The Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in Benton started the new year in a big way by honoring a local hero who has made a difference in countless lives.
"We are dedicating our library to Mr. A.," said Sarah Popham, the superintendent of the center.
"Mr. A." needs no introduction for most residents of Benton. Gene Alexander has lived in the small Franklin County city for all of his nearly 84 years, with the exception of a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.
Retired for the pas 29 years following a 32-year career in education, all of it in Benton, Alexander spends his time helping others.
"I think the pension system is going to put out a contract on me," he joked.
The staff at the FCJDC presented Alexander with a handmade wooden plaque to show appreciation for what he has given to the facility.
"We're dedicating the library to you," Popham told Alexander, who arrived decked out in his St. Louis Cardinals gear. "We appreciate everything you've done for us over the years."
Popham said Alexander has been coming to the facility for 15 years, racking up over 300 visits.
"I've spent more time here that most of the inmates," he said with a grin.
Popham said Alexander has donated books and money, but the most important thing he has given has been his time.
"He comes in and talks to the kids, tells stories, or reads to them," she said. "They know he cares."
Alexander is humble about his contribution.
"I do a couple of Bible verses and some inspirational stories," he said. "One day I got here and some kid said, 'here's the old guy that tells the good stories,' and I thought to myself 'he's been here before.'"
Alexander hopes reading will do for the young inmates what it did for him as a child growing up in a poor family.
"Reading is the pathway to success in all things," he said. "It opens new doors and possibilities."
He said most of the kids he's worked with at the center have not been encouraged educationally.
"These kids that are here come from pretty bad lives," he said. "Everybody needs to know that life's going to turn out all right. We all need hope."
Popham said the library is popular among the inmates because it's the only thing they have.
"When they're not in here, they don't read," she said, "but in here they're all about books."
Popham said some arrive having never read a complete book.
"By the time they leave, they've read half the library," she said.
Along with his work at the center, Alexander also has painted 384 maps and 705 classrooms, and has donated more than 5,000 books to the Benton Public Library.
"I'll do that in honor of your birthday," he said. "You let me know and I'll get a children's book with a card in it that says Mr. A has donated this book in your honor."
Thanking the staff for the honor, Alexander said this is the second library named in his honor. "I've also got two roads named after me," he said.
Admitting that at nearly 84, he's had to slow down a bit on the physical work, Alexander said he hopes to continue his visits to the FCJDC for a few more years, meeting with the kids there in the library, passing on his message of hope and gift of reading.
He said he has enjoyed spending his life and educational career in Benton.
"I could have made more money going to other places," he said, "but I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much."