By: Chris Jensen
For 100 years the library in Bethlehem occupied three small rooms in Town Hall. But over the weekend that changed with opening of a new library on Main Street. It was the conclusion of a tale involving a mystery donor, a brother who moved far away and a sister who stayed in the North Country.
At the tale’s center were two people.
One was Muriel Brown, who for more than three decades was the town’s beloved librarian.
The other was her brother, Arthur Jobin, known to the family as “Bud.”
Both grew up in Bethlehem.
They had a particularly strong relationship, the source of which wasn’t clear even to family members.
“I just think my mother had a special spot for him,” said Melody Nute, Muriel Brown’s daughter.
During World War II, Jobin joined the Army Air Force and was a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber.
He was shot down over Austria in 1944 and taken prisoner.
Muriel wrote letter after letter on special “Prisoner of War Post” stationary sent to Stalag Luft III camp.
She wrote about work, the weather, the family and her joy at getting his letters.
He didn’t retire until he was 81.
And, all that time he saved his money, said Nute.
Rather than buy new shirts he would turn the collars. Undoing the seam and switching the collar around.
“He lived like he didn’t have a penny. You would never have known he had any money,” she said.
Meanwhile, Muriel Brown was still in Bethlehem, immersed in civic activities, raising a family and working year after year in the three tiny rooms that made up the library.
She prided herself on stocking best sellers before other libraries.
She might not know everyone’s name, but she knew their library card number.
And she would go through book after book, digging to find the answer to a patron’s question.
Bruce Brown, who still lives in Bethlehem, is Muriel’s son.
He says his mother was amazed when Jobin told her he wanted to donate his life savings – which he figured would be at least $1 million – for a new library. It was “just plain disbelief, that he would and could do that,” he said.
Funding a new library was an interesting choice because, unlike Muriel, Jobin didn’t seem like a big reader, says Nute.
But there was one magazine he really liked.
“We know he read the Reader’s Digest cover to cover because he loved to tell jokes; and he would memorize the jokes and then entertain people with them,” Nute said.
Bruce Brown thinks Jobin donated the money because he was proud his sister stayed in Bethlehem, was helping the town and he wanted the Jobin family to be remembered fondly.
But there was a big catch.
The donation had to be secret and the money was not going to be available until Jobin died.
More than a decade ago that demand for secrecy became a problem because the town was trying to raise money for a new library.
That troubled Muriel Brown. She thought the town should know money was coming.
Her brother agreed she could tell the town that $1 million or so would be donated but his identity had to be kept secret.
That prompted a lot of guessing around town.
“It was a great deal of mystery to us because we didn’t know who it was, we didn’t know exactly how much money we were going to be getting at the time,” said Joyce Tucker, a Bethlehem resident.
The reason is that all his life Jobin hated anything that drew attention to him.
Nevertheless Muriel Brown was delighted to know that one day the town would get a new library.
But she wouldn’t get to see it.
She died in 2007.
Jobin died two years later, leaving a little more than $1.5 million.
“It was just absolutely incredible because this was a vision people had for about twenty years of a new library,” said Doug Harman, the chairman of the library trustees.
With the new building completed it was time – in mid-December – to move out of space occupied since 1913.
Shelves were being emptied of about 15,000 items thought to weigh about two tons.
Laura Clerkin, the current librarian, stood amid the crates and boxes piled five feet high.
“We have been in this space for 100 years. It is 1,500 square feet. Three rooms. We are moving into approximately 5,000 square feet,” she said.
That was the wonderful news. But there was a downside.
“It is bitter sweet. People who have grown up here. People who are adults came here as children,” she said.
But as the doors to the new library officially opened such nostalgia was surrendering to the delight of an open, bright and spacious library donated by a man who hated attention but adored his sister.