BY MELANIE BUCK –
Mr. Harold Coogan, a local historian, educator, preserver of history, and very modest citizen of Polk County, has received the honor of having the New Collections Room inside RMCC’s Library named after him for his dedication to local history.
Coogan began his career as a history teacher more than 5 decades ago, working one year in Lewisville, Arkansas, before coming home and teaching for 21 years at Mena High School and 14 full-time years at RMCC before becoming an adjunct professor.
When speaking to Mr. Coogan, it doesn’t take one long to realize he has a memory better than any computer and can tell you almost anything about history, especially Polk County’s history.
Not only is his brain filled with facts from around the globe, but his home has many volumes of the past, begging to be seen by the future. Pictures, newspapers, and letters are pieces of his personal collection. Part of this collection has recently been donated and transported to Rich Mountain Community College’s Library for use by all.
The Mena Star was damaged by the 2009 tornado, tearing up the back of their building where archives were stored. Not having a place to store them, The Star contacted Coogan. At first, Coogan said he simply did not have room for the three pallets of newspapers that dated 1896 thru 2007, equaling several thousand newspapers. However, upon hearing that they were headed for the dump, Coogan called back and said, “I’ll take them.”
Over the last five years, Coogan has combed through every paper, most years had daily papers, searching for anything of interest. Whether it was a story on a new business in the county, the price of eggs in 1921, or someone who left the county and became famous, Coogan has classified them all. But what to do with them then?
Knowing that space was limited at home and the newspapers needed to be saved, Coogan asked Joe Rogers, the architect in charge of the new developments going on at the college, if he could add a space for ‘special collections.’ In turn, Rogers had the space implemented into the plans and the rest, as they say, is history. Even in the process of telling the Pulse about the room, Coogan gave a full history of Joe Rogers, being a former Mena resident, son of a Mena doctor, and so on. He really is full of Polk County knowledge.
Transporting the pallets, full of newspaper size ‘binders’ that have months, and sometimes whole years of Mena Star newspapers presented in book-style, was not an easy task, however, this year, RMCC’s library took possession and are now in the process of properly preserving each paper and binder. The process requires each binder to be placed in a freezer for 24-48 hours to kill any book mites, termites, or any other harmful creatures. The college only has a small freezer so the process will take several months. The next step is to go through 24-48 hours of drying time before being placed on the newly built shelves that were built specifically for perfect access to researchers and history lovers. RMCC Librarian Brenda Miner stated, “Some of the items are in bad shape. If they need to be protected, we will place the more fragile items in archive boxes.”
“These things are very important. They are just like a time machine that takes us back and if they’re gone, then we have no connection to the past. We’ve lost so much of our local history and I don’t want us to lose all of it,” stated Coogan. He added, “We are what we are because of our past.”
Named the “Harold Coogan Special Collections Room,” it will house every Mena Star from inception plus microfilms, pictures, binders, and collections of importance that Coogan has assembled. Miner said, “We do have some of Mr. Coogan’s original works in with the collection, also.”
Mr. Coogan’s collection goes far beyond what was donated. When asked what would happen with the rest of his collection, Mr. Coogan would only say, “That will be up to my family when I’m gone.” Miner added, “We are very thankful that Mr. Coogan has donated all of this and eventually we hope that the public will be able to use it once it’s all processed.”
Although Mr. Coogan is not one for fanfare, Miner said, “His family wanted to honor him and they knew this would be a special way to do that.” An unofficial ceremony was held several months back for his family, at a huge surprise to Coogan, “I was in the back of the library helping Brenda and when we came out, I saw these people, some of my family, and thought well this must be a tour of the library or something. It never hit me until Phillip (Wilson) got up and started talking. I was very stunned.”
Last Thursday, RMCC President Phillip Wilson made the dedication official, along with the dedication of several other areas of the college, when RMCC hosted the Ouachita Center’s Open House.
Not only have Mr. Coogan’s son, Todd, and grandson, Craig Bentley, become history teachers themselves, obviously influenced by their head-of-family, Coogan’s many years in the classroom and his collection may serve to encourage others to preserve what so many have deemed no longer important… history.
When asked what he thought his legacy would be, Coogan replied, “I’m not seeking a legacy.” When pressed if he thought he would be remembered as a ‘keeper of the past’ he responded with a true teacher’s heart, “I hope I’ll be remembered for my work in the classroom.”