She embraces library vision

Published March 23, 2007

As you hand your library card to the librarian to check out some books and videos, you don't even give the action a second thought.

But one woman has devoted a good part of her life to providing that opportunity to thousands of Hillsborough County residents for the past 17 years.

As a volunteer member of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library Board for 15 years, Helen Swisshelm helped get libraries built, pushed for funding and fought for more services.

To honor her years of service and commitment, the board has dedicated the reading room of the Lutz Branch Library to her.

Though she has served Hillsborough County as both employee and volunteer for many years, Swisshelm, 76, of Lutz, has a hard time believing she's worthy of such recognition.

"It's mind-boggling to think that my portrait will be there on the wall, and my plaque. It's a very great honor," said Swisshelm. Then she joked, "Now I'll have to look at my ugly face every time I walk out the door."

Swisshelm's admirers include longtime Florida politician Betty Castor, a former employer who spoke on her behalf at the dedication earlier this month.

"Helen never said a bad thing about anyone," Castor said. "She exhibited a special fondness for people."

Swisshelm began her life in service as a teacher for more than 20 years in New York before she moved to Lutz in 1971. She held several positions with the county including administrative assistant to the supervisor of elections for 11 years.

She even ran for that position in 1988, and may have had a chance at the spot if her former boss and then Supervisor Robin Krivanek hadn't decided at the last moment to run against her. After her campaign for supervisor of elections, Swisshelm worked five years for State Attorney Bill James before retiring in 1993.

It was in her retirement that Swisshelm made her mark serving on the library board from 1990 to 2005, advocating for libraries in underserved areas such as Sulphur Springs, the University area and Lutz.

"In the early days, there was not a lot of support for libraries," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt. "Many of the libraries that you see now are because of Helen's leadership."

In the early nineties, Swisshelm was instrumental in getting the county's library tax raised for the building of new libraries in Progress Village, New Tampa and South Tampa.

Swisshelm also served as president of the League of Women Voters at the time.

As such, she helped organize a speech given by Hillary Clinton at the Tampa Convention Center shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president.

"Afterwards, I got to meet with her and we spoke for quite awhile," said Swisshelm."I've had such wonderful experiences. I've learned a great deal," she said.

In 2000, Swisshelm formed the Friends of the Lutz Library and was heavily involved in the expansion of the Lutz library, which was completed in 2004.

Today, as president of the Friends of the Lutz Library, she helps raise money for the summer children's programs, guest speakers and landscaping.

She spends much of her week sorting and shelving books at the Friends' bookstore inside the library.