'Huge shoes to fill': Waukegan Public Library prepares for retirement of influential leader

In January, the man behind a transformation aimed at increasing literacy initiatives and need-based services at the Waukegan Public Library will be leaving its executive director position to enjoy family, friends and hobbies in retirement.

Richard Lee's departure next year will leave room for a new leader to take the helm of an organization that in 2013 earned the nation's highest recognition for libraries — a National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services — for its responsive services to patrons.

"It was given totally for meeting the needs of this particular community. It's great to be recognized for that," Lee said about the honor, which also included a trip to the White House and a meeting with then-First Lady Michelle Obama. Lee described the experience as a highlight in his career.

Since 2003, Lee has acted as only the fifth director of the tax-supported public library since it was founded in Waukegan in 1898.

Since then, Lee's legacy has been punctuated with many changes on account of a growing, culturally-diverse community, currently of approximately 89,000 residents. According to Lee, the community at large is served in one form or another through the evolution of technology, which has meant a constant increase in digital tools and services for employees and those who who visit the main building at 128 N. County Street and its branch at 800 N. Baldwin Ave.

If you ask Lee how far the library has come, he could name a number of dramatic shifts that have significantly moved it from a cavernous, quiet place toward a 21st century community hub where families congregate to learn and connect.

But you won't catch him patting himself on the back over successes and achievements.

Instead, Lee has often been heard to say that what has worked for him is empowering his team to do what they do best. And he began doing that early on in his post in Waukegan.

"Right away, I could see that the staff was on the ball and that they wouldn't go halfway with any challenge," Lee said. "I could see that immediately, and I thought, 'Well then, I'm just gonna get the heck out their way.'"

More recently under Lee's direction, the library went through a $1.2 million renovation that was finished in 2015 and created, along with other additions, more collaborative spaces that included glass-encased rooms with TV monitors.

Lee said his staff was noticing teens trying to work together on projects on weekends and adults getting in groups moving tables and chairs around. He added that those collaborative spaces were the answer to facilitate those engagements already taking place.

"Richard is definitely a director who trusts his people to do what they're assigned and fosters a culture to feel that you can go out there and take risks, and he'll support you," said Amanda Civitello, the library's marketing and communications manager.

Adding that Lee is known to be modest, Civitello said that kind of leadership is hard to find.

In September, the library hired Vernon Hills-based search firm John Keister & Associates to assist with a national search to find Lee's replacement.

The library's board of directors has conducted interviews with two candidates and will soon meet with two more, said Claudia Freeman, board vice president.

"Those will be huge shoes to fill, because Richard is a leader as opposed to a manager, with professionalism beyond," Freeman said, calling him "an amazing man" who will be missed.

Freeman added that she will even miss Lee's dry sense of humor and his "horrendous dad jokes" that Freeman said he often told crowds during the library's summer concert series. "They were really awful," she said.

What Lee will miss the most when he says goodbye to Waukegan's library is his routine.

"I'm a regiment kind of guy. I'm gonna have to get used to every day being a Saturday," Lee said.

He added that he'll also miss his team.

"We're all comrades and colleagues, and we all do what we need to get the job done and make the money go as far as we can," Lee said.

When asked whether there's anything left to do, Lee quickly responds with a "no."

"I've done everything I wanted to do. I had two goals when I came here — to win awards, and to have other libraries in the nearby area say, 'Do you see what they're doing in Waukegan?'" Lee said. "I think we've done that."

Lee recalled that after helping build a 60,000-square-foot library in Las Vegas in the 1990s and then a 112,000-square-foot library in Pueblo, Colo., what he was looking for was another challenge almost 15 years ago. He added that he found that in Waukegan.

Ty Rohrer, supervisor at the Waukegan History Museum, said he thinks history will reflect upon how Lee was able to reimagine what Waukegan's library could be for its culturally-diverse community. Rohrer said during Lee's tenure, he's seen it change to a welcoming environment.

"He took it beyond a place to find books to Waukegan's cultural center," Rohrer said.

Adding that Lee's enthusiasm and love for Waukegan author Ray Bradbury also helped cement some of the now-annual activities around the author's work, Rohrer said Lee has made sure Bradbury's past is always told and that his work continues to inspire perhaps the next Ray Bradbury.

"Personally, it's been very enjoyable working with him," Rohrer said.

No matter who takes his place next year, Lee said he believes the library will continue to be well-served by a culture with a "deep understanding of talking to the community and finding what's necessary and getting with the team."

"The days of creating a program in hopes that people utilize it are gone," Lee said.

The advice he has for the incoming director is to talk to patrons and listen to what they have to say about their library.

"Get involved in the community, because they will teach you a lot," Lee said. "Over the years, we have developed community partnerships that have been fruitful."

Naming a few of those partnerships, Lee said the Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, PADS Lake County and the Lake County Health Department have been able to work together nicely to serve their constituents.

That's also how Civitello said the library has been able to draw many of its volunteers in for their programs and spark interest from community businesses who have been instrumental in funding projects deemed necessary for the community's prosperity.

Lee won't stray too far away from the place where he said he's made good friends and has learned many lessons, though.

While taking cruises with his wife and reading the classics for pure pleasure are on the list of activities he's got planned in his retirement, Lee said another thing he'll tackle will be trying to see how he fits in after working since the age of 15.

One particular program Lee is interested in is the library's adult literacy classes because of the stories he's heard over the years about parents and grandparents finally being able to read a bedtime story for the first time to their kids and grandkids.

"That tugs at my heartstrings," Lee said.

So maybe even after retiring, the Waukegan Public Library will still have Lee roaming its halls, fostering literacy.

As Civitello put it jokingly, "He's threatening to turn into a volunteer."

Yadira Sanchez Olson is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.

Copyright © 2017, Lake County News-Sun
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