By Stella Fong, President of the Library Foundation Board, 2006
A community can bring thoughts to a table, but it takes one good thought to bring a community together. Food for Thought came to be with an idea from Library Foundation board member Norma Buchanan. This evening of great conversation that began as a friend raiser has in fifteen years become the Billings Public Library Foundation’s annual fund raiser and popular community event. The thought behind this effort was to invite those who supported the library to physically come into the building.
In 2006, the Billings Hardware Company building that housed the library since April, 1969 was showing its age, posing challenges for entering into the new computer age. The electrical system was outdated and proved inefficient for adapting to the emerging age of technology. The building showed cracks. The layout of the space became more difficult for staff to manage. The Parmly Billings Library needed a new structure, to be housed in a new building.
The Library Foundation, established in 1989 by Royal Johnson and other visionaries functioned for years as a volunteer organization. Ann Miller, president of the Foundation Board in 2004 shared, “We were certainly positive in our outlook and were close to having a million dollars in the endowment for the library, but we knew we couldn’t make headway on more funds raised or an upgraded library with our part time efforts. We were also aware that keeping in touch with current donors, managing any kind of fundraising event, and making decisions on the endowment investment required regular, responsible and accurately reported attention.” With this goal, the Foundation hired Leslie Modrow as the Development Director at the end of 2005.
“With Leslie at the helm and her organizational skills, we now had an opportunity as the Foundation Board, to come up with a fundraiser requiring Leslie’s skills,” Norma Buchanan said.
At that time many of the patrons of the library had never stepped into the building. Some did not have a library card. They were unaware of the extensive information and services provided by the library. They did not fully comprehend or understand the efforts made by Library Director Bill Cochran and his staff in the ministrations of resources with limitations in space and funding.
The Foundation resurrected “Lunch at the Library”, a program started by Royal Johnson, where members of the community were invited to the library for a tour followed with a bag lunch. These tours consciously brought the community into the library with Food for Thought being the natural next step.
Buchanan shared her thoughts of Food for Thought, “It all started with my dear friend Lisa Cordingley from Helena who was the president of the Helena Schools Foundation. She initiated what their town calls Great Conversations.” After participating in Great Conversations, Buchanan believed this would be a fitting event for the Library Foundation.
“One key thing I remember is that the library staff was really helpful and excited about having such an event. We had to have the City’s legal department approval for the alcohol to be served,” Miller recalled.
The event’s goal was to provide an evening of thoughtful dialogue about diverse topics with a specific start and end time. Spouses were encouraged to sit at separate tables so they could continue the conversation with thoughts shared from the tables they had been at.
On the evening of June 1, 2006, twenty round tables were set up on the second floor of the library at the top of the stairs and into the stacks. Guests arrived at 6:00 p.m. to be greeted by volunteers from the Friends of the Library and given an old library due date card specifying the table the guest will be going to. While Tom Nelson and Becky Adams of Thomas Nelson Catering were setting up dinner in the freight elevator, attendees moseyed up to the bar set up on the east side of the building near the children’s section and by the large print bookshelves on the first floor.
At minutes before 7:00 p.m. guests were encouraged to move upstairs and seat themselves at the table they had chosen. Salads were already set at the table with main courses brought to the table by high school volunteers. As 9:00 p.m. approached, volunteers went around to tables to encourage conversations to be wrapped up.
The success of the event came from the energy of those who gave up their time from their lives. “The volunteers involved in pulling this off was the most amazing bonus,” Buchanan said. “So many volunteered to help. The table hosts were volunteers and came from across the state” and country.
Buchanan recalled that one table with two hosts, Larry Martin and Jim Gransbery. “The event ended at nine, but this particular table moved on to a local establishment to continue on. These two have hosted a table every year since, I am pretty sure.”
Hosts included Bruce Whittenberg who led the topic: “Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?” while Julie Koeber discussed “Ethics in Media”, and “Meth on the Frontline” by Evan Buchan. Spanish resonated from Basillo Torres’s table “La Mesa Redonda en Español” with “Exploring the Kasbah: A Taste of Moroccan Cuisine and Culture from Kitty Morse. Sue Balter-Reitz engaged participants in discussing the First Amendment while Pat Zentz delved into the perception and education of art. Other hosts included: Michael Gulledge, Carla Cobb, Duane Bondy, and Gary Buchanan.
“I think this event was a critical springboard for the Foundation taking the “next step” in its fundraising efforts. It was also a precursor and set the tone for Foundation’s critical role in the campaign for the new library. I think the networking and donor development was important for what was to come and I also think getting those people into the library was important so they could see firsthand the need for a new facility,” Kevin Heany, vice president in 2006, said.
In 2011, the “friend building” paid off with a $16.3 million dollar bond passed by the citizens of Billings after a $2 million donation from an anonymous donor and a $3 million fundraising effort by the Library Foundation.
With one thought from many, a community can be nourished and nurtured. All it takes is one thought to be brought to the table.