North Merrick Public Library staffers have had another reason to celebrate since reopening to readers in July, after the coronavirus pandemic peaked. Last Friday, librarians held a sendoff ceremony for outgoing Director Tom Witt, who retired earlier this year after working in libraries for nearly three decades.
Although Witt, 65, technically retired in January, he agreed to stay on until the board hired a successor through the Nassau County Civil Service Commission. But when the agency temporarily shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Witt offered his guidance for a while longer.
The Herald trailed Witt during his “last continuous day” as director last Friday. As he shuffled from room to room, completing last-minute duties, he stopped to say hello to patrons who were browsing the stacks or making photocopies.
“You’re here to provide an environment and services . . . that matter to people,” Witt said of the job, “and some people are real fans because [the library] is important to them.”
In the early 1980s, Witt developed “a library habit” while commuting to Manhattan for his first full-time job out of college. He frequented the Mineola Library so much that he was offered a part-time clerk’s position — and one of his co-workers there, Roland Carlton, was the first director of the North Merrick library, he said.
The recession of the early 1990s left Witt unemployed, so he decided to attend an open house at the Queens Public Library. He was hired there as a trainee under the promise that he would enroll in library school, and in two and a half years he graduated from St. John’s University with a master’s in library and information sciences.
After seven years in Queens, Witt went on to hold directorships at the Island Trees Public Library and the Sea Cliff Village Library, and also served as assistant director of the Garden City Public Library before coming to North Merrick in 2009. Around the same time, Bill Pezzulo was entering his first term as president of the library’s board of trustees.
“He was almost like a sixth board member,” Pezzulo said. “He encouraged us since the day he came on, and constantly kept himself up to date on all the details and directives from the state as far as libraries are concerned.”
Witt’s guidance and grant-writing expertise helped the board achieve a number of goals over the past 11 years. The library received state aid to upgrade its roof, windows and restrooms, install an HVAC system and reconstruct the parking lots, Witt said. Its most recent additions — the Garden Room and café — have enhanced the library’s sense of community, Pezzulo said, and a stroll garden, planned for next spring, will make use of the property’s green space.
“I had noted to the board that there’s no real park in town, and we have an opportunity here to have park-like grounds for people who just want to enjoy the outdoors,” Witt said.
Inside the library, patrons have access to museum and park passes, e-readers and streaming devices, all thanks to Witt. He is also credited with starting the annual “Staff Breakfast” tradition, in which employees celebrating work anniversaries are acknowledged for their service.
“It’s a real bonding experience,” he said. “We talk about all the things [we] have accomplished together, what we’re looking forward to in the future, and everybody gives a real cheer for their colleague.”
Witt’s “craziest” memory from his time in North Merrick was opening the library on Election Day in 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area. “Bill and I met outside at five o’clock in the morning and brought the poll workers in with flashlights” since the building was without power, he said. “That was so incredibly unusual.”
Pezzulo said the library was fortunate to have a director like Witt. “Tom is a fantastic manager and a very talented guy,” he said. “He was a real professional to work alongside of. The staff really loved him, and he helped us grow as a board.”
Witt, however, attributed the library’s success to its staff and trustees. He thanked his colleagues for helping him cultivate a welcoming environment within the library, and said the incoming director, Susan Santa, would do an excellent job in his place.
One of the things Witt looks forward to in retirement is, unsurprisingly, reading.