News : Tobin, or not Tobin? 

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Because, according to Hamlet's Lord Polonius, both parties can find themselves in some awkward, news-making positions.

We turn to the Bard to explain what broke down between the philanthropists over at the Tobin Endowment (patrons of all things staged) and the fund-raisers over at the San Antonio Public Library Foundation (bibliophiles), who thought better of asking for a financial gift after trouble started brewing. "We didn't want there to be any question of impropriety," said SAPLF president and CEO Kaye Lenox.

Last week, SAPLF, which has played the role of the public library's private-sector solicitor since 1983, withdrew its $250,000 grant request for book money, submitted to the endowment just four months earlier. The grant retraction came after a ghost contacted the Current and ominously declared that there were backroom pressures involved with said grant, that the Oakwell Branch Library would have to be renamed in order to get said monies, and then, to show its displeasure, said ghost resigned from its position on the San Antonio Public Library Board of Trustees, the sole body in charge of library re-namings.

OK, it wasn't any Hamlet-style ghost, but Beverly Ingle, a real working mother of four, who, FULL DISCLOSURE, is a contributing writer at the Current. The letter Ingle submitted last week, relinquishing her not-even-year-old seat representing Oakwell Branch's District 10, had all kinds of Shakespearian portent:

"Under the specter of potentially renaming the Oakwell Branch Library," Ingle wrote to the board, SAPLF, and District 10 Councilman Chip Haass, who appointed her, "I resign and offer this caution: Listen closely to all sides of the issue, as they all have some valid points ... but listen, too, to that which goes unsaid."

Why was there so much drama involved with buying art books? And who asks for $250,000, then changes their mind? (What's not being said, and who isn't saying it?)

Almost 40 years ago, a sentimental San Antonio philanthropist named Robert L.B. Tobin donated 1.5 acres of his family land along the Salado Creek to the City's public-library system. He asked that the branch name honor his family's ancestral home in England, Oakwell Hall - a manor house built in the late 16th century and mentioned in Charlotte Brontë's second novel, Shirley. Tobin refused to pin his surname to the philanthropic gesture, said J. Bruce Bugg Jr., a co-trustee in charge of Tobin's estate. Tobin was an eccentric patron of the arts, someone you might find at the Met on opening night wearing a cape and clutching his ornamental walking cane, looking as daring as a Stravinsky ballet. But he was just too modest to allow a Tobin Branch Library to come into being, said Bugg.

The statute on modesty must have passed, because the Tobin Endowment, the charitable organization that has donated almost $5 million annually since Tobin's death in 2000, with the blessing of city officials recently decided to revisit the issue of the library's name. "Recent" as in "right after the Library Foundation submitted its grant in March." Which could have been seen as a $250,000 carrot and contingency dangled in front of the guardians of a perpetually under-funded, 22-branch library system (we're talking $45 million behind in books and materials, $15 million behind on building maintenance, and we hope you have something to read while you wait months to check out that bestseller).

Or the re-naming, which is still under consideration, could be seen as finally honoring the patron who made the property gift in the first place. How do you see it, Aaron Konstam?

"He clearly didn't want it to be called the Tobin Library," said Konstam, a board member of the Oakwell Branch Friends of the Library. "Why, after 40 years, did they suddenly discover that they want to change the name?"

It's been said that Tobin, while living, was a greater supporter of New York's artistic community (he was a founding member of the $200,000-and-up multiyear pledge at the Metropolitan Opera) than he was of the Alamo City's.

But figuring out his intent is not as grave and terrible an undertaking as figuring out the what the constitutional framers meant (what do the Federalist Papers have to say about selling the naming rights to public buildings, by the way?). Childless, the philanthropist left family riches earned through his father's aerial surveying and mapmaking to make San Antonians happy. (Let's not dwell on the unhappy days in 2000 and 2004 when Tobin estate trustees Bugg and Leroy Denman Jr. fell under the stern gaze of two Texas attorneys general for the fees they reaped - no legal actions were taken.) So what if the executors of the endowment tried to fix a bow-tie with the Tobin name to all their good deeds (past and present), supporters of the name change ask? No doubt you've seen the Tobin tag on the North Side, and beyond: It's all over the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum (say that three times, fast). And there's the Tobin Lobby at the Josephine Theater; the Robert L.B. Tobin Park; the Tobin Center for Performing Arts at St. Mary's Hall. A studio at our public-television station bears his name (Bugg was a KLRN board member when the Endowment made the $500,000 gift). And there's already a Tobin Library at the San Antonio Academy - so christened when one of Bugg's kids went there. Similarly, Bugg said, while driving past the Oakwell library, he got to thinking ...

And, he said, he made these thoughts known at a grant-application meeting with SAPLF Board Chairman Dennis Martinez and President Lenox.

"I just asked the question: Would it be appropriate to consider re-naming it after the people who donated the land, since they had the naming rights and named it the Oakwell Branch at the time?"

SAPLF president Lenox won't say much about re-naming discussions with the former donor candidate, because "these relationships ... are very serious business." And library-board resignation letters suggesting quid pro quo, certainly muck up the process, she said, noting that Ingle's resignation letter was the reason the grant was withdrawn.

Lenox will allow that not offering such naming opportunities "could hamstring fundraising." Because "philanthropy is lagging behind in our community ... and big donors like `businessman` Red McCombs and `Clear Channel CEO` Lowry Mays are looking to `Texas` A&M and Southwest Texas `College`," because of San Antonians' reluctance to hang new donor names on the public facilities they support, she said.

Who's reluctant? Look at Mayor Hardberger's "Tobin-is-Terrific" letter, sent to the library board in support of the name change this May. (The mayor's wife is a director for the Tobin Theatre Arts fund, a separate nonprofit, also funded by Tobin's estate, so he's no doubt used to the name.) He offered this curious line: "`W`hile I do not believe the Library Board should ever offer a 'quid pro quo' for the naming of library branches, I believe that we should seize the opportunity to honor individuals whose exceptional support for our libraries and our communities deserve recognition."

Wait a minute. Who, besides our worried ghost, was talking about quid pro quo? Other members on the library's 110- person board. In the last branch re-naming (a hard-feelings vote that will bring the new John Igo library, named after a former San Antonio College legend, to the Northwest Side), the issue of selling naming rights for libraries as if they were sports stadiums came up.

Which brings us back to that cautioning ghost, and the things that are left unsaid. Library Board Chairman John Nicholas said they have named facilities after donors in the past. About half are named after people - wealthy donors, do-gooders, former librarians, a former Northeast ISD superintendent. Others are named after local celebrities like Maury Maverick Jr., and Henry Guerra Jr., and Julia Yates Semmes - a woman whose foundation gave $1 million to the Library Foundation.

Now that the library's grant application to the endowment has been withdrawn, it remains to be seen whether the Oakwell re-naming will spark a conversation about the price and criteria used to put donor names on public buildings. And: will there still be a serious movement to make a Tobin Branch, or will there not be? That is the question.

A public hearing to discuss the re-naming is set for Friday at 4 p.m. at the Oakwell Branch at 4134 Harry Wurzbach Dr.



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.