For Newark library director, a life of learning | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on December 19, 2015

Wilma Grey is retiring as director of the Newark library.

 

For young Wilma Grey, the Newark Public Library didn't mean the magnificent downtown building, created to replicate an Italian Renaissance palace, inside and out.

It was the much-less-ornate Roseville Branch, two miles west, in the working class blocks where she grew up.

The main library was a Gilded Age reminder of Newark's former wealth, when the best architects hired the finest artisans to create landmark public buildings as monuments to antiquity.

The Roseville branch was a neighborhood place, where a little girl from South 10th Street could find a big world on a rainy or nothing-to-do day.

For young Wilma Grey, it was where she met Nancy Drew and the "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It was where she discovered science and geography and the arts.

It was a love of books that kept her coming back.

"Books, and the possibility of learning things, have been the centerpiece of my life," said the 70-year-old Grey.

On New Year's Eve, she will retire as the director of the Newark Public Library, a job she has held for 10 years.

It will mark the end of a 46-year professional relationship with the institution, but her love of the library reaches back even further to "when I was 4 or 5," she said.

That was when she discovered a safe, friendly place to read and learn in 1950s Newark – and she has wanted that for Newark children and adults from the minute she began working there in 1969.

And still does, even as she retires.

"We have to continue to be out there (in the community)," she said.

In 1969, Newark was two years removed from the riots and headed toward becoming a sad and darker place – a place Wilma Grey did not grow up in.

She fought back.

Under Grey's leadership, the library has expanded its literacy campaign, increased its volunteer corps and brought more educational programs to the main building and the eight branches.

There's a homework hotline, a homework club, S.A.T. prep classes and college fairs for students, and literacy programs aimed at adults. 

"She was always there for the little guy," said Joseph Casale, the library's assistant director of finance and development. "She took us through some hard economic times, but still managed to improve things (such as) the literacy programs and education outreach, and relations with the union." (Ninety-eight library employees are members of the local municipal employees union.)

One of her major coups was getting money to fund a ramp for the handicapped that blends seamlessly with the edifice of the historic building.

"That was a big deal, let me tell you," he said. "You can't even tell it was added on."

Casale has been at the library a few months longer than Grey.

"Sure I remember her," he said at a staff reception for Grey nine days ago. "She looked like Leslie Uggams!"

Grey graduated from Howard University and was working for Boston University's School of Education when she came home because her father got sick.

"I just was looking for a summer job," she said of the day she walked into the main branch.

She was put on the arts and social science desks, and found yet another home for her intellectual curiosity.

Under the library's copper roof are carved limestone friezes, each representing the stanchions of knowledge: philosophy, religion, sociology, philology, science, fine arts, literature and history.

"I got the opportunity to dabble in a lot of different areas," she said. "I had so many areas of interest; the sciences, music, arts – everything really."

But she does not call herself a "Renaissance woman" and can't recall how the grandeur of the marble floors and staircases that surround the soaring atrium made her feel.

The building was designed as temple to art and architecture, but Grey said what she mostly saw was the potential for knowledge.

"Really, it was always about the books," she said. "It's been a perfect place for me."

Grey stayed through the summer. Her father passed away, but then a grandmother became ill.

She stayed longer, then longer still, until "the years just melted away," she said.

It was Julia Sabine, former head of the library art department, who convinced her to take an introductory class in library sciences, and Grey embarked on an educational path to qualify herself for higher positions. She eventually got a master's degree in library sciences at Rutgers.

"The (main) library was such an interesting place," she said. "It was filled with people all the time. Some of the normal schools (teaching colleges) didn't have their own libraries then and we were also a law library," she said.

But as much as she enjoyed the company of the highly educated, it was the less educated who she knew needed the help.

"It has always been about literacy for her, and how literacy opens doors to knowledge," said Irene Daniels, who first met Grey in 2000 when Daniels was working as reading volunteer at the Weequahic branch.

Daniels is now the director of Newark Literacy Campaign, which has its office in the main library, and has between 60 and 100 steady adult clients who are tutored one-on-one.

"Under Wilma, the library has been an educational safety net for people," Daniels said, "because they really have nowhere else."

Former library board member Jill Johnson said Grey didn't cut important corners when faced with financial pressure.

"She always fought to continue to serve the community," Johnson said. "And she fought to continue all the programs."

Johnson says she has a 6-year-old son who is "a staple" in the main building."

He does his homework here. He plays in the puppet theater. He learns about technology," she said. "There's a real neighborhood feel to it."

In other words, a safe and friendly place to read and learn – just what Grey always wanted.

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