting force behind the construction of the world-class Central Library. Some part of that building — or a garden area, which she would have loved, being an avid gardener — should bear her name along a brief description of her importance to all Newport library lovers.

A Newport Beach resident since 1959, the bibliophile always felt that her adopted hometown deserved a library that reflected the affluence and sophistication of its community.

In 1974, she successfully ran for City Council on a platform to improve Newport Beach's decidedly modest libraries. As a council member, she talked the Irvine Co. into donating 2 acres of vacant land in Newport Center to build a 10,000-square-foot main branch library.

The town soon outgrew that facility (now part of the Orange County Art Museum). Lucille — tough and feisty and used to getting her way — took the city's inferior main branch as an insult to all of Newport. She again approached the Irvine Co. and asked that it donate a larger piece of land for a central library worthy of Newport Beach. Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren gave the city a large chunk of land on Avocado Avenue.

Lucille continued to work with like-minded volunteers — really a dream team of Newport Beach movers and shakers — to make the new Central Library a reality during a time when the country was still recession-shocked, and critics wondered why Newport Beach should spend $10 million ($2 million was raised privately) on a library that featured marble imported from Italian quarries.

Now, the $10-million price tag seems like a bargain for one of Newport's most beloved and well-used institutions.

In 1994, at the grand opening of the 54,000-square-foot Central Library, I kept glancing over at Lucille, who repeatedly dabbed at the tears welling up in her eyes. She was a proud momma.

Lucille contributed much more to our community than just the Central Library. Her intelligence, work ethic, passion and sense of civic duty put her in leadership roles at a variety of local institutions, including UC Irvine, Orange County League of Women Voters, South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Grand Jury and the Orange County Art Museum.

In the 1970s, she spearheaded a clever effort to use federal funds to convert a closed elementary school in Corona del Mar into the Oasis Senior Center — her strategy created a fair amount of controversy in Newport at the time, but Lucille never wavered.

I was always a major fan. I first met Lucille in the early 1990s, when I was the young editor of the Daily Pilot. She always looked out for me.

We'd talk frequently over the phone, at her house or at lunch about local politics and the community. She gave me pitch-perfect critiques of the Pilot. She read the paper so closely that she could tick off the strengths and weaknesses of each reporter and where the editors were missing news coverage. Lucille also provided scoop after scoop. While operating in the background, she became one of the Pilot's best editors.

Lucille — who couldn't be much taller than 5 feet — packed a lot of passion into that small frame. She loved to garden, a hobby she had to eventually give up as arthritis slowly gnarled and froze her fingers. Even in declining health, she still found ways to attend cultural events in Orange County and Los Angeles. She loved reading the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Daily Pilot. The Orange County Register? She couldn't stand it.

A liberal in conservative Newport Beach, she never was shy about sharing her political views or talking about the discrimination she had occasionally felt over the years as a woman or a Jew in Orange County.

As old age robbed her of her mobility, and her arthritis made it difficult to even turn the pages of her beloved New York Times, Lucille always kept a positive attitude. I didn't like watching her grow old, but I admired how gracefully she did it.

When my memoir was published in 2009, I don't think anyone was more proud than Lucille. Despite being well into her 80s, she arranged an event for me at the Central Library and sat front and center, beaming. Upon meeting my mother, Lucille informed her cheerfully, "I'm his Newport Beach mom."

When I heard that she passed away, I chastised myself for not staying in better touch with her in recent years. Somehow I tricked myself into thinking she would last forever — that I could make that call tomorrow, next week or next month.

My next thought: Why hadn't I — or anyone else — suggested long ago that part of the Central Library be named in Lucille Kuehn's honor so she'd have time to enjoy it?

It's too late for that, but at least we can honor her hard work and dedication by letting current library users know about the founding mother of the Newport Beach Central Library.

She was too valuable a piece of Newport Beach history to be forgotten. She was one for the books.

Costa Mesa city spokesman WILLIAM LOBDELL is the former editor of the Daily Pilot.

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