When the new Rock Island Public Library (RIPL) branch inside the future Two Rivers YMCA at 2715 30th St., opens by the end of this year, it will bear the name of one of the city’s most dedicated, giving families.

The RIPL Board of Trustees has officially voted to name the new location as the Watts-Midtown Branch — to honor enduring support shown to the library by the late Lorene Evans Watts, and her son, Eudell Watts III, as former and current members of the library board.

He was appointed to the library board by former Mayor Mark Schwiebert in October 2003. He is currently serving his third term as president of the trustees’ board, and also represents the library on the Rock Island Public Library Foundation Board.

Eudell Watts III, a 82-year-old Rock Island native, holds a photo of his parents, Eudell and Lorene.

“The library is important to my family, because as a young person, my mother was on the library board,” Watts — a soft-spoken, 82-year-old Rock Island native — said Friday. “She had a history of sending us to the library because reading and books were a big part of our life. She was a schoolteacher and a reading advocate, and encouraged us to read. Books were just always a big part of our lives.”

Watts has contributed his culinary talents to the Foundation’s “Food for Thought” fundraisers, and 11 years ago established the Lorene Evans Watts Memorial Fund for Children’s Materials with the Library Foundation.  Established in honor of his late mother’s contributions to education, the fund is now worth in excess of $50,000. The library receives an annual disbursement from the endowment interest.

Before the pandemic, they had an annual trivia night fundraiser. Thursday night’s library “Food for Thought” benefit (which started in 2004 and this was the first one since 2019) raised proceeds for the Watts fund for the first time.

“I’m overwhelmed; I’m almost kind of embarrassed when they first said it,” Watts said of having the new library named for his family. “It was a surprise, and really a good one. I was embarrassed, but then it’s really great for my mother. I really appreciate it and am happy for it.”

Campaign co-chairs Tom Thoms, left, Mark Schwiebert and Heidi Huiskamp Collins got some help from local students in dedicating progress of a new YMCA and Rock Island Public Library branch on May 10, 2022.

Watts is proud that the YMCA and library will share the same building, which is rare across the country. His daughter Tracy (a college administrator) happens to live in San Antonio, Tex., where there is a similar partnership.

“She said, it’s the greatest place in the world. I take the kids there, and they run and play while I’m doing some work, or I’m walking while they do their homework,” he said. “It just worked out really great. She had nothing but praise for it. That made me feel comfortable.”

“It’s a humbling experience. I am very appreciative that somebody recognizes the work she did,” Watts said of his mom. “She went about her work quietly.”

Many of his family members are involved in education, including daughters and son, nieces and nephews.

“Most of my kids are in education,” Watts said, noting his daughter Lorelai will be a Rock Island administrator; his son David teaches in Naples, Fla.; and his daughter Janice teaches at Thurgood Marshall.

“A natural fit”

Library director Angela Campbell on Friday called Watts “an amazing person,” crediting his dedication, selflessness and hard work.

Rock Island library director Angela Campbell

“He serves on committees; he’s just really invested in what we do,” she said. “Then he told me about his mom, who served on the board, how important the library was to him growing up — supporting literature and the community. It’s just a natural fit.”

“It’s wonderful to have a building named after a family for their continued record of service,” said Lisa Lockheart, the library’s publicity and outreach liaison. “He helped us create ‘Food for Thought,’ devoted his talents to it. There’s so much service over the years.”

This is the first time Rock Island has named a library after a person, and “it couldn’t be more perfect,” Campbell said.

The Watts family fund goes to children’s literature and programs, and they have financially supported the new branch.

A rendering of the entrance to the new combined Two Rivers Y and Rock Island Public Library branch at 2715 30th St., the site of the former Tri-City Jewish Center.

“During lean budget years, that’s a lot of the money we have to spend,” Campbell said of the children’s fund. “We can’t thank him enough for that, and I know it’s important to him, too.”

Watts rarely misses a board meeting, and he fatefully missed the one in September 2021, when the board discussed naming the new library branch. In October, they voted to approve it and he was very surprised to learn that.

“He’s so humble, he wouldn’t let us do it, and last night at the fundraiser, nobody told him all the proceeds were going to his mom’s memorial fund,” Campbell said. “We totally surprised him. He’s so sweet, totally deserving.”

A lifetime legacy of service

Community service and social justice are somewhat of a Watts family legacy. “Mom always found a way to help people, and that rubbed off on us and on Dad. It really rubbed off on everybody. They went about it in a quiet way,” said daughter Marie (Watts) Grigsby, Eudell’s sister.

Eudell Watts III and his sister Marie at the Rock Island Public Library.

“They helped more people than we’ll ever know,” added Eudell, noting that his mother was known throughout their neighborhood as an after-school and summer tutor, and for the informal food program she ran for neighbors in need.  A former neighbor and teacher once told him, “that there were days when we didn’t know if we would make it, if not for Mrs. Watts.”  

After her appointment by Mayor James Haymaker, Lorene Watts served on the library board from September 1968 through late 1973. Mrs. Watts completed terms as board secretary from 1969 through 1971, and as vice-president during the library’s centennial year of 1972-73. She served on the board’s personnel, books and periodicals, finance, and Operation Read committees.

Before joining the RIPL board, she also served on the first Rock Island Human Relations Commission from 1960 to 1965.  Professed to the secular order of St. Francis, she served as a delegate from St. Joseph Church to the Synod 6 Diocese of Peoria General Assembly in March 1974.

Married to Eudell Watts Jr, in 1935 in Kewanee, the Watts later moved to Rock Island where they raised Marie, Eudell III, James, John, and David. In 1959, Lorene enrolled as a senior at Marycrest College in Davenport, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education, graduating with her daughter, Marie. At the urging of her St. Joseph’s pastor, she resumed her educational career at St. Joseph’s Grade School, teaching third-grade there from 1959 to 1963.

A rendering of the lobby area in the new combination Rock Island Y and library (to be called the Watts-Midtown Branch).

Mrs. Watts was a lifelong learner, taking art, French, and art education courses at The Sorbonne in Paris, Augustana College, and Black Hawk College. She passed away May 31, 1976.

Eudell Watts III has owned and operated multiple local businesses, most recently, Old Arthur’s BBQ Sauce, and volunteered for the St. Joseph’s evening meal board of directors, Rock Island and Illinois Jaycees, Franciscan Hospital Board, Quad City Chapter of the American Red Cross, and Breakfast Optimist Club. 

A lifelong Rock Island resident, Watts has maintained an enduring focus on social justice. He was the youngest member and only person of color on the committee to establish Franciscan Hospital (now UnityPoint Health – Trinity Rock Island.)

Watts earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at St. Ambrose University, a master’s degree in sports management and sociology at Western Illinois University, and a culinary arts degree from Scott Community College. He is the father of Lorelei, Eudell IV, Tracy, Janice, David, and Isabel.

Old Arthur’s Barbecue sauces and seasonings are named after the great-grandfather of Eudell Watts III.

The popular Old Arthur’s BBQ Sauce (which sells in Chicago and the QC region) is named after his great-grandfather. He lived in Kewanee for 100 years, and Watts is named after Arthur’s son, Eudell. “As a young person, he brought the recipe with him out of slavery. He was a houseboy and cook.”

After Lorene’s death, the family wanted to honor her memory.

“There were so many people she tutored over the years, who spoke of her,” Watts said Friday. “People she didn’t have to spend time with, over the summer. She helped a lot of people over those three months — not only with food and other assistance. She spent a lot of time as a tutor, and that inspired us to follow forward and do the same thing.

“She was amazing in that way,” he recalled. “She would never ask for money or a thank you. She’d probably be embarrassed today to know what we’re doing in her name.”

Celebrating 150 years

This year is also the RIPL’s 150th anniversary, since the first city library opened Nov. 25, 1872 (at the site of the former Modern Woodmen Bank downtown on 17th Street). Rock Island was the first Illinois library to open to the public, Lockheart said. The main downtown library (401 19th St.) first opened in 1903.

The Rock Island Main Library, 401 19th St., was built in 1903, part of the oldest library system in Illinois, first opening downtown in 1872.

There will be a whole year of activities to celebrate the library’s sesquicentennial, starting with actual 150th anniversary in November.

“We’re so excited,” Campbell said Friday. ” ‘Nifty at 150’ — that’s our theme.”

If nothing goes wrong with supply-chain issues, the new branch plans to open in November, she said.

The former Tri-City Jewish Center is now owned by the YMCA, with the RIPL to occupy about 10,000 square feet of the 42,868-square-foot building, not including many shared common areas.

The renovation work is in progress, which also will feature an outdoor patio for the library and its first teen area. The YMCA and library will share occupancy to provide additional locations and services to their existing operations, which include the library’s Downtown and Southwest buildings, and the Library2Go bookmobile. Barring unforeseen delays, completion is expected in late 2022.

The joint capital campaign has raised $7.8 million in private funding. Fundraising efforts are continuing to address additional funding needs created by supply chain and inflation issues. For more about fundraising for the Watts-Midtown branch, visit https://www.rockislandlibrary.org/support

Construction updates about the project will be posted on the library website at the Locations and Hours page HERE. To see a campaign video on the YMCA/library project (featuring Watts), click HERE.