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Beloved librarian dies at 94

| December 28, 2004 11:00 PM

By Roger Morris Western News Publisher

Inez Ratekin Herrig, considered by many to be not only the matriarch of Libby but of Lincoln County, died Sunday, Dec. 26, at her home.

She was 94.

In recent years, Mrs. Herrig was associated with the Libby Heritage Museum where she served as secretary to its board of directors. On the museum¹s annual opening day she could be found at the front counter welcoming visitors and extolling the virtues of the facility. Along with her husband Bob, she was one of the founders of the museum.

But it was in her work over a 60-year period as county librarian that she touched generation after generation of residents in Libby, Troy and Eureka as well as all the rural areas surrounding those communities.

For many years, Mrs. Herrig drove the bookmobile throughout the county, bringing a bit of the outside world to an isolated population.

³I started hanging around the library when I was 12 and did little odd jobs until I graduated (from Washington),² Mrs. Herrig told The Western News in a story which appeared in 1997.

After college, she went to work as county librarian — a job she held for 60 years until her retirement in 1989.

The library used to do most of its business through the mail, Herrig said. People who lived out of town would request books and the library would mail them at a rate of 2 cents for the first pound and a penny for each additional pound.

³As I got to know them and their special likes and interests, they would ask me to pick books out for them and send them to them,² Herrig said.

Westerns and love stories were always popular, she said, but so was quality literature.

³In going over files I realized how well they read,² she said. ³They wanted the good books.²

In 1956, the library got a bookmobile and Herrig was able to take books directly to the readers.

³At that time the roads were a lot worse, too,² she said. ³We had a lot of experiences on roads.²

By 1976, the roads had improved enough that most county residents were able to reach the Libby library or the branches in Troy and Eureka, and bookmobile service was discontinued.

³It was a thrilling experience to take books to people,² Herrig said. ³An aim of a librarian is to get the right books to the right person at the right time.²

Herrig is so well remembered and respected in the Eureka area that a mural on the outside wall of the library shows her sitting, as if on the steps of the library. Included in the mural is the bookmobile and her black cocker spaniel, ³Boo,² who accompanied her on her trips throughout the county.

Barb Desch, who lives in Libby now, remembers Herrig bringing the bookmobile to Stryker once a month while she was growing up.

³I always looked forward to her coming,² she said.

Desch recalls Herrig parking the bookmobile in the post office parking lot and opening the back door to reveal rows of books on each side, then waiting for a few hours from late afternoon until evening so that children and adults could check out books.

³Everybody in the whole town would show up,² she said.

Desch said she always knew when Herrig was coming because Herrig never missed a day.

³We¹d sit and wait for her or if I saw her go by on the highway, I¹d hop on my bike and ride down there (to the post office),² she said.

Desch remembers Herrig picking out books that she knew people would like and making sure they were stocked in the book mobile.

³She always knew what would interest you. I don¹t know how she did it, but whatever you were reading she was interested in it, too,² she said.

Being interested kept Desch in the bookmobile reading while Herrig waited for others to come.

³I would sit and read as many books as I could while she was there and I¹d check out three or four more,² she said.

Desch remembers Herrig coming to Stryker before she had entered school and said that the bookmobile was the first library she was ever in.

³We didn¹t really have any place to go, so it was important,² she said.

³She was a real neat lady,² Desch added.

Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose also remembers Herrig bringing the bookmobile to Trego while she was growing up.

³I have very fond memories of her,² she said.

Roose recalls her family taking apple boxes full of books home from the bookmobile.

³We read a lot,² she said. ³We really looked forward to (her coming).²

Roose stayed in contact with Herrig over the years and remembers when she was elected as county commissioner Herrig sent her a letter.

³She was really a part of our community,² she said.

Charlie Croucher, who lives in Libby today, remembers Mrs. Herrig and the bookmobile arriving at his family homestead in the 1950¹s at the mouth of Parsnip Creek and the Kootenai River.

³She knew every kids¹ name and treated you like you were the only kid on earth,² Croucher said. ³I don¹t think people realize how remote that was in those days. If you came up on a logging truck, you had to find a place to pull over.²

Croucher said his wife Lois had similar memories of Mrs. Herrig and the bookmobile. But Lois lived in the West Kootenai and attended the old Tooley Lake School.

³It¹s quite a loss to the community,² Croucher said of Mrs. Herrig¹s death. ³She represented the best in us.²

Libby High School teacher Jeff Gruber was very close to Mrs. Herrig, actually listed as an ³adopted son.²

Gruber¹s early memories of Mrs. Herrig date back to when she would read books to youngsters and when she had coordinated a reading program with the schools.

³That¹s how those of us who grew up in Libby knew her,² he said. ³The county had a reading program working with the school teachers where the students earned certificates based on the number of books they read. She did that forever.²

Later, Gruber worked as page at the Lincoln County Library in Libby when he was a junior in high school. His hours allowed his to participate in sports and then show up for work. He said Mrs. Herrig was always worried that he needed something to eat and would give him money and send him out for food.

³She used to drive the bookmobile over Pipe Creek Summit in the winter to bring books to families in the Yaak,² Gruber said. ³She told me she drove off the road into the snow bank and two logging trucks pulled her out. With all the traveling she did the logging truck drivers must have kept an eye out for her.²

Gruber said Mrs. Herrig told him she had a second motivation for her diligence with the bookmobile.

³She said her goal in that was to mend the wound between north and south ends of the county,² he said. ³We would go up to the county fair in Eureka and set up a display and she thought it was very important.²

Mrs. Herrig credited the people of Lincoln County with building the existing county library in Libby, which now bears her name.

³She said it wasn¹t the people of Libby who built that building, it was the people living in the outlying areas, the people in Troy and the people in Eureka. The people of the county voted to build that library building,² Gruber continued. ³Without the bookmobile, it wouldn¹t have happened.²

Nancy Gustafson worked for Mrs. Herrig at the library 25 years ago, cleaned her house, became a close friend and in recent years was a caregiver.

³The woman touched my life to the point where I am who am today because of her,² Gustafson said. ³She changed people¹s destinies, molded their characters.²

When Gustafson took Mrs. Herrig out into the community to go shopping or attend various community events, people would surround her and talk to her. ³They would remember her with the bookmobile or in the museum and told how much she meant to them.

³She¹s such a part of the community, part of their lives and part of their memories,² Gustafson said. ³She was an amazing woman.²

Gruber couldn¹t agree more.

³She always said we were put here to serve,² the school teacher said. ³It was a reflection of her life. It always made an impression on me.

³You know she was the secretary to the museum board of directors but never president. She believed in leadership Œbehind the throne¹ to support the power,² Gruber said.

³She never wanted to be in the limelight,² Gustafson said.

Sami Pierson is the present county librarian but she came to know Mrs. Herrig at the museum. Pierson was brought to Libby on a museum grant as archivist.

Pierson said Mrs. Herig told great stories about her life about being kicked by this horse or that horse, about picking strawberries and eating so many she got the hives.

³It¹s definitely a sad loss for the community,² Pierson said. ³What¹s so sad is the loss of so much institutional knowledge about the museum, the library, the community and the county.²

When Mrs. Herrig said the front counter of the museum she often helped visitors seeking information about the area. She knew about family histories and homesteads and more, Gustafson said.

³She had a great memory.²

In that 1997 Western News story, Herrig said she had gained a unique perspective on the people of Libby, having watched families grow and generations stay close or move away.

³I¹ve always enjoyed people and working with them, and they¹ve always given me much more than I¹ve given them,² she said. ³I¹ve learned so much from them.²

Nancy Gustafson is collecting memories about Inez Ratekin Herrig. She is asking people to write down any memories, stories or anecdotes they have involving Mrs. Herrig. She will compile the information or find someone to compile them in a history of Mrs. Herrig¹s life. Memories may be mailed to Nancy Gustafson, 504 Louisiana Ave, Libby, Montana 59923.