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Grand Forks man leaves public library $675,000 gift, largest in memory

A view from above of the Grand Forks Public Library. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The Grand Forks Public Library announced the receipt of its largest gift in memory on Thursday, disclosing a $675,000 sum left by a local man who died in July.

Library Director Wendy Wendt said that’s nearly a quarter of the library’s $2.8 million budget, making the gift something like winning a lottery staff didn’t know they’d entered. The donor, Joe Neel Jr., has presented something of a mystery, as Wendt said he does not appear to have had a library card and is unknown to library staff.

“I know other libraries get left things and they know the people, and they’re able to tell stories. … We don’t have any of that background,” Wendt said. “It really does feel like a very miraculous kind of thing.”

Herald archives show that Neel was the son of Joe Neel Sr., a nationally renowned UND professor of biology who died in 1990. Neel Jr., gave the library a $50,000 gift in 1998 in remembrance of his father, and a Herald article from that time described him as a bachelor working a Civil Service position at Grand Forks Air Force Base. His death notice says he died July 31 at age 72, with no funeral services expected. It does not indicate if he had any living relatives.

Wendt said the library first learned of the gift about one month ago, but didn’t dare trust it was real. Over the course of the library’s attempt to build a new location, she said she’d heard before of the existence of wealthy donors, but they never materialized. She was excited to take a call from Edward Jones wealth advisers shortly afterwards, though.

“But we didn’t want to get our hopes up, so we didn’t really believe it was real until the checks arrived this week,” Wendt said.

The gift arrives as library leaders have begun shifting away from expectations that they will immediately pursue the construction of a new library and more towards a belief they will remain in their aging building -- at least for now, Library Board member Justin Berry said recent projects include new boilers, sliding doors, exterior lighting and a new roof.

The Library Board will take up discussion of the gift at its December meeting, Berry said, and speculated that it might be spent on new carpet or furniture -- a visible improvement that patrons can enjoy. Wendt said it’s unclear what the gift will be used for,  but it won’t be operating costs.

“It sounds like he was a very private person, and now is going to affect the community in a very beneficial way,” she said. “I just think that’s very generous, and I wish I could thank him.”

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108