Sadie Kent was a woman ahead of her time. In a time when women were mostly expected to stay home, Kent chose education and a career. She became a leading force behind Southeast Missouri State University’s library and spent her life fighting for women’s rights, working to grow the library’s resources and leaving a legacy of determination and academic achievement.
At the turn of the 20th century, Kent was working to create a library that could properly serve both the Normal School and the Cape Girardeau community as a whole. This year, the library will celebrate its 75th anniversary with students, faculty, staff and the community, and will focus on the rich history and story behind the growth of Kent Library.
Throughout her career as a librarian, Sadie Kent pushed to create a larger, better library that could host community events, provide adequate and abundant information for student research and help the community grow stronger.
At the beginning of Kent’s career at Southeast Missouri State University, then called the Normal School, the library was still located in Academic Hall.
According to Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff, professor emeritus of history at Southeast, Kent became an assistant librarian in 1902 and then librarian for the university in 1910. The library was small at that time and consisted mainly of used textbooks.
Stepenoff said Kent was born in Arkansas and that she went to college at Columbia University in New York. She began working as a public school teacher in the Missouri bootheel and later came to Cape Girardeau to start her career at the library.
Stepenoff said that when Kent first came to Southeast she lived in the dormitories on campus and was a Dean of Women who lived on campus. At that time it was not uncommon for faculty members to also live in the dorms. Eventually Kent moved out of the dorms, but she remained single throughout her life.
“In the time period she lived, in which she came to adulthood, definitely the mindset was if a woman chose a career that she would remain single, and so she never married and she dedicated her life to her career,”
In 1939, the university finished building the library that still stands today across the street from Academic Hall, which was later named in honor of Kent after her retirement in 1943.
“For one of her projects at Columbia University in New York she submitted a design for a library, a modern library,” Stepenoff said. “That design was basically the one the architects used to design Kent Library. With some changes of course by the architects, but it was basically her design, and then she continued as librarian after the new library was built.”
After all the books were transitioned from the limited space in Academic Hall to the new library building across the street, Kent started to work to grow the library, and made the building a depository for state and
federal documents. All reports, books and journals printed by the state were eligible to be added to the library, and Kent made sure to have them added to help build a research facility for students.
“In her years as librarian the library grew astronomically in terms of the number of books and the services offered. She was a very important factor in the library and in the university, too,” Stepenoff said.
Stepenoff said that Kent had a lot of connections in the state and around the area, and that her determination helped to make the library grow.
“I think the way she grew the library was to make it known around the state that ‘Yes, we are serious, we have a serious library here, it’s a serious research library. We’re going to collect federal and state documents, we’re going to have a theater where we can bring in lecturers and reach out to the community,’ and in that way she got people to back up her requests for funding for more books,” Stepenoff said. “I think she was really quite progressive.”
Stepenoff said that Kent won the respect of her peers through her resounding fortitude and constant work to better the library. That work, in turn, brought respect to the library.
“In a time when women weren’t necessarily encouraged to go out and, you know, present themselves in public and be ambitious and be career women, she really strove to not only go as far as she could in her profession, but to become the best librarian that she could be and get as much education as she could,” Stepenoff said.
The library has honored Kent throughout the years since she worked at the library by naming the building after her, referring to the card catalogue — now online — as Sadie and naming the meeting place in the library for different speakers and the Athenaeum series “Sadie’s Place.”
“I think that is a very good way to honor her memory because I think that was part of what she tried to do as librarian, was to bring the community into the library including children, she had children’s parties. … That was part of the mission of course of the Normal School, and still is part of the mission of the university to train teachers, and so the children’s library was part of that mission,” Stepenoff said. “I think Sadie’s Place is a really good way to honor her because it kind of keeps up that tradition of having social events and educational events in the library that are open to people from the university but also from the community.”
Stepenoff said that Kent was involved in the community as well as in the library, and that she was
passionate about women’s rights.
“When you see pictures of her she looks very stern, but she was a person who had lots of friends and, you know, had a social life, belonged to clubs, and women’s clubs of that time period were very, very important for bridging, bringing women, married women, out into public life and getting them involved in different causes or in charity work or social welfare type work and connecting career women and the women who stayed home with their families and getting everybody on board with the cause of suffrage,” Stepenoff said.
Roxanne Dunn, instructor and Special Collections and Archives librarian at Southeast, said that Kent originally commissioned 45 stained glass windows in 1939 to be created by Owen G. Bonawit to help decorate the library’s north facing windows. The panels depict images of Missouri history, famous early printers and the names of nine well-known authors.
“Those windows, because we’ve had them since 1939, they’re kind of a big piece of Sadie and almost all except for kind of the last 10 years, all the generations of Southeast students have seen those windows,” Dunn said. “They either saw them in the front of the library, they saw them when they were displayed from the mid-60s until 2005 on the third floor mezzanine there, and again it was unfortunate from 2005 to 2014 they were in storage, so we are missing a gap there, but now students again can see them, and I think that is a really nice piece that ties it all together.”
Dunn said that the windows were taken down in the mid-60s and placed elsewhere in the library because university officials decided to add the portico on to the building to help add some more interior space. This was the first major construction done on the structure since it opened in 1939. Work continued to be done to the library to slowly update it as time went on.
The stained glass windows were brought out of storage and reinstalled in the library on the third floor during the first week of August, and on Oct. 8, Gay Walker, an author and researcher of Bonawit’s work, came to Southeast to speak about the windows’ history as a part of the library’s 75th anniversary events.
Throughout her life, Kent met many people and saw many students matriculate through the university. One student was Dr. Dan Cotner, 92, who is a retired dentist.
Cotner said that he first met Kent when he was 3 years old in the 1920s at the First Presbyterian Church in Cape Girardeau. He said that Kent would make him paper planes and boats to keep him busy during church, and that while Kent was a stern individual, she was always kind to him.
“In 1941, I graduated mid-year and started SEMO State Teacher’s College at that time, of course” Cotner said. “As soon as I started to get my textbooks, which was across from the Rare Book Room, there are stairways that go up diagonally across from the Rare Book Room with Ms. Kent’s portrait on the wall right by it. … Things were deathly quiet in the library, you could only whisper at that time. Anybody that made much noise was on her [Kent’s] blacklist right away. So here she stands on the west end of the stairway, I was waiting to get my textbooks, and she sees me and she [said] ‘Well hello Danny Cotner!’ all through the quiet library and you can imagine as a freshman student I was pretty embarrassed, but so happy to be on the good side of her.”
Polly Cotner, Dan’s wife, said that she worked at Kent Library for 25 years, but never had the chance to meet Kent herself. Her parents, on the other hand, knew Kent well.
Polly Cotner said that Kent made a point to care about students because they were away from home for the first time and they didn’t have any particular parental guidance while away. Although she said Kent was not the mother-figure type, she still cared about the students and whether or not they did well at the university.
“My mother used to say that she took a personal interest in students, and she advised my mother that my mother was paying entirely too much attention to that Paul Sturgeon,” Polly Cotner said with a chuckle. “Of
course, my mother married Paul Sturgeon and he’s my father.”
Dunn said that there will be two specific events on Friday to commemorate the library’s anniversary. First, there will be an event from noon to 1:00 p.m. for students to attend at Sadie’s Place on the second floor of the library. This will be the library’s birthday party, and students are invited to look at some displays about the anniversary set up by the library staff while enjoying a cupcake.
Second, there will be a celebration from 6:00 p.m. that evening that will feature opening remarks from Southeast’s Vice President for University Advancement and Executive Director of the University Foundation Bill Holland. There will also be three community speakers including Dr. Frank Nickell, professor emeritus of history, Dr. John Bierk, professor emeritus of English and Dr. Robert Hamblin, professor emeritus of English. Two student violinists from Southeast will play music and there will be tours of the Rare Book Room and the Bonawit stained glass on the third floor will be unveiled.
“It’s basically just going to be a little celebration to make people aware Kent Library is still here, we’re still very relevant but we are, in terms of — we have a lot of resources that are electronic now, digital, but we also are very respectful of our past and kind of want to highlight and celebrate the past 75 years,” Dunn said.
Dan Cotner said he is most excited about visiting with old friends and reminiscing about his memories at Southeast and his memories of Kent at the anniversary event.
“She was not a person who just wanted to stay hidden in the library and not be part of the community,” Stepenoff said. “I think she presented herself in a very dramatic way. People who met her never forgot her.”