Under a hot Thursday morning sun in Bridge Square, Northfielder Joan Ennis described her decades-long career in the library services industry and the COVID-19 concerns that caused her to end her tenure with Northfield Public Library somewhat prematurely.
Although the pandemic and the changing library industry are reminders of how much things have changed in libraries over her 31½-year career in Northfield, there are two things she knows that still bring a smile to her face: Libraries will continue to play an important role in the coming decades and the thousands of patrons she helped as a reference librarian over her tenure.
An early start
A California native, Ennis’ career began as an 18-year-old student at the University of California Los Angeles, the college where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. She was hired to work at the reference desk for the government documents office, a position typically reserved for library school or graduate students.
She went on to earn a master’s from the University of California-Berkeley, then worked for the University of California and at a public library before moving in 1980 to St. Paul as her husband, Chris Ennis, a now-retired math professor sought a post-doctorate degree from the University of Minnesota.
The couple moved to Northfield in 1986 while Ennis cared for their growing family. When she was initially hired by Northfield Public Library in February 1989, Ennis was a library assistant, covering Sundays and on a fill-in basis. That would change a few months later, however, when a co-worker went on maternity leave and Ennis was hired as a reference librarian.
A consistent presence in a changing industry
Since then, Ennis has answered questions, fulfilled public requests and led reader advisories. Her later work consisted of a lot of local history- and genealogy-related tasks. In addition, she helped the library work with schools on academic-related matters.
One of her favorite aspects of being a reference librarian was helping patrons. In the past, she purchased fiction and non-fiction books for the library and conducted adult activities. She started a book group on her own 15 years ago that she still plans to run voluntarily, and two writing groups. Last winter she held a craft day where local businesses showed crafts.
“It’s nice to have free activities and teach people about things that they might be interested in,” Ennis said.
“The day is never boring, because there’s always something different. People used to look more for answers before the internet, now they just want to know where they can get information. That’s a generalization. They still want answers, but they can find it once you get them to the right place.”
She has accumulated memories over the years that remind her of why she enjoyed being a reference librarian. Some of those include children who were 11 and 12 who were interested in subjects traditionally seen as beyond their understanding. One sought to build their own violin while another was trying to learn about quantum physics.
“It’s when you see people feeling confident to even ask about something that is maybe beyond their ability to totally understand, but they are learning something,” Ennis said.
Perhaps the memory that sticks out to her most is when a man who was in his 30s who hadn’t yet learned to use a computer came to the library looking to apply for a job. The next week, she saw the person at a grocery store. The man had found employment by applying on the internet.
Approximately two years ago, Ennis took her granddaughter, who lives in Northfield, to a friend’s birthday party. Someone who had visited the library eight years ago remembered her helping her find materials to study for the citizenship exam, and become a citizen.
“I have always remembered that encounter, and was thankful that I could move her life forward,” she said.
Friend Sarah Dennett has known Ennis for 30 years. Dennett said her friend is “always professional and goes the extra mile to help people.”
“She’s always loved working with the public,” Dennett said. “I think she’s made connections with kids over all the years she’s been there. She’s been a wonderful resource in so many ways for the whole community.”
Hope for the future
Although a lot of tasks libraries helped patrons with are now online, Northfield has an e-library, complete with e-books and audiobooks, the video streaming service Kanopy, Tumblebooks and an online math program. Despite those changes, Ennis knows people still like to browse through information and a public library is a gathering spot where patrons read newspapers and interact with each other.
“It’s a community center,” she said. “Anyone can come to the library. Anyone can use the library. Customer service is really a high priority, and we really try to meet the needs of the people who come.”
Ennis also volunteers at Northfield Public Schools. When possible again, she plans to volunteer once more for the district.
“I plan to continue doing that and getting involved with the community, but I have to wait until it’s safe,” she said.
“I plan to stay here. I have a lot of friends and this is my home now.”
Local business leaders on Wednesday expressed concern that a second wave of COVID-19 could roll back the gradual reopening process and further damage businesses already impacted by the pandemic.
The comments were made during an online meeting led by 2nd District U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, DFL-Eagan, a member of the House of Representatives Small Business Committee who invited representatives from local chambers of commerce to discuss the effectiveness of federal small business relief and the process of reopening the economy.
The hit Northfield Lines President John Benjamin and other bus transportation companies have taken from COVID-19 is even more pronounced than most industries. Nearly every bus operator employed by Northfield Lines is still at a standstill. The company, an organization that once employed nearly 100 people and owns 50 motorcoaches, has been reduced to four non-furloughed employees.
Half of all U.S. motor coach companies are expected to go bankrupt.
“It’s been a pretty stressful time for us,” said Benjamin, who’s owned the company since 1989.
Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce Maureen Scallen Failor said Dakota County business leaders are doing OK, but are still not bringing all employees back to work in an office setting. For example, only 40% of Blue Cross/Blue Shield employees have returned. And some employers have found that their employees can work remotely with little difference in production.
Other business leaders within Craig’s district expressed concern that a second wave of COVID-19 could further spark needed federal spending.
Eagan-based automobile business owner Dan Sjolseth said the pandemic has reduced commutes, resulting in more vehicle owners opting to repair their vehicles rather than replace their cars, a positive development for the auto industry but a negative for car dealerships.
Wayne Butt, owner and president of Cottage Grove-based wedding venue John P. Furber Farm, said although most weddings have been moved to later this year, he’s concerned that Gov. Tim Walz will order greater congregation restrictions to combat COVID-19 in the coming months, which could further complicate their plans. He said it would make it easier on wedding venues if more tax and insurance companies could work with them and defer payments, but that is sometimes difficult because of the costs they’d incur.
“We need everything we can do in our power.”
Benjamin brought to Craig’s attention the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services Act (CERTS), a proposal introduced by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, Wednesday that would provide $10 billion in economic relief for over-the-road buses, including the private motorcoach, tour and charter industry.
Craig derided the federal government’s rollout of economic injury disaster loans introduced after the pandemic began. The Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration loan meant to help businesses keep their workers employed during the pandemic, was plagued with problems in the early stages of its rollout.
Craig said although the program has since been changed to allow for a better mix of payroll expenses versus other costs, the legislation expired Tuesday. Craig recently authored a bill to expand the program until at least Aug. 8. Approval of the extension was approved by the House on Wednesday to be sent to President Donald Trump.
Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Executive Director Lisa Peterson said her chamber’s members tell her they received PPP loans but are still unable to get employees back to work, making it impossible to pay them.
Failor called for chambers of commerce to be eligible for PPP loans.
“We feel we are in the trenches,” she said. “We are working every day to support all of our businesses.”
Craig noted she fought to include the provision allowing for the organizations to receive PPP funding in the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, proposed legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month to combat the pandemic. The proposal, however, has not passed the Senate. Republicans say the bill has too many partisan items unrelated to COVID-19.
Craig believes that lawmakers need to act.
“We need everything we can do in our power to save small businesses,” Craig added.
A well-known Northfield area farmer, successful small business owner and township official was killed Saturday after a piece of farm equipment he was driving appears to have rolled over on top of him.
Rice County Sheriff’s deputies found Gary Ebling, 71, about 4:30 p.m. after responding to a call that a tractor had rolled over down an embankment in the 9000 block of Albers Avenue in rural Bridgewater Township west of Northfield, according to a release from the Sheriff’s Office.
The caller reported there was a man trapped under an implement with severe injuries. When deputies arrived, Ebling was deceased, said Sheriff Troy Dunn.
“It appears the operator was mowing the ditch on the east side of the road when it rolled down the embankment, ejecting the tractor operator and partially pinning him under the mower implement,” Dunn said.
The owner of Retail Design Services, Ebling was a successful small businessman with major corporate clients across the country. Yet according to his former Township Board colleague John Holden, Ebling’s passion for the residents of Bridgewater Township often matched or even exceeded his entrepreneurial zeal.
“He was very caring, truly dedicated to having a really great township,” Holden said. “So there he was, on a hot July 4th afternoon, mowing to make sure his area of the township looked beautiful.”
Doug Jones, of rural Nerstrand, also spoke of Ebling’s interest in making Bridgewater all it could be, noting that Ebling was able to see the big picture as well as willing to put in the time and effort to get things done.
One of several generations of Eblings to call Bridgewater Township home, Gary Ebling was a fixture of the community, popular with his neighbors. At the time of his death, he was serving as chair of the Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors.
First elected to the board in the 2000s, Ebling began his second stint on the board in 2013. During his tenure, the board approved a 30-year long annexation agreement with Dundas, and first began and then took over its own planning and zoning.
In 2005, he was selected by the Rice County Board of Supervisors to serve as Bridgewater’s representative on a countywide economic development planning group. In recent years, he was the supervisor who oversaw roads for the township.
“He was very, very effective, and connected to so many people in the township,” said Glen Castore, Ebling’s longtime colleague on the Board of Supervisors. “He cared a lot about the township, and thought a lot about how it should be operated.”
Leif Knecht, also a longtime member of the Board who served alongside Ebling during his first stint on the board, said his friend and former colleague was a tireless worker who helped to bring about many changes to the township, both big and small.
Even though he’s not on the township board anymore, Knecht said he would call Ebling from time to time. Just a week before Ebling’s death, Knecht said Ebling called when he needed help convincing a neighbor to allow the invasive wild parsnip on his property to be treated.
“That’s an example of the kinds of nuts and bolts things Gary was able to accomplish,” Knecht said. “Occasionally, we viewed things differently but he was wonderful to collaborate with.”
Janalee Cooper, who served as clerk on the town board during Ebling’s first tour on the board, concurred, and called Ebling a “solid, constructive, practical and fair leader.”
In government, Holden said that Ebling was always looking for ways to help promote the interests of Bridgewater Township. To that end, he cultivated strong working relationships with Rice County as well as neighboring jurisdictions, particularly Dundas and Northfield.
Holden said that among Ebling’s most important accomplishments came more than a decade ago, when a proposed ethanol plant in Bridgewater Township was under consideration. Ebling ensured that the concerns of residents were heard, and the project was ultimately shelved.
As the supervisor responsible for overseeing road maintenance, Ebling also helped Bridgewater Township’s road system to become among the county’s best, even though road maintenance takes up a relatively small portion of its budget compared to other area townships.
As the township continued to grow, Ebling became very active in ongoing debates regarding how best to serve its residents. He backed the initiative that made Bridgewater the first township in Rice County to increase its number of supervisors to five.
The township is also one of a limited number of Minnesota townships to have its own zoning responsibilities. Bridgewater Zoning Administrator Jim Braun said he was “in shock” at the loss of one of his closest friends and colleagues.
“We would talk back and forth probably three, four or even fice times a day,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
While Ebling supported efforts to boost the township’s powers and responsibilities, Braun said that Ebling’s ultimate wish was to see Bridgewater incorporated as its own city. That idea has been discussed, but the township moved away from it after facing significant pressure.
In addition to empowering the municipality’s residents, incorporation could prevent further annexations by Northfield or Dundas. Both cities have eyed land closer to I-35 for potential business development, and were staunchly opposed to the township’s potential incorporation.
“If I can do anything to help Bridgewater become a city, I‘m going to do it, because that’s what he wanted,” Braun said. “He thought it was just the thing Bridgewater needed.”