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This is the room Bill Stein built for people who want to learn about their past. Dina Pickens of Washington State was doing some research work a few weeks after Stein died in his home near Columbus, Texas.
Photo: Bill Bishop
The back page of the weekly newspaper in Fayette County, Texas, carried a story with terrible news. Bill Stein was dead.
Bill was the librarian in nearby Columbus, a county seat town in the rolling coastal prairies of southeast Texas. Bill knew everything about that part of Texas and everybody knew Bill. He had suffered a massive heart attack at his home outside of town in early December. Bill Stein was only 54 years old. A friend told us he had a book in his hands when he died.
The truth of small towns is that one person really can make a difference. Bill proved that. He helped organize art shows and jazz concerts. He gave tours of the local graveyard and guided those who came to his library looking for records of their ancestors. He made the history of Columbus important and the library the center of town.
After reading of Bill’s death, we drove on to Columbus, circled the courthouse square and then parked near the library and walked in. We wanted to see Bill’s home base, the place where he had reached out to a good portion of Central Texas and beyond. Other people were coming by, too. An older man looked at the librarians behind the desk and said, “Things aren’t going to be the same.”
One person can change a town the size of Columbus, that’s true. But, we wondered, what happens when that one person is gone?
Bill had left Columbus, where he had grown up, and worked in Houston as a columnist and sports writer. He realized he needed to come back to his hometown while on a trip to Europe in the early 1980s. Stein had become interested in historical research and spent a good portion of his trip learning about Vienna. H.H. Howze’s tribute in the Fayette County Record (December 16, 2008 ) quotes from recent letter from Stein, expressing his amazement “that I could walk down the streets there and identify buildings and recall events that happened in them.”
“That set me to wondering,” Stein continued. “I thought it was nuts that I knew so much about Vienna but little or nothing about Houston (where I lived) or Columbus (where I grew up).”
According to Howze, Bill Stein called that time in Vienna “the most important week in my life.”
Stein commissioned artist Pat Johnson to build a new desk at the library. In the ancient poem Gilgamesh, the poet invites readers to explore (“walk on the wall”) the city Uruk. To know one city is to know them all. Stein made that same invitation to the people of Columbus.
Stein came back to the U.S. and applied the same curiosity that led him to learn about Vienna to his hometown of Columbus. He began in Houston’s Clayton Library and then plowed into the old local newspapers he found on microfilm at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus. In 1987, he took over as archivist at the Columbus library and in 1996 he was named its director.
The Nesbitt Library is Bill’s creation. He put together the “Texas Room,” a haven for genealogists and history buffs. The room is filled with books Bill hand picked. A huge window fills the room with light and gives those on the inside the sense they are working directly under a massive live oak tree.
The library is stocked with objects from the county’s past — an ancient letter jacket from the high school, a glass jar of fruit preserves now 130 years old, artifacts from the old county jail, discovered by a youngster who was digging out a new driveway and became under Bill’s guidance an amateur archeologist. When the library needed to replace the top of the front desk, Bill commissioned artist Pat Johnson to design a ceramic tile depiction of the county’s natural history.
When I was still a reporter for the newspaper in Austin (Texas), I wanted to do a story about the land around Columbus. It was grazing land, mostly, Texas prairie that flattened on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. But around Columbus, the landscape was disrupted by a series of humps and gullies created over the last century by rock and gravel miners. The ground looked like a swatch of giant-sized corduroy.
Everybody told me that there was one person in the county who could tell me the history of the rock quarry operations that had shaped the land near the town of Columbus. That was Bill Stein, of course, so I looked him up.
Bill spent the afternoon telling me the history of the men who scraped rock and gravel out of the pits in Colorado County, shipping it east where the material was used to build modern-day Houston. Bill showed me how the rock was mined, he introduced me to some old miners who had worked the pits 60 years earlier and he took me to his library, where he had carefully collected documents and artifacts about the history of the mines.
Bill was constantly questioning. He wanted to get behind the facts. He showed me how the quarries had benefited Colorado County and how they had devastated the land and damaged the health of those who dug the rock.
“Bill always saw the other side of any situation,” John Troesser wrote in a tremendous remembrance of Stein. “Everyone has anecdotes of conversations with Bill and we can only say that the one constant thread in each and every conversation was the respect, both spoken and unspoken, that he exhibited toward whoever was the topic of conversation.”
Bill Stein sat at a messy desk at a small library in a town of about 4,000 people. The Fayette County Record’s headline said that in his time there the librarian had “Made (a) Big Impression.” That was an understatement. Bill Stein discovered that you could understand everyplace by knowing one place, and he showed that you could come home again and change the world.