In a town of 1,000, you agree to be president of the public library board because someone has to do it, and maybe you have the time.
So Marni Penrod said OK.
Then, last year, it fell upon her and other volunteers, mostly ladies who just liked a good read, to help raise a daunting chunk of money from the locals.
In four months.
In a town of 1,000.
Their little library across from Overbrook City Hall was aiming to get big.
That was sure to change the main drag in a major way. And change is never easy, especially in a small town.
This town, however, had received a surprise gift, one that turned Overbrook’s eyes to the future.
A childless couple that had spent their lives around here bequeathed almost $1 million to rebuild the library. But some wanted even more. The town had long needed a central place to gather and eat. So why not add on a community room and kitchen?
But that would take more cash, and it would have to be raised before library renovations got underway.
Penrod saw none of it coming. Nobody did.
“We’re not a wealthy community,” she told me at her kitchen table while tossing a rubber ball to keep two dogs entertained. “And to me, it seemed counter to how you were raised to be asking your neighbors for so much.”
No doubt, a successful drive would signal that residents of Overbrook were in their town for keeps.
But, mercy, four hundred grand? In four months?
This goal is what caught my attention when I set out earlier this year to find a small town to profile. My first visit to Overbrook, in fact, was to attend a community play, written by local pastor Kevin Stone, to raise money for the Library Foundation.
About a quarter of the town’s population showed up for two performances.
It seemed these people were a proud lot determined to live up to their motto: “Don’t Overlook Overbrook.” And in my time getting to know them, the library campaign wasn’t the only challenge they tackled.
The town almost lost its golf course, but a family named the Averills rescued it.
On Independence Day weekend, the locals, as always, set up fireworks displays — not just one night, but three.
And to raise funds for the Santa Fe Trail High School band, they sold 400 squares to play Cow Pie Bingo, where a 4-H steer’s manure would determine the winner.
They do these things because they know that America’s small towns aren’t exactly gliding on auto-pilot.
“To improve the community, to make things happen, all we really have is each other,” Penrod said.
Glen and Claudine Norton got it all rolling.
In 2010, after 90-year-old Glen died, people learned that he and his late wife had socked away a trust fund.
The Nortons’ will, written in 1989, stipulated that the money be used to expand the library or build a new one.
Overbrookians were stunned to find out that something so big stayed a secret so long in a town so small.
One other surprise:
“Nobody knew they were millionaires,” said Hurst Coffman, the Nortons’ estate planner in Topeka.
But it was well-known that Claudine Norton loved that library.
Born in Overbrook, she graduated from the old high school as 1935 class valedictorian. She joined the Cosmos Club — a local women’s group that founded the library in 1928 — and the Fidelis Club and the Thimble Club.
Back when clubs were the social glue of small towns.
She cashiered at the Kansas State Bank, and husband Glen operated Northbrook Lumber and Supply, now defunct. The Overbrook lumberyard prospered in the 1960s and ’70s as the town nearly doubled in size.
Back when gasoline was cheap.
Low fuel costs helped attract people willing to commute to Topeka and Lawrence into new homes built with Northbrook lumber.
Today’s economy isn’t so kind to Overbrook.
Which is why estate planner Coffman, after breaking the news of the Nortons’ bequest, caused some jaws to drop when he said a million dollars wouldn’t be nearly enough.
No stranger to the community, Hurst Coffman is a member of the venerable family that helped create Overbrook. On weekends, he comes to visit sister Gerry Coffman’s century-old farm east of town.
Back when I met with them in the spring, the two served up lunch plates of corned beef and vegetables in Gerry’s kitchen.
Hurst brought up the trickiness of tapping just the right people from just the right local organizations to form a steering committee to figure out what the library should be.
“This is how small-town politics work,” Hurst said. “Everyone knows each other so well, they either function as a group extremely well … or it’s hard to function at all.”
He is a bow-tie sort with an easy air. His love for the family’s land and heritage is matched only by his affection for opera.
But to some around Overbrook, a place without a traffic light, Hurst is a city fella.
A lawyer, to boot.
And his vision for expanding the library to include space for art exhibits, lecture series and quilt displays, in addition to accommodating 4-H meetings and the Muzzle Loaders Club, was not immediately embraced by folks trying to recover from drought and recession.
The renovation steering committee wouldn’t just be seeking pocket change, either.
Pledges of $10,000 or $25,000 were needed. For young families not earning much, $1,000 a year for five years would be welcomed.
Older folks were asked to give checks to the library as a Christmas gift to benefit their grandchildren.
And whom to ask, exactly?
In a small town, “it’s hard to figure out who has money and who doesn’t,” said Gerry, a steering committee member. Working class, upper crust and fixed incomes are more or less stirred together.
If there is a rich section of Overbrook, you wouldn’t know by looking. Well-kept homes with wraparound porches can share a block with puny eyesores.
And Gerry, like others who volunteered for the capital campaign, knew zilch about making house calls to raise pledges.
Hefty pledges, mind you, from friends Gerry passed in the aisles of O’Bryhim’s Thriftway.
As a girl raising funds for 4-H, Gerry would buy up the candy and magazines she was expected to peddle rather than hit up others.
A teacher at Emporia State University, she learned early in the fund drive that there were times when some Overbrookians didn’t care to be bothered at home:
“I didn’t call on anyone during ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’”
Sucker for golf
While the library effort took shape, the Kansas State Bank on Maple Street sought another deep pocket to fill a different need.
The owner of the nine-hole Hidden Springs Golf Course, just west of town, had walked away from a loan on the property.
Bank President Derrick Dahl asked around to see if anyone in town cared to bail out the golf course before spring set in and the grounds turned weedy.
The bank could have auctioned off the 73 acres and let it go to pasture.
Done. Paid off. That’s what banks in bigger places would do, Dahl told me.
But wouldn’t that be a shame for Overbrook?
Like the public library, Hidden Springs was an amenity that made a town of 1,000 feel distinctive. Whatever it took to draw a few visitors from Burlingame or Lyndon, the community hoped to keep.
Dahl decided to pitch it to the Averills of Overbrook.
A decade ago, Scott and Susan Averill — who with his father, Chuck, owned a nursing home in Wellsville, Kan. — bought and turned around Overbrook’s ailing retirement center from a Topeka company.
Residents with parents there can’t say enough good about the Averills. They transformed a complex that had a dreary feel into one that wins state awards and, on occasion, treats staff and residents to hot-air balloon rides.
Scott and Susan were out of town last April celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary. On the first day of the vacation, Scott made the mistake of opening their email.
It was Dahl, asking if they knew much about the golf course biz.
Scott recalled his reaction: “Run a golf course? Susan and I thought, you got to be kidding. Wasn’t on our bucket list nor our radar. ...
“The bank probably approached us because I had ‘sucker’ stamped on my forehead.”
Two weeks later, as weeds were popping, the couple agreed to service the loan. They won’t discuss even today how much the golf course is costing them because you don’t whine about such things in a small town.
Put it this way, Scott Averill said: “It’s not, quote, a moneymaker. End quote.”
But the course gives son Nathan, 24, plenty to do.
He’s the new superintendant at Hidden Springs.
Lives there in the clubhouse. Cuts the grass. Keeps the concessions stocked.
Never really liked golf.
“Never had the patience for it,” he says when I visit the course. “Hey, do you want a beer?”
No, thanks. I’m working.
“Gotcha,” Nathan says.
He’s a busy dude as it is, running Averill Mowing Service.
That job keeps Nathan in the sun long enough to bleach out his yellow hair and darken his face –– except for the areas around his eyes and temples when he removes his sunglasses.
Nathan Averill also is co-owner of the first liquor store established in Overbrook.
As an agent of change — a trait small towns don’t always welcome — Nathan and a partner circulated enough petitions in 2010 to get residents to repeal an ancient ban on packaged liquor sales. “I was just barely 21 when that store opened,” he said.
Suddenly, out of Carbondale and Burlingame, people who didn’t like to be seen buying booze in their own towns could sneak a bottle in Overbrook.
All Nathan’s doing.
Same goes for the signage outside Overbrook Spirits, where removable letters spell out messages that change every few days, amusing the motorists on U.S. 56:
“I didn’t mean to offend you. That was just a bonus.”
“I went to the general store but wasn’t able to get anything specifically.”
“Nobody is happier than a wet dog.”
Nathan could be doing other things than tending to the links.
“Look, I know everyone in this town,” he says during a rare break at a picnic table behind the clubhouse, “and they support this golf course. My family didn’t buy it for ourselves.
“We bought it for the community …
“You sure you don’t want a beer?”
Thunderstruck by the $1 million bequest, Penrod voted with other library planners to hire a professional consultant, Judy Keller, for a hand in raising the extra $400,000.
Keller trained the local volunteers in house calling, on how to recognize when no means no and when maybe means probably.
Making Penrod, 42, a bit more uneasy was knowing that she was an Overbrook newbie, relatively speaking. Never even knew the Nortons.
Her young family moved to the area 15 years ago, true. But in small towns, it can take two, three generations for residents to feel established.
Leave it to the prolific Coffman line — descendants of town co-founder William T. Coffman and his brothers — to challenge all relatives to kick in the big money needed to add the community room to the plans.
More than $85,000, when you total up family donations.
Some came from siblings and cousins who left the area decades ago. A Chicago relative put up $10,000 to honor his wife’s grandmother, who helped launch the first library.
Penrod and her cohorts organized a chili supper at the American Legion Hall that brought in another $40,000 in sealed envelopes.
Both banks in town kicked in $25,000 each.
Children got involved. Some tipped their parents to a family with two washing machines and two dryers, as the kids had noticed during sleep-overs.
Surely those people have money. But they never returned volunteers’ phone calls.
In time, Penrod managed to shed her anxieties about making calls, and she learned she could reel in the big fish.
“Hi, this is Marni Penrod just following up,” she said, phoning Capitol Federal Savings. Penrod asked for $25,000.
The bank thought it over and called back with a shocker.
“We decided,” an officer told her, “to just finish your campaign for you. We’re giving $40,000.”
All told, the project exceeded its $400,000 goal.
In three and a half months, not four.
Here, I’ll stress again, in a town of 1,000.
The $1.64 million library in downtown Overbrook should open before year’s end.
With triple the space of the old library, nothing like it has graced the main drag in the town’s history.
“It’s humbling to me,” Penrod said, “to see how committed people are to this town.”
For sure, it wasn’t easy.
Nothing is easy in a small town trying to survive.
For a couple of evenings I watched City Hall meetings stretch toward midnight. Town council members had to settle their growling stomachs with trail mix.
The new library, they learned, was going to spike the town’s property insurance premiums something painful.
Then they began to agonize over a 50 percent jump in health insurance costs for city workers. And all four of those workers, their friends, were sitting in the room.
That’s getting personal.
To keep providing some coverage to employees’ spouses, the council upped the mill levy for the coming fiscal year.
That’s about all that can be done. In the face of ever-rising expenses, hundreds of small Kansas towns have few options, beyond property taxes and water rates, to fund budgets.
What little sales-tax revenue Overbrook can scrape up comes mostly from O’Bryhim’s grocery.
As such, Mayor Don Schultz said many little towns would blow away if the citizenry didn’t pitch in.
Fireworks on the Fourth of July, for instance, wouldn’t happen if the four guys I met at City Lake Park — a local preacher, among them — were professionals paid to man the cannons.
“Nah, we just like blowing up stuff,” said one.
But the savings are huge. A big city can spend $10,000 per minute for a fireworks extravaganza, and Overbrookians got their 20-minute show for $4,100, the price of the rockets.
“We really lean on these guys,” said the mayor of Cory, Tyler, Neal and Mike. “And if they don’t do this for free, well, we increase their utility bills.”
The Santa Fe Trail School District, similarly strapped, scored a victory earlier this year as huge as the groundbreaking for Overbrook’s library. District voters for the first time agreed to fund a bond issue solely for the high school.
The vote put to the test old jealousies among the three towns where schools had consolidated.
Teachers and staff hoped its easy passage was a sign that the future mattered more than the past.
They wondered: Might this finally be the end of bitterness that began four decades ago when Overbrook teens found themselves in the same classes with Scranton and Carbondale students?
Not sure I’d bet on that.
Traditions do die hard in Overbrook. Change is never easy.
It remains just a little place, after all, bisected by a two-lane blacktop.
It’s where folks live and die, wave to siblings next door, teach in the schools they attended and scour the fields for morel mushrooms in the spring.
For the most part, the people like it here, where taxidermy adorns living rooms and coffee tables hold thick books on family histories.
They like living in a place small enough to enable Overbrook insurance man Glyn L. Day, who announces at the high school football games, to cite from memory all the team records and individual athletic feats of local youth.
“Daniel Shively, fourth in state, wrestling,” Day replied when I tested him at the request of Shively’s dad. “Senior year, 2004.”
It’s a place, also, where I and two dozen others get their names printed in the Osage County Herald-Chronicle just for showing up at the annual Coffman family reunion.
But no small town can rest in place, being what it’s always been, said Kim Winn of the League of Kansas Municipalities.
“What these small towns need is the leadership that strives to connect with groups outside their own communities. And Mayor Schultz believes in that,” she said. “That’s probably why Overbrook helped you with your project.
“In aging communities, the resistance to change can be aggressive,” Winn continued. “You hear from some, ‘What’s good enough for us has been good for 50 years.’
“Those aren’t the communities that are going to survive.”
Overbrook, she believes, will.