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Gullett librarian Kay Gooch is a reading rock star

She’s prepping kids for BookSpring’s Read-a-Thon.

Three fifth-grade boys battled to read the most pages.

“You just knew they were competing,” says Kay Gooch, Gullett Elementary School’s star librarian. “And they knew they were competing. But nobody said anything.”

That year, Tyler McHorse won the Read-a-Thon contest for most pages read at Gullett, which raises money so that BookSpring, an Austin nonprofit, can give volumes to needy kids to take home.

“He read the entire ‘Divergent’ series,” Gooch says with a chuckle. “All 1,888 (pages). On a snow day, instead of playing in the snow, he hunkered down and read six hours straight.”

Gooch, 61, knows how to light the literary flame for young folks. Part of the former IBM systems engineer’s strategy is to keep things light. Not the forced kind of frolicking that involves adults trying to think, talk and act like children, but rather a natural affinity for the upside of life.

A big reader herself, she looks forward to the return of BookSpring’s Read-a-Thon ( to area schools, from Jan. 25 to Feb. 5.

“Half of what I do is theater,” she says. “I don’t think you should do anything if it’s not fun.”

A long way to the library

Born in Del Rio, Gooch moved to the Allandale area in 1968 and remains deeply connected with the neighborhood, which is home to Gullett. She admits to being precocious as a youth.

“Typical middle child,” she says. “A peacekeeper and a schemer.”

Her elementary school in Del Rio didn’t come with a library, so she haunted the public library for stacks of books, mostly sports stories or realistic fiction. She played basketball in Del Rio and befriended her junior high librarian, who also served as the local piano teacher.

“When we got to Austin, they didn’t have girls’ sports,” Gooch says. “In Del Rio, we had full, uniformed sports. So here, I moved on to the drill team.”

She attended what was then Southwest Texas State University for two years, then earned her degree in education with a concentration in reading from the University of Texas.

“But I couldn’t get a teaching job,” she says. “So I accidentally went to work for IBM as a systems engineer. I was in technical sales for 10 years, then a sales rep for three. But I was really tired of the corporate world. I didn’t like being on quota and selling people things that they didn’t really need. You make a lot of money, but it’s not really fun.”

At age 40, she took a buyout.

“I remember thinking: I can do anything I want to do,” she says. “Up to that point, I didn’t know that. I talked my way into a teaching job at Lee Elementary. They asked: ‘You’re sure this is what you want to do? You know what you are going to make?’”

She found sixth-graders to be “a breed of their own.” She moved to Kealing and Martin when they were true junior highs and then earned her master’s in library science at the University of Texas. After serving at Patton Elementary, she has been librarian at Gullett since 2001.

“It’s home. My side of town,” she says. “I loved Patton. Found my voice as a librarian there. But I grew up on Shoal Creek Boulevard, and most of my adult life I’ve spent around this neighborhood.”

Gooch sees plenty of playful ironies in her story.

“My mother taught fifth grade all her adult life, but skipped fifth grade,” she says. “I’m an elementary school librarian, but didn’t have an elementary school library while I was growing up.”

The challenge to read

“Books are much more inviting now than when I was a kid,” Gooch says. “And the publishing world is different. It has to do with technology. When I was growing up, books were one color. Now there are so many more of them, too.”

She is optimistic about the future of books.

“Print will never die,” Gooch says. “A child sitting in your lap turning the pages of a book makes a bond. Turning the pages of a Kindle doesn’t necessarily make the same bond.”

BookSpring, which grew out of Austin’s edition of the national Reading Is Fundamental program, is a natural fit. Gooch’s mother volunteered for RIF, and Mary Kennedy Smith, who was her mother’s librarian, knew how to lasso Gooch into the Read-a-Thon in 2002, the first year that Janie Ruiz was principal at Gullett.

So how does she motivate the students to pledge and raise money for area kids who don’t have their advantages?

“You explain it to them, give them a reason to do it,” she says. “You give them a challenge. It helps that I’m pretty passionate about children having books at home. Even with libraries, the book you own and take home is special.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans diaspora framed the pitch.

“’You are helping children in our own town,’” she told the kids. “’You might play soccer with them, but you don’t know what they have at home.’ This is a middle-class neighborhood. Not poor and not rich. But they all have books at home. Once the contest starts, it kinda goes underground. Kids will talk about it. Turning in money and pledges, they talk about: ‘This is what I did.’”

Gooch also helps preview BookSpring selections to see whether they are ones kids would like to read and at which age level.

“I’ve spoken to many adults who still have their books from RIF,” she says. “They recall walking around the table, picking out a book, and keeping it. It’s a lifelong remembrance. And you know, kids will reread the same book over and over again.”

Speaking of books …

Fans of the American-Statesman’s historical articles can catch your steadfast columnist at several upcoming public appearances. I will be speaking about my book, “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories” (Waterloo Press) and signing copies at BookPeople (7 p.m., Jan. 19); the Austin History Center’s Angelina Eberly Luncheon at the Driskill Hotel (11:30 a.m. Jan. 29); the University of Texas’ Lamp Lectures (9:30 a.m. Feb. 11); UT’s Quest Lectures (3 p.m. April 4); the Bullock Texas History Museum (noon April 6); and Toast of the Town for St. David’s Foundation (7 p.m. April 12), as well as discussing it on KOOP Radio’s “Writing on the Air” (6 p.m. Feb. 24).

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