Members of the Tazewell County, Va., Library Board agreed last summer that the next logical step for the county's small, two-branch library would be to hire the first professional librarian.
Their choice for the new $10,576-a-year job seemed ideal: a quiet, highly recommended Massachusetts woman with a master's degree in library science who readily accepted the job and moved to the remote, mountainous county with the man who most assumed was her husband.
Little did the board realized that Clare De Cleene, 28, its new librarian, was to stir a small rebellion among the library's users and staff, trigger a dispute that would prompt the entire editorial staff, two people of one county newspaper to quit their jobs, and threaten the board with its first lawsuit in 12 years of existence.
That all this could happen from a single incident illustrates dramatically how interwoven people and events can become in the remote, rural section of Virginia - 375 miles southwest of Washington. To understand how it happened one has to understand "the way people look at things" in the area, said former Tazewell newspaper editor Mary Anne Stevens.
"It's about to drive me crazy," sighed Louise Leslie, library board chairman, as she cut short an attempted telephone interview over the dispute. All she and the four other board members now say is that they fired De Cleene for a "lack of leadership."
But both De Cleene, who said she is about to move to another job, and county newspaper people tell a different story.
For starters, they say De Cleene shook up the library after her arrival in the county seat of Tazewell July 1. "She had a lot of new ideas that conflicted with the old people," said Stevens, who quit as an associate editor of the Razewell Free Press in a dispute over newspaper coverage of the librarian.
"For instance, she would ask people to present their library cards when they borrowed books and to pay fines on books that are overdue," said Stevens. "And those are big issues out here."
If that wasn't enough to rattle the library board, there was another disclosure that the librarian now figures didn't help her cause either in the small county of 39,816 people. That was the realization that the artist with whom the librarian was living wasn't her husband.
"I'd been living with someone for eight years and I guess it's a question of whether or not Virginia recognizes common-law marriages as did the place where we used to live," De Cleene said.
Although board members vehemently deny discussing De Cleene's marital status, one board member recalled hearing courthouse politicians talking about her refusal to tell a voting registrar whether she was married.
In a county like Tazewell where stories like that flow more swiftly than the County's Clinch River after a summer thundershower, the board's unrest over the way De Cleene was running the library came to a climax in early March. The board voted to fire her.
"I think they though I'd quietly leave town," De Cleene said the other day. But she didn't. Instead she carried her case to the County Board of Supervisors and demanded that the county provide her with a grievance procedure through which she could protest her firing. The supervisors quickly returned the case to the library board, urging it to resolve on its own, De Cleene said.
By that time, however, the dispute had gone beyond the County Board. Both Garret Mathews, 28, editor of the Tazawell Free Press, and Stevens, 23, an associate editor, quit, saying publisher C.D. (Don) Dunford, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, had directed them not to run any more stories on the dispute after the first was published.
Dunford, a twangy-talking, folksy legislator who is known as "Dandy Don" to members of the Richmond press corps, denied making any attempt to squelch the story. He conceded he urged the editors, to "skip that thing until we could get our heads together on it."
Mathews who had left a job at the Bluefield, W. Va., Telegraph to establish the paper with Dunford and others 25 weeks earlier, said the lawmaker told him he had "come into some information and he felt that for the best interests of the paper, the story could not be printed." Given that directive, Mathews said he and Stevens quit and returned to their old jobs at the Telegraph.
?That's not fact; that's fiction," Dunford said in a telephone interview. He said the editors had allowed "opinion" to slip into their initial stories on the librarian's firing.
What was the opinion? Dunford said they allowed the name of a competing weekly in the county to appear in the Free Press - something Dunford said the Free Press founders had agreed to avoid from the outset.
Mathews said the name of another paper did appear in the controversial story, but that it came in a quotation from the Library board chairman, Mrs. Leslie.
She had told the newspaper she would not comment on the dispute and added, "When we decide what the news is, we'll give it to the Clinch Valley News," a paper that Mathews said is run by one of her relatives.
Meanwhile, the library board has offered a hearing to De Cleene, who has said she is talking to a lawyer about suing the county over the way she was treated. Dunford has hired another editor for his weekly newspaper.
"All I can say is that I'm dumbfounded by all this," he said. "why I have never seen the librarian, never been in the library. I didn't even know we had a new librarian."