The largest gift ever bestowed on the Southwest Public Libraries honors the woman who served nearly 90 years ago as its first librarian.

The largest gift ever bestowed on the Southwest Public Libraries honors the woman who served nearly 90 years ago as its first librarian.

At the Southwest Public Libraries Board of Trustees last week, Laura Harper presented a $100,000 check to be used for the Youth Services Department in the new Grove City Library.

Harper donated the money to honor the memory of both her late husband, John, and his aunt, Irene Harper, who is recognized as the SPL's first librarian. She was hired in January 1924, at a starting salary of $30 a month -- which grew to $50 a month before being halved during the Great Depression.

"This is really kind of a bittersweet moment," Harper said. "I wish John was here. I'm only the messenger."

Irene Harper, daughter of James Harper and Elizabeth Seeds, a member of one of Grove City's original families, graduated from Ohio State University in 1916.

At OSU she was a member of Ohio State's College Equal Suffrage League, which was part of the national effort to win the right to vote for women.

Among her accomplishments for the library were purchasing its first card catalog and initiating service to Jackson Township Schools.

She died in 1934 at the age of 40, due to failing health that manifested after she was stricken with scarlet fever in the 1920s.

John Harper, who died in 1984, was the son of Irene Harper's brother, Merritt. Merritt Harper also graduated from OSU and became a professor of animal science at Cornell University in New York.

Laura Harper said she met her husband on a Greyhound bus in New York.

"I ended up sitting beside him," she said. "We got to talking, and it went from there."

John and Laura Harper lived in Rochester, N.Y., where he taught mathematics, and she was the head of the English Department at Brighton High School. They moved back to the family farm on the Franklin County-Pickaway County line in 1975.

Even back then, the Harpers discussed honoring his aunt's memory with a gift to the library.

Harper said she originally planned to bequeath the money to the library upon her death, but decided now was a good time, with planning for a new library underway, so she could watch what the library makes of it.

SPL soon will be constructing a new 48,000-square-foot Grove City Library at Broadway and Grant Avenue in Grove City's Town Center, in a joint venture with the city. Officials currently are taking proposals from architectural firms for the facility's design.

"We're just thrilled," library board of trustees President Lisa Leasure said, in accepting Harper's gift.

"To be able to do something a little extra (at the new library) with so much history to it, it's just fabulous."

Library Director Mark Shaw said the Harper donation is the largest gift in the library's history.

"We can take this money and turn it into something real special," he said. "SPL is what it is today because of the foresight and hard work and sacrifice of its early pioneers, especially the first librarian, Irene Harper."