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When 100-Year-Old Rhea Stambaugh Decided to Build Her Ohio Town a Library, She Did It with Will Power

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

Rhea Stambaugh's plans to build a new public library in Plymouth, Ohio looked good on paper, except for one thing. The paper was her will, which meant that the 100-year-old widow would never see the edifice for which she planned to donate $500,000. "My husband and I always believed that next to public education, a library was the most important thing for a community," says Rhea, whose mate of 54 years, John Stambaugh, was a Harvard-educated farmer known as Ohio's Onion King. "I decided, why not build it now?"

To replace the existing library, crowded into a rundown house, Stambaugh set to work acquiring a downtown site in the struggling Ohio farming community of 2,000 people, then went looking for contractors and a designer. "She's a lady who knew what she wanted," reports architect Tim Leist, who submitted five sets of blueprints before Rhea finally gave the go-ahead. "I wanted a simple building, but everything they showed me looked like a church," says Rhea. "I like churches. But I wanted this to look like a library."

And so it would. A state-of-the-art computerized card-catalog system and handsome red oak woodworking by local Amish craftsmen would help boost the building's price tag to $800,000, but the cost overrun didn't seem to bother Rhea at all. The former first-grade teacher(until her marriage in 1917), turned out in a blue suit, blue hair and blue sunglasses, delivered a 20-minute speech (without notes) at the dedication and accepted a standing ovation from 140 of her neighbors. Said Mayor Keith Hebble afterward: "I always referred to Plymouth as the Rodney Dangerfield of Ohio. We didn't get no respect. The new library gave people a boost and made them feel good again." Rhea seemed to feel pretty good about the whole thing herself. "Next to my marriage," she said, "this is the best thing I ever did."

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