Visitors to the new Martin Public Library won’t see them, but UT Martin alumni fingerprints cover the sparkling new $14 million facility. University alumni stepped up in multiple ways to support the project, and prominent among those fingerprints are those of Dr. Nick Dunagan (’68), UT Martin chancellor emeritus. Work with transformational events and projects is nothing new for Dunagan, and now his name will be associated with the state-of-the-art building that sits at the intersection of University and Lindell streets in downtown Martin. Current and former university alumni joined Dunagan to forever change the city’s skyline and future with a library that welcomes knowledge seekers of all ages and provides a gathering place for the area and region.
The new library, which opened in August 2021, sits across from the former U.S. Post Office that was home to the C.E. Weldon Public Library since 1968. A renovation and expansion in 2000 brought needed improvements to the historic location, but years later UTM alum and Martin Mayor Randy Brundige and his administration envisioned more for the community. “My team and I had been discussing our next big project and that we wanted to do something impactful for the community that was lasting and something that was iconic to the community,” Brundige said. “We knew that we wanted to do a library project.”
The idea took a significant step forward in 2014 when former Martin resident David Warren (’67), a veteran library director and consultant, visited Brundige and offered his consulting services at no cost. Warren retired in 2009 following a long library career that included 30 years as executive director of the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina. Even though he had been away from Martin for decades, Warren brought a special passion to the project. “I grew up using the Martin Public Library as a child through my pre-college years,” he said. “My mother worked for the Reelfoot Regional Library during my childhood, and as a teenager, I also began working there on a part-time basis while in high school and at UTM.” Besides his personal interest, Warren brought valuable expertise and his own generosity to the table. “I proposed founding a library foundation as the first step in this process,” he said. “This was followed by offering my assistance and a financial gift to help make this a reality.”
Discussions continued, and the Martin Public Library Foundation was formed two years later to raise $1.5 million in private funding. Martin attorney Lang Unger (‘80) was the founding president of the foundation and was responsible for organizing and getting the foundation off to a positive start. Dunagan was asked to become a founding member, and although he retired in 2007 from the university, the challenge and the greater purpose of seeing a new library built was something that he couldn’t pass up. “I thought it (the library) was a really a good project, something that’s good for the community,” Dunagan said, whose role accelerated in 2018 when he was elected the foundation’s president and chief fundraising officer. “It soon became obvious that our fundraising goal of $1.5 million was going to be a stretch, and it was going to take a lot of dedicated time,” Dunagan said. “I had the time and a little fundraising experience and agreed to jump in. … I was already working with several of the lead donors, so I just continued to do what I was already doing, plus work to increase the foundation board’s involvement.”
Organizing library fundraising became the top priority, and Dunagan joined others by investing considerable time raising money and documenting gifts. “Nancy Culver was very instrumental in developing a gift-record system accepting gifts, acknowledging the gifts and making sure that the designated gifts went to the area indicated,” he said. “All of her efforts were important in constructing the beautiful giving wall that you see when you enter the library.” A major fundraising boost came when Martin natives and UTM alums Culver and David Spikes (’74) mobilized Martin High School alumni to raise $660,000 through donors from 20 states.
Although the library enjoyed broad support, not everyone agreed with the need for the facility. Communicating was a key to addressing concerns – whether speaking to a civic club, posting on social media or through a media story, Dunagan and the foundation team used every opportunity to tell the library’s story. “Anytime you are a proponent of change, there is going to be questioning of the need and outright opposition to a change in the status quo,” he said. “All-in-all, I would say that it was minimal, but it was there. Hopefully, we faced it (opposition) in a productive manner.” Brundige is accustomed to feedback as an elected official, but the project’s outcome won over new supporters. “Through educating the public and talking about all of the opportunity the new library will afford the general public now and for generations to come, we overcame much of the negativity,” Brundige said. “However, once we opened the doors, it is very difficult to say anything negative about the building.”
Clearly the least-anticipated project challenge was the pandemic, and COVID-19 cast a menacing shadow on the project starting in March 2020. Everything was impacted from fundraising to meetings. “Good fundraising is based on one-on-one contact and getting out and being among the people and all this,” Dunagan said. “Well, that came to a screeching halt (with the pandemic). Even our foundation meetings had to be Zoom meetings. We could do a lot of planning, but people were fearful of getting sick.” However, foundation members persevered, and library donors came through in the end. “I can’t tell you any one business or one person that said, ‘I’d like to do this, but I’m just not sure right now because of where we are with COVID,’” he said.
While the pandemic created its share of challenges, several important funding victories happened along the way. One was securing a $400,000 state library grant that Dunagan asked retired UT Martin English faculty member Jeanna Wright (’70, ’73) to pursue. She accepted the complex task of gathering information, writing and submitting the grant in time to secure the funding. Then, there was the brick campaign that raised a surprising $50,000 near the library’s completion that allowed technology, furniture and other amenities to be purchased and complete the library’s interior.
The hard work by many was on display during a soft opening Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, only 21 months following the groundbreaking. The event held special meaning for Dunagan, who remembers “standing on that stage, looking at 400 donors gathered in front of the podium and feeling pride in what this community had just accomplished.” He added, “It was also fun to be standing in the lobby to see the reaction of the donors to the facility that they were touring for the first time.” Visitors then and into the future have many reasons to be amazed.
The library’s website highlights facility features such as “one of the coolest children’s libraries in the state,” genealogical resources, makerspace, computers and media technology, and a community meeting room. The library’s north-facing stage provides a permanent venue for the arts and music and welcomed its first Tennessee Soybean Festival musical competition and entertainment in September to provide a glimpse of Martin’s newest community gathering place.
Another key feature is the 3,500-square-foot multipurpose Martin Event Center that can be reconfigured from multiple rooms to a single large event space. “We have really been overwhelmed at the support of the event center space. … We knew there was a need but had no idea the need was this great,” said Brad Thompson (’96), Martin director of community development. Thompson noted that event center space has been booked each weekend since the library opened, accommodating approximately 300 events or meetings and more than 6,000 people.
Now that the doors are open, how do people react to the library? “It’s more that I see it than hear it,” Thompson said. “It’s the expression on their faces that does it for me. The wide eyes of wonderment and the smiling expressions of joy tell me we accomplished what we set out to do.” Seeing the results carries even more meaning for others. Much like fellow librarian David Warren, Mary Carpenter “literally grew up in the shadow of the project,” and she’s excited to consider the impact that the library will have on the city and region.
Carpenter (’77) not only shared Warren’s enthusiasm for the project but also brought complementary professional background and knowledge to the process. She completed her career in 2021 as regional director for the Obion River Region of the Tennessee State Library and Archives and was director when the Obion County Public Library in Union City opened its new facility in November 2003. To Carpenter, the results go well beyond the impressive structure.
“The new city of Martin library is a dream-come-true library,” she said. “The design, the technology, the library philosophy that we all own the library together in equal portions – all equaling the realization that there is something there for everyone – not just books.” She suggested a defining statement from the American Library Association that maybe best describes how the new facility will reach generations of users: “Libraries today are less about what they have for people and more about what they do for and with people.”
UT Martin alumni are rightfully proud of what’s been accomplished, and several remain in library foundation leadership positions, including Larry Snider (‘67), former vice president and current president; Tommy Legins (‘90), chief financial officer; Ann Swaim (‘89), current vice president; and Misty Menees (‘98), public relations chair.
Brundige values the “town and gown” relationship between the university and the city and its impact on the new library and other projects. “We have a real asset in UT Martin, and the leadership, faculty, staff and students play a huge role in helping make Martin the community it is,” he said. “I know that, and I have experienced it firsthand with this project and other economic, community and retail-development projects where the city has been successful.”
The past, present and future of the university and city are forever connected, and a permanent symbol of what “town and gown” can accomplish welcomes everyone to downtown Martin. For Nick Dunagan and all who helped to make the Martin Public Library become a reality,…
For a proud Martin community, an old quote rings true: “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”