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Samuel Hoffman/The Journal Gazette
Director Jeff Krull is a self-described "generalist."

From 2007: Krull's library dream nearing fruition

This story appeared in The Journal Gazette on Jan. 21, 2007:

In early March, Fort Wayne's predictably unpredictable weather takes a vicious turn.

The burgeoning spring balm - and all of those tender green things that begin peeking up from the soil - is interrupted by bouts of sleet or snow. The sky takes on the gray pallor of a Russian playwright. And, occasionally, there is rain. Weeks of rain.

This - this gray Midwestern setting - was what greeted Jeff Krull, executive director of the Allen County Public Library, when he arrived in Fort Wayne for a job interview in the late winter of 1986.

At the time, Krull was the director of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library in Mansfield, Ohio, a Rust Belt city known as "The Heart of Ohio" and one of several small towns that had built their reputations during the 1920s on industries such as stove manufacturing. Krull had outgrown the position, so when he received a phone call in early 1986 from an executive headhunting firm, his curiosity was piqued. The current director of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne had taken a job in Denver. Was Krull interested?

So that March, Krull - awaiting his interview the following day - left his hotel room at the downtown Holiday Inn and walked to the library building on Wayne and Webster streets. In the darkness, the building shone - a hunk of concrete and glass, dwarfing the historic buildings surrounding it, Krull says.

"It seemed almost out of scale with the city," he says.

"This was a pretty major-league library. And I thought this must be a pretty good library town if it supports this institution. I remember standing there, thinking, `I hope I get this job.' "

* * *

About a month before the refurbished Allen County Public Library reopened, Krull walked through the hull of the building at 900 Library Plaza - part of his weekly routine since construction began on the building in 2003. As usual, he was dressed in a dark suit. Black, with a thin pinstripe. Sidestepping terrazzo mixers, stacks of plywood and plastic-covered desks, he breezed past the sweeping architecture of the library's Great Hall - a cavernous passage that runs the length of the building, illuminated by skylights and dotted with artfully exposed scaffolding - and focused his attention on the wooden veneer lining the walls. The rift-cut white oak paneling was made using a process that rids it of the knotty look of a basement recreation room and makes the wood take a uniform grain, he said.

"It's pretty amazing," Krull said, stroking the wood. "They've done a wonderful job."

At his very core, Krull is a librarian - detail-oriented, fastidious, thorough. The kind of guy who would notice the grain of a wood veneer, the uniform look of what amounts to a backdrop for an architectural floor show.

The new library - a 367,000-square-foot building that will house books, computer labs, an art gallery, a café, a bookstore and a theater with about 250 seats - is Krull's legacy, although he would never admit it. That sounds "grandiose," he says. When Krull discusses the library, he never mentions the word "I." It is always "we."

"We worked pretty hard these past three years." "We had to challenge all of our assumptions about what a library should be." "We made a tremendous effort."

And he's right. A lot of people helped finalize the countywide library expansion - architects, members of the library board, library employees, library patrons, construction crews. But behind all of them was Krull, dressed in a dark suit and a hard hat.

"A good librarian has an eye for detail," said Cheryl Ferverda, manager of community relations and development for the library, who has worked with Krull for almost 20 years. "And a good librarian has the willingness to roll up their shirt sleeves and dig in when it comes to research. Jeff does that, and he does it to the nth degree."

A self-described "generalist," Krull ended his career as an English teacher and basketball coach at a private school in Harrisburg, Pa., because he didn't view himself as an expert in his field.

"I kept envisioning `Goodbye, Mr. Chips,' " he says. "But it didn't pan out. After a lot of soul searching, I realized that in order to teach, I had to be an expert on something. I had to be knowledgeable about one subject. And I've always been more of a dabbler. I like the research, the details."

And libraries are built on the details.

* * *

In Krull's office is a copy of a document, about 2 inches thick, containing all of the design concepts for the new library - the space allotments for shelving and circulation desks, the amount of computers needed, ideas about navigability and every other tiny detail most of us would never consider.

"The children's department needed to be near the entrance," Krull said. "So the kids wouldn't have to walk across the building and get lost."

The document, called a building program, was Krull's narrative for the library, a report distilling the library's overarching philosophies and attaching them to specific and tangible solutions for the space. It took Krull one year to write it.

"It described, concisely, everything we wanted the library to be," he says. "From the square footage needed for 800,000 books, to how much space should be allotted for the microform readers in the genealogy department. It was a way to document the whole picture."

This is the work Krull does best, he said.

"I don't think of myself as a turnaround person," he says. "I don't see myself shaking things up."

Krull's modesty belies his deft hand at civic politics. With a homespun vocabulary (he often peppers his conversations with turns of phrase such as "high falutin' " and "hog heaven") and not an ounce of city-slicker charisma, he seems the least likely candidate to convince the thrifty residents of Fort Wayne to back one of the city's largest civic projects - a library expansion and renovation with a price tag of $84.1 million, of which $65 million goes toward the downtown library. But, when pressed, he'll admit he - like Fort Wayne residents - can be tenacious.

"When I arrived here in 1986, there was still a lot of talk about the flood of '82," Krull said. "And I was impressed. This seemed like a can-do sort of place. I saw Fort Wayne as being much more progressive than where I'd come from. But after living here for a while, I noticed there was a natural reluctance to take chances. You have to save yourself from natural disasters. But what do you do about creating opportunities for your city and taking advantage of them? You're never going to get anywhere unless you stick your neck out."

When Krull began pushing the plan, he stuck with one visual image. Fort Wayne, he said, needed to see some construction cranes downtown.

"It shows that something is going on," Krull said. "And those cranes got people's attention. The question was, `Can we sell this pretty darn aggressive project in this town where it'll do a lot of good, but people will have to stick their necks out to get it done?'"

Because of its size, the library project had to be publicly financed. The money needed couldn't be raised in the private sector, Krull says.

"And in this community, there is a pride and ownership of the local libraries at the grass-roots level," he says. "We concluded that was a great base of tax dollars. We just had to make our pitch to the public."

* * *

Library officials estimated that most property owners in the county would pay less than $25 more a year in taxes. Not everyone agreed with the scope of the project.

Dissent came in the form of a remonstrance in 2001 - more than 13,000 homeowners opposed the project. It was defeated by more than 21,000 supporters.

"The opponents were flabbergasted that people would support something as large as this project," Krull said. "But we were never ready to believe that a project of this size would fail in this community."

* * *

Krull's office in the new library is Spartan. An oak desk in one corner, gray carpeting, a bookshelf or two lining the wall. But in the mornings, the room is flooded with sunlight from the eastern window. The view is anchored by the old fire station, now home to the Firefighters Museum. It's one of the buildings Krull remembers noticing in March 1986, when he stood on the opposite side of what used to be Webster Street, looking at the library and wondering whether he'd land the job.

"The big city," he says, smiling. "There's a great view from this window."