Every town has a person who protests everything. It's a special American breed we call "activist" when we're neutral and "pain in the neck" when we disagree.
Which of these categories fits Madge Wallin, 64, the former librarian of Port Townsend, Wash., (pop. 5,000) is still being debated by the Townsfolk. But in June 1976, the Port Townsend Library Board made up its mind and fired her from the job she had held 8 1/2 years.
It is a mark of her reputation that when the delegation from the board showed up at her home to get the keys to the library, they brought a town policeman with them. There might be trouble.
There wasn't that night. But now Madge Wallin has taken her firing to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that she was fired because she protested too much. The reaction of people upon being informed of what she has done -- taken this small-town flap all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- is: "It doesn't surprise me. You could have predicted it."
The legal issues in her case are free speech and due process. She thinks she should have had a formal hearing before her dismissal. Though the court has been interested in recent years in strengthening the right to such hearings and there is some slight chance that the justices will smile upon her case as they consider whether to hear it, that is almost secondary to the story.
Madge Wallin believes in preserving old things. She and her husband have an antique store. They are trustees of the county historical society. The couple lives in a house built in 1860. She is proud of her American heritage, which goes back to 1628. When the town changed part of its form of government, she protested. When the town wanted to rebuild, instead of restore, a hundred-year-old Bell Tower, she protested. When, after her dismissal, the new librarian hung a decorative banner made by a local artist on the flagpole reserved for Old Glory, she protested.
And when the library board, like modern library boards everywhere, wanted to weed out old books from the library, she really protested. "They tell the story of our country, "she said. She not only protested, she resisted. That's the main reason -- according to the city attorney -- she was fired.
The rural Northwest has a lot a trees, a lot of water and not very many people. So as one city oficial put it, "We need to get along with each other." But Port Townsend has changed a great deal in recent years. A hundred years ago, it envisioned itself as a great bustling port, the San Francisco of the Northwest. Then the steamships came, sailing ships no longer sought refuge in the calm of Admiralty Inlet (where sits Port Townsend), the railroad decided not to put a spur there and the town went into a deep economic decline.
When they were still reaching for the dream, the city put up a lot of buildings. The buildings are now considered old, for the Northwest at least, and now the dream is not to be the San Francisco of the region, but the Williamsburg. At the moment, the town's quaintness is attracting a new class of artsy people and some new ideas.
"We wanted a thing called 'weeding' at the library," said the city's attorney, Glen Abraham. "That was the thing that caused the most friction. Weeding is a way you thin out your collection to make room for newer books. Its something all modern libraries do now. You know, in the year 2001 the patrons might not be so interested in "All the President's Men," so you take that book and throw it away or put it up for sale. It's a small library [about 25,000 volumes], and there just isn't room to keep accumulating things.
"She [Wallin] pretty much thought any old book was a rare book. She thought that the books should be left thre because they were valuable and historic. She refused to follow instructions."
"They didn't think I should have books in there on the World War II era," Wallin recalls. "One of them was an Ernie Pyle book. Then there were the papers of Herbert Hoover. I couldn't understand that this wouldn't be of interest to people. It told the story of our country."
This wasn't the first dispute between the board and Wallin, according to Abraham. He says she was intractable on almost every issue during her 8 1/2 years on the job; so much so that eight board members had quit rather than fight with her.
She also fought with the mayor about the Bell Tower. "It was one of the first towers used to summon the firepeople," Wallin says."It was built around the turn of the century. The city engineer felt the tower should be town down and the bell in concrete. Then they wanted to rebuild it -- with laminated beams and things like that. If you rebuild, rather than restore, it can't be placed on the register of historic properties."
The city lawyer says these things were not factors in her dismissal. "Sure," said Abraham, the Wallins (Madge and husband Charles) "showed up at every public hearing and protested whatever it was that was going on. They popped off about everything. She disrupted meetings of the library board. But they had been doing things like that for 8 1/2 years and nobody cared. These people are a pain in the neck. That's what they are. But nobody cared. It wasn't a factor in her dismissal."
"I don't think they went after her because of those other things," said Port Townsend Leader reporter Dennis Anstine. "Though I'm sure those kind of things accumulated. The library had just kind of fallen on hard times. She would not allow anything progressive to happen there.A lot of the rest is imagined. They are real paranoid people, the Wallins, sending letters to the editor about long-haired people coming to town, saying that things are subversive."
When the board voted unanimously to fire Wallin, they sent a delegation to the library to serve her with her termination notice. She spun around dramatically, turned her back on them and marched down the stairs, refusing to accept the notice. In the style of sheriffs serving summons, the board members ceremonially touched her with the notice and then dropped it on the floor (forgetting, Abraham noted, to take a copy for themselves).
That evening they showed up at her home with the policeman to get the keys. Then they hired a younger woman, an officially certifield librarian, to replace Wallin.
What followed were petitions for her reinstatement, noisy confrontations, letters to the editor of the Port Townsend Leader and Wallin's court case, unsuccessful through the state courts. The city says she had a hearing before the city council and the library board. But it was not a formal administrative hearing, as has increasingly become the custom in government in bigger places than Port Townsend.
Though the people in Port Townsend were not surprised that she went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, Wallin insists on explaining it. "They never let me have a hearing. I felt that this can't be. It can't be this way. I believe in the fundamental principles of democracy. I believe they are worth preserving."