Innerviews: Longtime library chief one for the books
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Oct. 6, he turns 90. Last April, he had open-heart surgery -- five bypasses. But Nick Winowich remains as animated and cheerful as ever. That engaging, signature smile hasn't faltered.
A Pittsburgh native and a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he directed the Kanawha County Public Library for 30 years, added seven branches and satellite school libraries, and monitored the transition from card catalogues to computers, among other accomplishments.
A dedicated track and field official and devoted community volunteer, he held top positions in state and regional library organizations, the Job Corps and Sunrise, and worked for years with Manna Meals and Covenant House. He still volunteers every Tuesday at CAMC Memorial Hospital.
Letters on his license plate reflect his first and abiding love: BOOKS. He should write one. A newspaper column can't hold all the colorful anecdotes about his life.
"I grew up in Pittsburgh, a first-generation American. My father immigrated from Serbia, or Yugoslavia, in 1914 and my mother in 1920. In 1927, they became U.S. citizens.
"The first three years of my life, my only language was Serbian. About age 4, I hit the streets where I met other first-generation Americans and we learned English that way.
"Almost every Saturday, they had a children's story hour at the library branch. I would always be there. I loved story hours and books. I read a lot of cowboy books.
"I ran track in school. My Serbian-Russian-Ukrainian friends would have killed me on a football field. At basketball and baseball, I was a turkey. So I ran track and earned a letter.
"My dad started off as a coal miner and became a laborer in the steel mill. We had money. Life was relatively inexpensive then. For example, I couldn't get a job after high school, but managed to hook up with a magazine subscription firm. I would clear $35 to $40 a week, big money. I gave this money to my mother and she would always cry.
"There was a giant apartment building. I went in and met a young, attractive woman, and she called about 18 or 19 friends, and they all bought subscriptions. I was rich!
"On Monday morning, on the chalk board was a message: 'Winowich, come see me. The manager.' I thought he was going to pat me on the back. Instead, he said, 'What the hell were you doing in that cathouse?'
"Then I got drafted into the Army. I got to England shortly after D-Day. About the middle of August, I hit Normandy. It was still a mess. I was a corporal by then. I went over as a replacement, a radio operator and gunner. I had that keyboard right on my thigh. They decided I made a better radio operator than gunner, so I became exclusively a radio operator.
"I was in Bastogne with the 4th Army Division, Third Army. We broke the German lines and entered Bastogne and chased the guys away. We met guys from the 101st Airborne and also units of the 9th and 10th Armored Division. They don't get any recognition for being there. We were all hugging. Twenty minutes later, they said, 'Hey, Mack, you better watch your ass or you will get shot.'
"I was never so miserable in my life than in Bastogne. I was cold, scared, hungry and thirsty and had no sleep. I was glad to get the hell out of there.
"About 10 years ago, Natalie and I took an Elderhostel trip on the waterways of Holland and Belgium. When we got to Bruges in Belgium, I looked at the map and saw that Bastogne wasn't far away.
"I went to City Hall. I told a young woman who spoke English that I had been there during the Battle of the Bulge. She asked for my name and address. She said that for everyone who fought in Bastogne and returned, they were going to plant a tree in their honor, and my name and address would be on the bronze plaque on that tree. We haven't been able to go back, but I assume it was done.
"We liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany. Cadavers were stacked maybe 15 feet high and a couple hundred yards long. I had photographs of all that. It was horrible.
"We almost killed the survivors with kindness. We gave them the GI food in cans and cardboard boxes. The division commander said anyone caught feeding them would be court-martialed. They had to have a special diet. All you saw was a bag of dirty, stinking clothes on a skeleton.
"A friend who spoke German was talking to a gentleman, the burgermeister, or mayor. I asked the burgermeister, 'Were you aware of this? Did you see any signs of it?' He said no, no to everything. The next day, my friend called me over and told me the mayor had committed suicide.
"I had a conversation with General Patton. We were down at Alsace-Lorraine chasing the guys on the other side. A siren started going off. Here comes this Jeep. I saluted and said, 'Good morning, General.' He said, 'Good morning, soldier.' That qualifies as a conversation, doesn't it?
"When the war ended, I was in Czechoslovakia. When I got home, my parents threw a big party. The next day at dinner, my father said to everyone, 'What do you think Nicky should do now that he has his honorable Army discharge?' They all said something. My father turned in his chair and said, 'We never had a Winowich who went to college.' I got my message.
"I went to the second semester at Bethany on the GI Bill. I couldn't get a job in the spring, so I went to Pitt and took some summer classes. I did that again the next year. I had enough credits that transferred that I graduated in '49 after entering in '46.
"I majored in history and education. I was going to be a teacher. I would have been a damn good teacher. But after student teaching, I decided I didn't want that.
"A college librarian recruited me. He said I should go to Carnegie, that it was accredited by the American Library Association. I got married and went to graduate school and got my master's in 1950.
"I spent two years at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, then went to the library in McKeesport, Pa., and stayed four years.
"When my cataloger was ill, I cataloged. When my children's librarian was absent, I did children's library work. When the custodian was ill, I had to be the custodian. In the winter, I had to shovel coal in that furnace.
"Then I got a call from a man at the Kanawha County Library saying he was leaving and would like to recommend me. I flew down. I think the round-trip fare was $75.
"The library was where Huntington Banks is now. So the library board and I built a new library in St. Albans, Dunbar and a couple of other places. We got some federal money and money from the building we sold, so it didn't cost the county a dime.
"That drive-in window was the first one in the United States. The first couple of years, a lot of people thought we were part of Charleston National Bank, and they would drive in wanting to make deposits.
"When I came, we still had the card catalog. Computers were introduced in 1967, I think, through a grant. They were damn slow compared to today.
"We added another elevator and invited kids from all over the county to come in. For some, it was the first elevator ride they ever had. I hope they turned out to be library users.
"There were challenges. The TV station wanted me to have a debate with Mayor Copenhaver about 'Peyton Place.' Some people tried to get it banned, but Mary Lee Settle and Jim Lewis and a host of other people rose up in defense of the library.
"I retired after exactly 30 years. The first week at home was really boring, so I became a volunteer with Manna Meals and Covenant House. Then I moved over to Charleston Memorial. I still volunteer there every Tuesday.
"My first wife, Ruth Fleming, died of brain cancer in 1977. My kids said I should become a track and field official to keep busy. So I did that. Natalie got into it. Each of us has a master rating.
"We've been to Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New Orleans. We officiated in two Olympic trials. I called it a career this year.
"I had perfect health until the Wednesday before Easter when I had five bypasses and spent about two weeks in the hospital.
"I went in the hospital at 173. As of yesterday, I am 159. I'm also a diabetic and have been for 15 years. The lower weight is good for my blood sugar. I feel great.
"If I had it all to do over again, I would do it just exactly the way it turned out. If I ever come back, I'm going to teach medieval history. Will you sign up for my class?"Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.