Photo by Ryan Clark/NKU

GRAND OPENING: Kathy Hartley, assistant director of the Lewis County Public Library, gets ready for their Imagination kickoff event at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Imagination Library to open Saturday in Lewis County - family and friends will honor NKU student

By Ryan Clark
NKU Marketing + Communications

VANCEBURG, Ky. – As you drive through Lewis County, with the beautiful trees and sky and clouds, you eventually come to Vanceburg, a tiny town (population 1,518) just two hours away from NKU down the AA Highway.

It takes roughly two minutes to drive by the city – so don’t blink. There’s a McDonald’s, a grocery store, and a couple of gas stations. American flags line Main Street, and at lunchtime, a crowd steps out to stretch their legs.

Along Third Street, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks that cut across town, sits the Lewis County Public Library, and inside, folks are getting ready for a party. They have it all set up for the crowd they expect this weekend.

Little chairs. Stuffed animals. A roomful of children’s books.

“We’re expecting a lot of people,” says Kathy Hartley, assistant director of the library. “It’s a big deal.”

If only Margo Hamm – the woman who set all these ideas in motion – could be here to see it.

CLASS COMMUNITY: Josh Wice, Director of Business and Community Development for the city of Florence, was a classmate of Margo Hamm's. He helped organize the class to finish Margo's project, and he also helped create this video, which was one of their class assignments.

Margo Hamm

Promoting literacy

It all started when Margo, the Associate Dean of the Learning Commons at Somerset Community College since 2011, needed a project for her Regional Stewardship class at NKU. She was enrolled in NKU’s Cohort IX in the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program.

Margo had already done much in her life. She learned to play piano. She graduated with two degrees from the University of Kentucky. She helped the poor on a trip to Haiti and toured the famous works of art in Italy.

Most importantly, she’d worked with her own library at Somerset Community College to develop a Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that provides new books for area children and is sponsored by the legendary country singer. Margo loved it so much she decided to do the same thing for her hometown library – Lewis County Public in Vanceburg – for her NKU cohort project. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library provides a free book a month to any child under the age of 5, and all books are mailed from the Dolly Parton Foundation to the child's home address. The program is free for all the families.

“This program was important to Margo because it related so closely to the core of her profession as a librarian,” says Robin LaValley, Margo’s sister. “Promoting literacy had always been a part of Margo’s professional and personal calling in life. She believed that improving school readiness and literacy would impact primary, secondary, and post-secondary education and educational opportunities and equity for the Lewis County children enrolled in this program for many years to come.”

In late 2014, Margo approached community members with The Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, The Ministerial Association, The Lewis County Public Library, and various other individuals about her desire to establish a Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Lewis County. 

“She was so energetic, and so excited about the project,” says Hartley, the assistant director of the library. “She had a way of making us all excited about it.”

Hartley, who was busy setting up the final decorations for the children at the Lewis County Public Library, stopped for a moment. She had a children’s book still in her hand.

“No one ever would have thought she was sick,” she said. “We had no idea.”

Quick diagnosis

Margo’s mother, Marcella Hamm, still lives in Vanceburg, just a stone’s throw from the library.

“After the first of the year, (Margo) had a cough, but we didn’t think much of it,” she said. “Then it got worse.”

Margo made a habit of getting off work in Somerset, traveling up to NKU, attending class on Friday night, renting a hotel room, and then heading home the next day. The daughter of a teacher and a truant officer, she did not miss class. And she loved the Ed.D. program at NKU.

Then, one day in February, Margo didn’t show up for work. Co-workers knew there must be a problem, so they went to her home. Inside, she was found so sick that she could not get up or even move. Her co-workers took her to the hospital.

The diagnosis came quickly. At 49 years old, Margo had a form of fast-moving Stage 4 uterine cancer. Going to class, and continuing with her project, would become very difficult.

“But she didn’t feel sorry for herself,” her mother, Marcella, said. “She accepted it immediately and went to work.”

Imagination Library in Lewis County to open Saturday

A community kick-off celebration for the Lewis County Dolly Parton Imagination Library will be taking place from 10 a.m. – noon, Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Lewis County Public Library.

There will be book readings, refreshments, and opportunities for children to be registered for the program at that time. Community and business members may also make donations to the program then, or donate at Citizens Deposit Bank anytime by asking for the Lewis Co Imagination Library account.

Margo’s friends and family will be there, as will her classmates – all of whom she inspired.

Perking up

Margo kept going to class when she could. Sometimes her brother would drive her to Highland Heights. Sometimes she would use a video-sharing platform on the Internet to follow along via computer. She tried to continue her project for Lewis County – and classmates noticed how she perked up when talking about it. As spring came to campus, one of Margo’s classmates got an idea.

On April 7, Josh Wice, Director of Business and Community Development for the city of Florence, sent this email to his classmates, minus Margo:

“Good morning, all. I have an idea. As you know, our friend Margo is going through a very trying time,” he wrote. “I was thinking of a way our cohort could give her a little ‘pick-me-up.’ She has been so excited about her regional stewardship project: creating an Imagination Library in Lewis County. Even though she was exhausted and not feeling well at our class session last week, you all probably noticed her excitement and energy when she was updating the class on her project. She mentioned she needs to raise funds for it and has set up an arrangement with the local chamber of commerce in Lewis County to accept donations.”

He went on to write that the students in the cohort should donate, then present a big check in a fun presentation to her.

“Sometimes we don’t realize the impact a person has on others until you don’t have them anymore,” Wice said in an interview.

The class chipped in and presented a check to Margo for $520.

‘Power of community’

On May 5, 2015, Mary Margo Hamm, age 49 of Somerset, Ky., formerly of Vanceburg, Ky., passed away at the Southern Ohio Medical Hospice Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, of cancer and related complications.

She was set to receive her Doctor of Education from Northern Kentucky University this year. It would not happen.

But her classmates could not sit back and watch her last wish go unfulfilled.

As part of her project, Margo had to secure help from a local non-profit organization. Through the efforts of her and the class, The Lewis County Children’s Center for Fine and Performing Arts decided it would serve as the champion for the cause. The Center for Appalachian Philanthropy also pitched in with help as well, bringing funding and staff.

“Margo did have the opportunity to share with friends and family her passion, commitment, and hopes that a Dolly Parton Imagination Library could still be a reality for Lewis County despite her illness,” Robin LaValley said. “To date, friends, family, and colleagues of Margo’s have donated enough funds to enroll 250 children in the program – a goal she had set for the first year.”

They also helped finish a short, biographical video she was scheduled to create about her life as a leader. Wice has shared that video on his YouTube page.

Margo’s professor, and NKU President Emeritus Dr. James Votruba, sent an email to the class:

“We all grieve the loss of our friend, Margo Hamm. Her spirit in the face of this awful disease was nothing short of inspiring,” he wrote. “There were other elements of inspiration as well, particularly the way in which Margo’s cohort and her faculty responded with such unbelievable love, kindness, and support. This is what defines both character and community and both have been on display in abundance as we’ve traveled this path together with Margo right to the very end … We talk about the power of community, the power of ‘we.’ This is what it means to be a community.”

‘A wonderful life’

In the library in Vanceburg, Kathy Hartley continues to get things just right.

“I imagine she’s pretty excited we’re getting this off the ground,” Hartley says, talking about Margo.

With the help of her family, friends, community, and classmates, Margo’s project is finished.

A community kick-off celebration for the Lewis County Dolly Parton Imagination Library will be taking place from 10 a.m. – noon, Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Lewis County Public Library.

There will be book readings, refreshments, and opportunities for children to be registered for the program at that time. Community and business members may also make donations to the program then, or donate at Citizens Deposit Bank anytime by asking for the Lewis Co Imagination Library account.

Margo’s friends and family will be there, as will her classmates – all of whom she inspired.

“What I saw in Margo was tenacity, perseverance, incredible strength, and an enormous commitment to her community,” Votruba said in an interview. “Even while her life was slipping away, she was working to strengthen access to library books for young children. She inspired us all.”

“Although these libraries are known nationally as ‘Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library,’ we have a feeling that in Lewis County, this library will become known as ‘Margo Hamm’s Imagination Library,’” Wice said.

Marcella will also be there Saturday, in part, to honor her daughter.

“I hate for her to go, but Margo had such a wonderful life,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe all the things she’s done. I was blessed with such a great girl.”

Many felt the same way. And it seems many will continue to feel the same way for years to come.