Former GPL archivist honored

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The Gadsden Public Library honors former archivist Bette Sue McElroy for her contributions to the community with a special ribbon cutting hosted by The Chamber on Dr. Seuss Day. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

A pillar of the local community and an instrumental influence at the Gadsden Public Library received a special honor this past Dr. Seuss Day, with family, friends and coworkers gathering to commemorate her illustrious legacy. Bette Sue McElroy’s remembrance was celebrated with a ribbon cutting hosted by The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, dedicating a memorial designed to celebrate her life’s work.

Born in Gadsden in 1934, McElroy graduated from Gadsden High School before furthering her education at both Stephens College and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now known as Auburn University. In addition to teaching at Disque Middle School and Episcopal Day School, McElroy gave private art lessons to students out of her home. Her contributions to her community were evident in her involvement in with the Forrest Cemetery Board, Historic Society, Antiquarian Society, Gadsden Service Guild, Bal d’Or, Regency and Nine O’Clock dance clubs and The Ten Island Three – which she established with two other women. As a Master Gardener she relished tending to her garden, while enjoying time spent reading with her book club and playing Mahjong with friends. 

McElory’s avid passion for research and historical studies inspired her to join the staff at Gadsden Public Library following her retirement, where she became the library’s first genealogist and archivist, dedicating 20 years of service. Although McElroy passed away in 2018, while uncovering McElroy’s possessions, her daughter Mary Ann Watkins unearthed mounds of monumental research, which she donated to the library in her mother’s honor. When Gadsden Public Library Director Craig Scott accepted the donations – piling three truck loads to the brim with McElroy’s findings and collections – another object sparked his interest…a Dr. Seuss chair.

Watkins and her own daughter discovered the chair while cleaning McElroy’s home, a once plain wooden piece Watkins felt could become much more. She and her daughter transformed the chair into a vibrant and whimsical mirror of Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s books for her own classroom, which Scott thought would make a fantastic addition to the library’s children’s department. Watkins and her daughter picked up their paintbrushes once more, this time fashioning a rocking chair in her mother’s memory, with a quote Dr. Seuss quote that encompasses McElroy herself: “Think and wonder, wonder and think.”

Watkins and her family joined Scott, GPL staff, Chamber members and friends (such as Gadsden City Councilman Ben Reed) for the chair’s official commemoration Wednesday morning March 2, which resides atop a bookshelf near the children’s department front desk, neighboring a Dr. Seuss collection. A plaque resting underneath the chair encourages future generations to reflect on McElroy’s contributions, which inspired countless lives, with “the love of reading and the library that Bette Sue instilled in so many families.”

Scott shared that he spoke with former GPL Director Bobby Junkins, who worked alongside McElroy for several years. When prompted to describe McElroy in one word, Junkins selected “dedication.” McElroy demonstrated dedication in all aspects of her life, committing herself to striving for excellence with each new task she adopted and every person she influenced for the better. Scott noted that former chief of cataloging Debbie Walker will follow McElroy’s passionate footsteps, becoming the library’s second archivist, while Tallulah Cash accepts Walker’s previous role.

“I can’t imagine the number of families [Bette Sue] impacted, encouraged and help find their roots,” said GPL children’s department specialist Hanna Gray. “[To Watkins] we’re really honored by your donation, and the legacy your mom left with the library and the community is huge. We’re thankful for this chair – it means a lot more than people may know when they come in and see it.”

Watkins described her mother as a woman full of life, someone with abounding energy and an intrigue for knowledge that never ceased. The legacy McElroy leaves behind remains a memorial of devotion, from educating in classrooms and her home, to advocating for the preservation of history, to connecting families with their past. Watkins remembers her mother digging for arrowheads and making miniature to-scale furniture, giving lectures throughout Gadsden and tracing unbelievable heritages; but above all, she remembers her as all who knew her – a person whose passion for others blossomed with love, who understood the importance of learning and growth, with a dedicated and sincere heart.

“She loved life and she loved people,” said Watkins. “I learned from her to enjoy life and people, and to get to know them. Everybody is interesting. Everybody has a story.”

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