MANATEE -- More than a half-century later, Kevin Beach still vividly remembers the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross outside his family's Alabama home.
But he was only 9 at the time. He hadn't fully understood that the KKK targeted them because his father, Cecil Beach, integrated the Gadsden Public Library in the early 1960s.
"Somebody had to do it to make it easier later, and I'm very proud it was him," said Beach, Manatee County's library operations manager. "It was a very tumultuous time. We were lucky to be children growing up there at the time and witnessing a lot of what happened."
Today, the second-generation librarian has followed in his father's footsteps once again by being recognized by other librarians. Beach, 60, received the Florida Library Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, for which he was nominated by his peers. His father, who became Florida's state librarian in the 1970s and was a past president of the Florida Library Association, was honored throughout his career.
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"It was poignant that I kind of followed in his footsteps," Beach said. "Our love of libraries is one thing that drew us together."
Following in Cecil Beach's footsteps put his son on the front lines of desegregation.
Although they are actually descendants of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, Beach said his father wanted to put an end to segregation -- not the norm in the '60s.
"It was kind of an unusual turnaround over 100 years," Beach said.
He grew up in the libraries where his father worked, learning first-hand how they operated.
One of his most vivid memories: Martin Luther King Jr. paid a visit to Gadsden, Ala., to thank his father for integrating the library.
"That obviously left quite an impact on my philosophy of community and library service and the great things that my father did," Beach said.
When the Beaches moved to Tampa in 1965, his father faced a similar challenge. While the library was already integrated, there were separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks.
Cecil Beach got rid of them.
Evolution of libraries
Kevin Beach graduated from the University of South Florida with an accounting degree, but he was always drawn to the library.
"It was so familiar to me," Beach said. "It almost felt it was expected. I'm a very service-oriented person. It matched my mindset better."
The love of libraries shared by Beach and his father has been passed on to a third generation, as his youngest daughter, Erin, is a librarian in Boston.
"She's kind of carrying on the tradition," Beach said. "History kind of repeated itself. She would come to work with me. ... I'm very proud. The same way my father was proud of me of continuing the tradition of serving the community through public libraries."
When Beach began working with the Manatee County Public Library System in 1978, the county was moving from the old Carnegie Library into the Central Library. There were only four books on each shelf.
"I have really seen a lot, and the great evolution of the library and how it is more in line with the social service needs," Beach said.
Coming in toward the beginning of the county's library system, Beach says, gave him a really good chance to help grow the library. When he started, there were no computers or electronics of any kind in the library.
"It was a very exciting time to build library services from the ground up," Beach said.
Ava Ehde, the county's library services manager, said Beach has been "an amazing part of the team for all these years."
"He brings wisdom and calm and a truly unassuming leadership style to our librarians," she said.
Future of libraries
Over the years, the county's library system has grown, and attendance and users are up in the six branches. The county views the Public Library System, which won the Library of the Year this year from the Florida Library Association, as a destination, says Beach.
"There is so much more to libraries," Beach said, noting the services and programs offered besides checking out books. "Everybody really appreciates the library."
Literacy has always been important for Beach, who created the first literacy coalition in the county more than 30 years ago. Today, Beach continues that work, particularly focusing on Manatee's Third-Grade Reading Level Initiative.
"My big focus has been on literacy and making sure that the 'have-nots' have the same services as the 'haves' have in the community," he said. "We are really striving to make sure those services are available to families in that community." But while Beach has received the Lifetime Achievement Award, he is not ready to retire.
"I feel like my work is not done," he said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.