Commentary: R.I.P., library trailblazer Lucille Kuehn

Just thinking back on my own civic life, former Councilwoman Lucille Kuehn led the way.

I joined the League of Women Voters because of her leadership, became its observer of the Newport-Mesa School Board (running unsuccessfully twice), sat on the Orange County Grand Jury after hearing of her service there, became a museum docent (she was a trustee of the Newport Harbor Art Museum), attended chamber music concerts in Laguna Beach and Costa Mesa, and now regularly attend classes at Oasis.

She was a trailblazer.

Former Mayor Clarence "Bus" Turner once told me four people were responsible for building the Newport Beach Central Library (now approaching its 20th anniversary). He had the good sense not to name the four, but realizing the pivotal role he played as mayor during the time our Library Board worked on this project, I am sure he was one of the primaries. Many have claimed membership on that team of four, just as you'd expect with any phenomenally successful venture.

But was any one person "the one" with regard to the library?

As a Library Board trustee, I served two terms, 1983 to 1991. I remember being charged by City Manager Bob Wynn to write a detailed memo explaining why our board wanted to replace the city librarian with someone more able to fulfill our new mission: replacing the small library on San Clemente Street (now part of the Orange County Museum of Art) with a Central Library more fitting to Newport Beach.

We interviewed candidates capable of pulling off this feat, an estimated $11 million project and the largest the city had yet undertaken. The candidate we chose — with a certain amount of dissension because the hiring would diminish the power of the board — was LaDonna Kienitz from Chicago.

The city hired her in 1986 or 1987, and she set about educating us trustees in the art of political action. Because of her attending City Council meetings, writing letters to the Daily Pilot, getting local dignitaries to write letters and cajole council members, appearing in the public eye and getting the support of Jean Watt and local environmentalists, the word spread.

Kuehn heard what we were doing and joined in, regularly attending our meetings since it had been her dream since serving on our City Council a decade earlier to build a library worthy of our city. As chairwoman of the Library Board, I was encouraged — both by LaDonna and Lucille — to ask the Irvine Co. for a donation of land next to what had already been allocated for our Newport Harbor Art Museum, at Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard.

My request was successful, although I felt that I was just an emissary. With Bus Turner's good work, we swung a 7-0 vote of the City Council, with the proviso that a lot of private fundraising would need to be done. Elizabeth Stahr graciously took over that task and became part of the team.

So, if it's ever necessary to label someone as indispensable, as "the one," it would be LaDonna, but with a whole team of able compatriots working alongside her. Teamwork did the trick!

Finally, some priceless Lucille moments, etched into my memory, her ferocity attesting to my own naïvete.

"Karen, I am not a Democrat." (She knew one needed to be a Republican in this city.)

"Karen, don't ever let your hair go gray." (Hers didn't, whereas mine, post-chemo, is now short and white).

"Karen, don't you know I'm Jewish!" (This, after I'd merrily wished my board members and assorted attendees a Merry Christmas; I admit I hadn't given it much thought).

And in one of our recent, and most cherished moments together, "Karen, as a liberal, I have always ... " (Lucille had evolved, as had our Newport Beach).

Rest in peace, Lucille. You were truly impressive. And, yes, I agree with former Pilot editor Bill Lobdell: Let's put her name on part of our glorious Central Library.

Would she have loved that cactus garden? I'm thinking yes!

Former Library Board Trustee KAREN EVARTS lives in Newport Beach.

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