'An absolute fireball': Austin school names its library after retired librarian Kay Gooch
Doug Temple, the current librarian at Gullett Elementary School, "banned" Kay Gooch, the school's retired librarian, from campus.
That was one week before Gooch was slated to speak at the school in the Allandale neighborhood on April 16, National Librarian Day.
School leaders, parents and students had much more up their sleeves: They were preparing to rename the airy book room where she worked for years the Kay Gooch Library. They needed time to attach a new plaque to the wall, decorate the school, and assemble little masks that were adorned with Gooch's image.
"I honestly had no idea it was going on," Gooch says. "They set the date; they planned everything. Which was huge! Parade, flower wreath, invitations, speakers, unveiling — a whole giant hoopla."
The organizers made a logical decision: Gooch had been no ordinary librarian. A dynamic speaker with a flair for the theatrical, she energized young people to read, especially during the annual Read-a-Thon contests, organized by Austin nonprofit BookSpring, which gives away books to kids who need them.
Gullett students have won the citywide contest by pledging to read the most book pages during 11 out of the 12 years that the contest has been run by by BookSpring, according to the nonprofit.
Beyond that, Gooch came to book fairs costumed as characters from the books; served on the boards of area literacy groups; and won the Siddie Jones Johnson Award from the Texas Library Association for outstanding achievement in children's library science.
The national Reading Is Fundamental children's literacy nonprofit also honored her.
To top it off, she guest-starred as Mother Ginger in Ballet Austin's "The Nutcracker."
“Half of what I do is theater,” Gooch likes to say. “I don’t think you should do anything if it’s not fun.”
'I have seen her lip sync to Taylor Swift'
The plaque that went up in April at Gullett does not merely list Gooch's well-earned honors:
"What our community remembers, however, is her love for students and reading. The Gullett library became a warm, inviting place for children and their families. Ms. Gooch was devoted to helping Geckos find books they love and to introducing them to the best in children's literature. She believed that reading for pleasure is the best way to create enthusiasm for books."
I first met Gooch in 2016. Emily Ball Cicchini, executive director of BookSpring and a longtime friend, introduced us.
"Kay Gooch is an absolute fireball when it comes to developing a passion for reading in children," Cicchini says about the former IBM systems engineer. "I have seen her dance in tutus. I have seen her lip sync to Taylor Swift.
"She has personally raised more than $200,000 for BookSpring through her leadership of the annual Read-a-Thon."
BookSpring grew out of Austin’s version of the national Reading Is Fundamental program, which was promoted by the Johnson presidential family. Gooch’s mother, who taught fifth grade, volunteered for Reading Is Fundamental, and Mary Kennedy Smith, who was her mother’s librarian, roped Gooch into the program's Read-a-Thon in 2002.
“I’ve spoken to many adults who still have their books" from Reading Is Fundamental, Gooch told the American-Statesman in 2016. “They recall walking around the table, picking out a book, and keeping it. It’s a lifelong remembrance. And you know, kids will reread the same book over and over again.”
After Austin's Reading Is Fundamental chapter turned into BookSpring, Gooch persuaded her students to continue competing.
“You explain it to them, give them a reason to do it,” she says. “You give them a challenge. It helps that I’m pretty passionate about children having books at home. Even with libraries, the book you own and take home is special.”
One year during the contest, three fifth-grade Gullett boys battled to read the most pages. “You just knew they were competing,” Gooch told the Statesman. “And they knew they were competing. But nobody said anything.”
That year, Tyler McHorse won.
“He read the entire ‘Divergent’ series,” Gooch says with a chuckle. “All 1,888 pages. On a snow day, instead of playing in the snow, he hunkered down and read six hours straight.”
Born in Del Rio, Gooch moved to the Allandale area in 1968 and remains deeply connected with the neighborhood, which is home to Gullett.
She attended what was then Southwest Texas State University for two years in San Marcos, then earned her degree in education with a concentration in reading from the University of Texas.
“But I couldn’t get a teaching job,” she told the Statesman. “So I accidentally went to work for IBM as a systems engineer. I was in technical sales for 10 years, then a sales rep for three. But I was really tired of the corporate world. I didn’t like being on quota and selling people things that they didn’t really need. You make a lot of money, but it’s not really fun.”
At age 40, she took a buyout.
“I remember thinking: I can do anything I want to do,” she says. “Up to that point, I didn’t know that. I talked my way into a teaching job at Lee Elementary. They asked: ‘You’re sure this is what you want to do? You know what you are going to make?’”
She also served as librarian at Patton Elementary, but was happy to land next in Allandale.
“It’s home. My side of town,” she says. “I loved Patton. Found my voice as a librarian there. But I grew up on Shoal Creek Boulevard, and most of my adult life I’ve spent around this neighborhood."
'Print will never die'
“Books are much more inviting now than when I was a kid,” Gooch says. “And the publishing world is different. It has to do with technology. When I was growing up, books were one color. Now there are so many more of them, too.”
Gooch is optimistic about the future of books.
“Print will never die,” she says. “A child sitting in your lap turning the pages of a book makes a bond. Turning the pages of a Kindle doesn’t necessarily make the same bond.”
Gooch, who retired from Gullett in 2020 during the pandemic, was delighted to return to campus for the surprise celebration.
"I still am looking at pictures and seeing all the people that were there that day that I never had a chance to speak to," Gooch says. "It was crazy, fun and so exciting.
"How do I feel? Honored, loved, excited, humbled — and a whole lot of disbelief," Gooch continues. "It is a strange feeling for just a normal person to walk up to my school and see your name on the front."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.