Turning the Page: Longtime OU librarian Jan Lee retires after 48 years

Posted by Janae Melvin on June 15, 2016 in "Gangwish Library", "Jan Lee", library, "Ottawa University", retirement


Once upon a time, there was a young girl from Colorado who loved to read. As time passed, that young girl turned her love of books into a 48 year career as the keeper of stories at a small Baptist university in Kansas. 

Ottawa University has been a second home for Jan Lee. A 1964 elementary education graduate, she is a familiar face around campus with a warm, welcoming smile that alumni are eager to see when they return. Lee’s an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to the history of OU and stays up to date with news regarding current and former students. 

She has seen thousands of students pass through the corridors of Ottawa University. Now, after 48 years as a librarian and educator, Lee is ending this chapter of life and beginning a new chapter – one that’s titled “Retirement.”
“It’s time,” Lee said. “Especially now with the new Gangwish Library. It was bittersweet packing up and moving from Myers Library to the new building. I had spent a lot of time there and I liked my office that looked out over Cedar Street. But, we see more students in Gangwish. They really like the new facility and the study rooms. It really is beautiful.”

Lee’s OU story begins in the way most stories do – family.

“OU is a family school; approximately 23 relatives have enrolled at The College, starting with my grandmother’s family. My great aunt graduated in 1897, one of the few family members who stayed through and graduated. My mother spent a year at OU and my father graduated. An aunt and uncle attended the same time as dad, and I remember hearing stories of their college experiences and adventures. There was never any pressure to attend OU, but I knew that’s where I should be. My twin sister Janet and I chose to come here. We chose OU.”
After graduation, Lee returned to Colorado to teach fourth grade in Aurora for two years. She went back to school at what is now the University of Northern Colorado and did a year of post graduate work in library science, mostly level 500 courses for school librarians since there wasn’t a graduate program. Lee’s goal was to be a high school librarian. Returning to OU was not in her immediate plans in 1967.

“Harma McKenzie ’45 knew I was in school in Greeley and OU had a new librarian, Marion Rioth,” Lee said. “He was looking for a library assistant and Harma told him about my interest in library science and that I was taking classes in Greeley. He called me and asked me if I would be interested in the job.”

She turned down the job offer.

“I just couldn’t see myself as a college librarian, so I thought about it and said no.”

Lee returned to campus in June for graduation and asked if they were still looking to fill the position. Rioth told her they were and took her to visit with a dean. Fifteen minutes later, Lee had the job.

When the University needed someone with a background in elementary education to teach early education classes, Lee accepted the opportunity. She taught full time for nine years, observing student teachers and leading a variety of classes within the department. In 1985, Rioth retired and Jane Nelson was hired as library director. Lee was asked if she would be interested in returning to the library as a half-time librarian while continuing to teach courses. She did this for several years until Nelson retired, at which time Lee assumed the role of interim library director, a position she held for three years.

After leaving for a short time to work as assistant librarian at Sterling College, she returned to OU and accepted the position of associate director of library services, the title she will retire with.

Lee has dedicated herself to Ottawa University. And not just in the library. She can be seen at Fredrikson Chapel enjoying choir and orchestra concerts, at Peoples Bank Field cheering on the Braves and surrounded by fellow alumni during Alumni Association board meetings.

“I think of myself as a well-rounded person. I enjoy concerts, plays, and athletic events. I’ve been a social club sponsor and when I was younger, I used to go to a lot of student activities. It’s my way to be involved, to give back.”

Two years ago, her impact on the University was recognized by the Class of 1964 during Homecoming weekend. While presenting a check for the largest class gift in University history, $162,000, class representative Steve Argubright, Jr., ’64 announced that a portion of the gift was to be used to name a room in Gangwish Library in honor of their own classmate, Jan Lee.

Since the opening of the library in 2015, she has been working in the Jan Lee Office.

After 48 years, she has earned her retirement. But the void that will be left behind when she closes her office door for the last time will certainly be felt campus-wide.

“The OU staff and faculty are in a better place because of Jan Lee,” said Kevin Eichner, OU president. “No one has served OU longer than Jan. I sit in awe of her service leadership, care for the institution and dedication to students. She will be missed.”

“I am losing someone very important to me,” said Gloria Creed-Dikeogu, Director of Library Services. “She’s done so much for our library. I can’t even begin to think about everything she has done, because it’s endless. She is the heart of OU.”

Fortunately for the University, Lee isn’t going far. She and her husband David ’62 are staying in Ottawa. Lee will still come to activities on campus and plans to continue following the football team to out of town games, something she has done for more than six years. They don’t have any big trips planned, but Lee does plan on checking something off her bucket list she hasn’t done since 1966. “This fall, I will see the Aspen in Colorado turn colors.”

She also anticipates some of their travels will take them to national parks across the country, something both of them enjoy doing.
Lee will also look for places in the area to volunteer and continue giving back to the community she loves.

She is also looking forward to being able to read more.

“As librarians, we don’t always get to sit down and read. We read the reviews, but we can’t always read the books. I always have a book or two I want to read. Now I’ll be able to.”

Lee has 48 years of memories she’ll be able to take with her, but perhaps her favorite memory is one she’ll be able to build on during retirement.

“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about being at OU for so long is seeing all the alums when they come back. I’ve seen so many people over the years and it’s always good to see them come back. Through teaching and the library, I’ve been around long enough that I have been lucky enough to see students come full circle. I’ve seen them here as prospective students, current students and then alumni.”

“I know I’ll miss it, coming to work every day. But I will still be around.”

And she knows that when she turns off the light in the Jan Lee Office one last time, she is simply ending a chapter in her story, not closing the book.