Ernest A. DiMattia Jr., president of Stamford, CT’s Ferguson Library, where he had worked since 1976, died of cancer on June 26 at the age of 74. Alice Knapp, Director of User Services at the Ferguson Library, shares some of her memories of him with LJ below.
This morning, the elevator at The Ferguson Library malfunctioned while I was in it with a couple of colleagues. During the five minutes that I was stuck, I was overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia. I had a perfect image of how Mr. D (that is what we called him) would have reacted. There would have been a spark of anger in his eyes, a snap of the paper he was holding against his leg, and the inevitable questions would begin. “Why isn’t the elevator working? Didn’t we just upgrade these elevators? Shouldn’t this have been prevented? What if the library was open? Call Kone.”
Although I could write an essay outlining Ernie’s accomplishments as a civic leader, educator, entrepreneur, futurist, and librarian, I have chosen instead to share some memories. I had the pleasure and honor of working for Mr. D for 9½ years (as is the case for many here at The Ferguson, those years were not contiguous). In many ways, he was a hurricane. Ernie surrounded himself with enabling staff that picked up his ideas as they were churned out to transform them into programs or services. He was a big thinker; he saw Stamford as in the league of New York, San Francisco, and his beloved Boston. So our services had to be at that level.
When we discussed a new service, Mr. D would start a litany of questions, and I used to assume that he didn’t like the concept. While sometimes that was true, I came to understand that beyond his love of a good logical argument, he was scrutinizing the idea. Making sure that it fit our mission and wasn’t too costly, and that the timing was right. This process often led to modifying the idea, making it better. For example, this past year we wrote a grant to develop a Small Business Resource Center. It was a modest grant to add more e-resources and maybe some programs; Mr. D had asked all of his questions and presumably received all the right answers. Yet, before the project started, he invited a representative from the Business Council of Fairfield County to meet with me. Within a few weeks, The Ferguson had partnered with the Business Council (a Skype station was installed there so that clients could Skype with a librarian), SCORE, the Stamford Innovation Center, and the Connecticut Economic Development Fund. Because of Mr. D’s gift of thinking big and connecting the right people, a simple idea had blossomed into something even better.
Although Ernie was a futurist and constantly read in multiple disciplines to be ahead of the curve with the latest trends, his work habits were from another century. When Ernie shut down his computer at the office, he did not check his email again until the next morning. For us, this meant no emails at 11 p.m. or over the weekend, something unheard of these days. Ernie created a civil atmosphere by the manner in which he dressed and interacted with staff. There are no clocks in our meeting rooms or auditorium. Ernie never wanted to rush a meeting or a program. He never wanted the speaker to feel that he had to hurry. He also never rushed conversations.
Ernie was a big believer in personal relationships—both developing his own relationships and connecting people to each other. He would take the time to get to know people, what their interests were (so he could bring them a book). Conversation was more important than timeliness. Ernie was often the giver in these relations. He was often the listener. He was the one who would visit a friend in the hospital or call someone at 10 p.m. to see if they were okay. If someone from staff was in the hospital, he would stop by to visit. He would show up at various events or talks to show his support for someone. If a colleague wrote an article, he would send a note congratulating them.
Ernie taught at Simmons, Pratt, Rutgers, and the MBA program at UCONN. For many of his students, he became a lifelong mentor. While his advice wasn’t limited just to careers, he often urged/nudged his students to expand their experience, seek an additional skill set, and become a better person. He did the same with staff. He often encouraged staff members to get a MLIS or a MBA. If the staff member was in high school or in college, he would start campaigning for that person to get an MLIS. Again, his advice was not limited to work or education. He was known to encourage young married couples to have children. And he never forgot his former students or employees. He was known for giving someone a call, seemly out of the blue, to ask them to come back to work for him or connect them to a position at another library.
Ernie loved children. Appointments or meetings were delayed as he stopped by the children’s room or auditorium to see a class visit, a babytime, or some other program. Ernie would always crouch down so that he was at eye level with the child. In his office, there was always a small collection of picture books. He would give them as gifts when children or parents visited. This love of children even crept into his facility planning; the children’s room had to have a prominent spot!
In one of my last conversations with Mr. D, he was reminding me to write up the notes from the International Digital Book Forum, which was held during Book Expo this past May. As chair of Connecticut’s Ebook Task Force, Mr. D was passionate about making ebooks available to libraries at a reasonable price. But what struck me about this conversation was his passion for learning. For Mr. D, the solution to any problem began with acquiring more knowledge about the issue.
To say I miss Mr. D is an understatement. In many ways he was the heart and soul of this library. But the culture he fostered and his passion for inquiry and excellence will continue. I am proud to have known him and worked with him. He was a man of vision, inspiration, and integrity, and his legacy will live on in the work we do every day.