Vonderheide leaves mark with library legacy



JASPER — When the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center comes up in conversation, Dean Vonderheide’s name usually comes up, too.

The former Jasper Public Library Board president-turned-mayor of Jasper has been a key player in the cultural center project since the idea to merge the Jasper Public Library and Jasper Community Arts into one building sprouted in 2014.

In the years since, Vonderheide has been one of several library and city officials who have dedicated countless hours to making the project a reality. The project is a large part of the legacy Vonderheide left on the library board when he stepped down from that post to become Jasper’s mayor earlier this month after former mayor Terry Seitz accepted a position with U.S. Senator Mike Braun. The other part of Vonderheide’s legacy at the library, as he sees it, is a shift in thinking that changed the way the Jasper Public Library serves the community.

When Vonderheide joined the Jasper Public Library Board in 2011, leaders were struggling to get the public onboard with a building project on South Newton Street near Jasper 8 Theaters and the Dubois County Corrections Center that required a property tax referendum. The decision split the board almost in half, and Vonderheide voted against the idea.

“I felt like we were only focused on the building,” Vonderheide said during an interview in his new office in Jasper City Hall. “We weren’t focused on the service, so we hadn’t marketed ourselves very well in the public’s eye to be an entity that they wanted to invest in.”

The public also voted against the idea, with 73 percent of voters casting “no” votes.

In the years that followed, Vonderheide said, the library’s leadership switched focus from a building to customer service and expanding what the library offered. Vonderheide was familiar with that people-first focus. He made his career at Kimball International in organizational effectiveness and human resources where he oversaw mergers, splits, turnarounds and shutdowns.

“What I’ve always learned throughout that is that you always have to do what’s right,” Vonderheide said. “It may not always be popular, but it’s what’s right.” 

He applied that thinking to his work on the library board. In 2011, he thought the building project wasn’t right. The return the public would get from the project didn’t justify the public investment the board needed. Focusing instead on the services the library could offer was the right move. And it paid off.

“We saw the shift from focusing just on circulation to programming and meeting the needs of the patrons,” Vonderheide said. “That, I think, has been a tremendous change in the way the library operates.”

During that shift, the library saw a change in leadership. In 2014, Christine Golden, who had been working at the library for several years, stepped into the director’s role. Her positive attitude permeated the staff, Vonderheide said, and she helped power the culture shift at the library.

In 2015, Vonderheide was elected president of the library board, and in the following years, he and Golden worked closely together on expanding the Jasper Public Library into what it is today, and on planning for its future as part of the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center.

“[Vonderheide] really taught me what it meant to be a leader,” Golden said. “To be willing to listen to the people you’re leading, and to not be afraid to have the unpopular opinion sometimes.”

During his eight years on the board, Vonderheide helped take the Jasper Public Library from an institution that focused mostly on the circulation of materials to a key part of the community that caters to everyone’s needs, whether that’s looking for books and periodicals, searching for jobs or socializing at one of the library’s many programs.

“It has become a go-to place when you need assistance or when you’re looking for information of any sort, let alone one of the best genealogy departments in the region,” Vonderheide said. “That’s something we’re known for. Our children’s programming is outstanding; our adult programming has improved so much. That’s probably where I’m the most proud.”

When the opportunity for a building project came around again in 2015, Vonderheide believed the public would get a good return on the tax dollars the library would have to solicit. When the City of Jasper agreed to come on board to form the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center, in Vonderheide’s mind, the return only improved. Then, community members got behind the project through the Jasper LEADs — library, enrichment, arts and downtown— fundraising campaign, and the Indiana Economic Development Commission awarded the project tax credits.

“It wasn’t just a tax burden,” Vonderheide said of the second referendum in 2016 that made the cultural center possible. “It was the whole community, the whole state, investing in the cultural center combination of library and arts.”

Vonderheide realizes the project has been slow going since it’s approval in 2015, but he assures the public that it is coming. The Jasper City/Library LLC, which is overseeing the project, will meet this month to select a contractor, and dirt will start flying when the weather breaks. It will be a moment Vonderheide looked forward to as president of the Jasper Library Board, and it’s one he’s still looking forward to as Jasper’s mayor.

When Vonderheide decided to file for the mayoral seat, he knew if the caucus elected him, it would mean leaving the library board. It was bittersweet, but he said he knew it was the right move.

When he joined the library board in 2011, the library faced a lot of internal strife. Negative news headlines were the norm. At the time, Vonderheide thought his experience in business could help organize the chaos and give the library a direction. Now, he said, that work is done, and the current board and staff are future-focused with a clear vision.

Newly elected Jasper Library Board President Pamela Catt knows firsthand how far the library board has come. She joined the board in 2013, two years after Vonderheide.

“There was a lot of turmoil,” she said. “Now, that’s not at all the case.”

The library board elected Catt president at the Jan. 10 meeting.

Vonderheide may have stepped down from the library board, but he isn’t leaving the library completely behind. He’ll still be part of the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center as mayor, and he hopes to win the mayoral election in November so he can see the project through to the end.

Had becoming mayor meant no longer being involved in the cultural center, Vonderheide said he may not have pursued the office.

“Once I start something, I like to see it through,” he said. “But I’ll see [the cultural center] through as the mayor, so I felt like that was a continuation.”

And he plans to stay engaged with the library through the Friends of the Jasper Public Library. He even attended the library board’s January meeting as a member of the public. At the end of the meeting, the board thanked him for his years of service and the work he did developing the library and making the cultural center a reality.

“Well, the board did it,” Vonderheide said. “We did it together.”

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