Ruth and Eugene Coan were never members of St. Andrews Lutheran Church.
They never had children or grandchildren who attended the Park Ridge parish’s school. Gene wasn’t even Lutheran.
But after the couple passed away — Ruth in 2009, Gene in 2011 — they left St. Andrews School a gift that they hoped current and future generations of students could use.
An entirely new library — books and the wooden shelves upon which they sit, new lights, carpeting, and green-and-white cushioned chairs — was made possible thanks to a bequest the Coans left St. Andrews in their will.
Two years in the making, the school and parish, located at 260 N. Northwest Highway, celebrated the library’s completion during a dedication ceremony Nov. 17 after morning church services.
“I can’t think of anything they’d be happier about,” said Diane Kiepura, the St. Andrews teacher who knew the Coans for more than 20 years and had been charged with determining how to best spend the money they left to school.
As neighbors of Kiepura, the Coans, who did not have children of their own, formed a close bond with the family, treating the three Kiepura boys like grandchildren and attending their school events at St. Andrews, from basketball games to school plays. In the process, the couple gained a fondness for the school and the church community.
Still, the gift they left the school came as a surprise.
“We had no idea they were going to do this,” Kiepura said. “They were very charitable people and they left the bulk of their estate to various charitable things — the Heart Association, the cancer society and so forth — but absolutely at the top of the list was St. Andrews Lutheran School, which blew us away.”
“It was the most amazing thing when we found out,” said Principal Laura Boggs. “I can’t even explain the thrill and the blessing that was for our school.”
St. Andrews staff had been discussing upgrades to the basement library for years, but a lack of funds put their visions on hold. The Coans’ bequest, said Kiepura, seemed the perfect way bring those dormant plans to fruition.
Kiepura and fellow teacher Ken Singer, a member of the school improvement committee, partnered to take on the task. One of the first things they did was seek advice from Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 librarians.
“We realized it was necessary for our library to be on par or superior to the public school libraries,” Singer said.
With the librarians’ help, a vision for a modern, school library took shape. Removed were piles and piles of old, outdated books, brown metal bookshelves and the antiquated card catalog. A new computer system was put in place allowing students to easily search for books and even read a synopsis. Responding to new educational expectations under the state’s forthcoming Common Core Standards, the school ordered more nonfiction texts.
The library also features computer and instructional areas and separate sections for younger readers and for junior high-age students, complete with tables and soft reading chairs. There is also a saltwater fish tank along one wall that was donated by Living Sea Aquarium in Park Ridge.
“They just truly feel it’s their space,” Kiepura said of the students. “They don’t want to leave, they love to come here and hang out.”
They have also weighed in on what they would like to see in their new reading environment.
“Our students actually are very helpful in telling us what kind of materials they would like us to look into for the library and what their interest is as well,” Boggs said.
Kiepura declined to say how much the library renovation cost, but did say that the bequest was enough to cover it and add to the book collection for years to come.
“I think it’s a huge plus for the school,” Singer said. “I’m really looking forward to the future with the library being a vital resource for us and supporting our curriculum.”
Kiepura believes Ruth Coan, whom she described as a “voracious reader” who was never without a book, would be especially excited.
“She used to watch my boys when they were little and she always cuddled up with them and read,” Kiepura shared. “For her, reading was just part of her life. I don’t think we could have utilized this money to make her happier than by putting a book in the hand of a child.”