Little Free Library founder is a storyteller

Little Free Library founder Todd Bol

It’s been said that a prophet doesn’t get much honor in his hometown or his own household.

OK. Jesus said that, according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark, after the leaders of the Nazareth synagogue took offense to his teaching.

So the comparison isn’t perfect. Nobody in Hudson or Todd Bol’s family is offended that he started the Little Free Library movement, as far as I know. And while the little libraries popping up everywhere are quite a phenomenon, they’ll never match what Jesus started.

But it is true that for guy who has generated so much press across the nation and around the world, Bol has remained relatively unheralded in Hudson.

I wrote a story about him and the Little Free Libraries three weeks ago, but didn’t have room to tell it all. Here’s some of what got left out.

The 57-year-old grew up in Lake Elmo, Minn., one of five children of a St. Paul chiropractor and a teacher who stayed home to raise her kids.

He attended UW-River Falls after graduating from Stillwater Area High School, and went on to work in international business development for 30 years.

Bol met his wife, Susan, at UW-RF. The way he tells it, he fell madly in love the instant he spotted her in the student center.

“I told her she had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. And I told my best friend I was going to marry that woman,” Bol recalled.

He said he followed Susan from the student center into the library and told her that he wanted to get to know her.

Susan said it would be difficult, because she had a fiancé.

“I said, I don’t want to get to get to know him,” Bol laughed.

The Bols have two grown children. Allison, 28, is a health care analyst for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She has a bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire and a master’s degree from UW-Stout. Son Austin, 24, graduated top in his class in chemistry at UW-Eau Claire and has applied for entry to the University of Minnesota medical school.

It’s no wonder that Bol likes books. He’s an avid storyteller.

Around six years ago, the Bols purchased a modest, two-story house on North Street, overlooking the St. Croix River and Lake Mallalieu in the distance.

How that happened is another story.

They were living in a rented place in St. Mary’s Point, Minn., and looking to purchase a house. Bol had identified multiple neighborhoods along the river from the north side of Stillwater south to around Afton that were attractive to him.

There were 30 specific properties that he decided to bid on if they ever came on the market. Their North Street house was one of them.

The problem was, he made an offer on the house before Susan saw it. She explained to him in no uncertain terms that husbands don’t do that.

But Susan, a speech pathologist for the Stillwater Area School District, came around when she saw the view from the house. “We’ve always lived on water. She thought it was nice,” her lucky husband said.

Bol said their decision about where to live had boiled down to either Stillwater or Hudson. The tall condos on the north side of downtown Stillwater weren’t to their liking, and a factor in them choosing Hudson.

“I like Hudson. It’s sweet. It’s helped to have joined the Rotary, because I’ve always been an international guy,” Bol said. “It’s connected me more with the local businesses. You get to feel the heartbeat of the community through Rotary.”

The Little Free Libraries, Bol says, are — at the heart — about community.

“We are often told that the Little Free Library is the water cooler of literacy,” he said when I interviewed him for the Star-Observer story. “This kind of accomplishes what so many people are trying to do… they are trying to start grassroots movements where people are talking to each other, engaging, and educating and learning.”

In an increasingly digital world and one in which the media and political and religious leaders are often pushing us apart, people have an almost primal desire to connect with others, Bol said. “I think, naturally, left to our own (inclination), we really want to connect.”

I’m not certain of the timeline, but around when the Bols came to Hudson, the company he was working for wanted him to move to Cincinnati. He opted for a severance package and the St. Croix Valley instead.

That’s what gave him the time to get the Little Free Library organization off and running. The genesis of the Little Library is another story — and an amazing one to me.

“I was building things on my deck. I don’t like doing nothing,” Bol said. “I built a little library in honor of my mom and put it in our front yard.”

June Bol liked to read and often tutored neighborhood children.

“My mother was engaging. She could make you feel the best about yourself. She really meant it when she asked how you were,” Bol said.

When his mother died in June of 2001, Bol followed an American colonial practice of giving those who attended her funeral a gift. It was a necklace that said, “June A. Bol, a dancing spirit, 1927-2001.”

“Now my mother is dancing everywhere, because I feel like the spirit and the energy of my mom is in each one of those little libraries all over the world,” he said.

There’s still more this story, but space and a normal attention span doesn’t permit its telling here. Rick Brooks, the UW-Madison outreach program manager and Dane Buy Local co-founder, plays a major role in it.

Bol and Brooks met when Brooks came to Hudson to lead a workshop on sustainable communities and shopping locally. Brooks like him because he thought he was nuttier than him, Bol joked.

Brooks gets the credit for envisioning the mass appeal the Little Free Libraries would have. After putting up a few in Madison, they realized all they had to do to promote them is let people see them, he said.

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