Librarian leaves $646K gift for Hennepin bookshelves

Lillian Wallis stipulated that the money go to buy popular titles.

Linda Engberg chuckled when she learned that her longtime friend and colleague, Lillian Wallis, had bequeathed a large sum to the Hennepin County Library specifically for "popular books that circulate."

Wallis, it seemed, was not going to be responsible for any more obscure, dusty tomes piling up in the back stacks.

"She had a real appreciation for the role of the public library," said Engberg, former deputy director of the Hennepin library.

Wallis, who died in September at age 85, left $646,000 to the library's foundation, the biggest such gift to the Hennepin library in recent years. It's half the $1.1 million the foundation had previously received since 2003.

News of the large bequest, which was the bulk of Wallis' estate, came as no surprise to her nephew, Tom Roberts of Mukwonago, Wis.

"It was very clear in her mind that libraries really exist as a conduit for education and materials of a broad range for the general public," he said. "I was really happy she did this. She's going to do more good for a longer time."

After graduating from library school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1950, Wallis started her career in Olympia, Wash., and moved to Minneapolis as an assistant branch librarian in 1951. She transferred to the Hennepin County system in the mid-1950s.

After library stints at the University of Minnesota, in Racine, Wis., and with the U.S. Army in West Germany, Willis returned to the Hennepin County system in 1964 before going back to the Minneapolis public library. She was the Minneapolis library's technical services chief when she retired in 1987.

Willis became more active after she stopped working. She volunteered as a clerk at the Minneapolis library's used bookstore, tutored adult students in literacy, coordinated services for Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly and sorted documents for the Minnesota Historical Society.

But her great passion was travel, Roberts said. She attended the opera in Sydney, went up the Amazon River in a dugout canoe, flew to Audubon birding camps and participated in countless Elderhostel programs. Never married, she lived simply in a Nicollet Mall condo that helped her maintain a car-free lifestyle.

Last summer she lost her balance while standing on the curb and fractured her thighbone. She died a month later and was buried in a family plot in Kenosha, Wis.

Hennepin County commissioners gratefully accepted Willis' gift last week. "There are gifts and there are gifts, and I can't remember ever receiving any this large," Board Chair Mike Opat said.

Commission Gail Dorfman said, "We don't get something like this that comes before the board very often, where somebody's donated money from their estate, particularly to the library, which I think is great. I didn't know Lillian Wallis. I wish now that I did."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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