Steering a community institution as it crosses the half-century mark in its existence is an enormous responsibility. But when the institution has the inherent added degree of difficulty associated with morphing to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, fulfilling that responsibility likely feels like threading a needle. As the third director in Comsewogue Public Library’s 50-year history, Debbie Engelhardt has gracefully and masterfully threaded that needle.
Engelhardt got her start in the library world as the director of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton in the early 2000s. She was also the director of the Huntington Public Library from 2009 to 2012, before being selected as just the third director in the history of the Comsewogue Public Library.
In October 2017, Engelhardt played a vital role in planning, organizing and conducting a 50th anniversary celebration for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community staple. The day, according to many of her colleagues, had fingerprints of her enthusiasm, one-track community mindedness, and passion all over it, though that can be said about every day she’s spent at Comsewogue’s helm.
“Very rarely do you find anybody as dedicated to her profession and to her community like Debbie,” said Richard Lusak, Comsewogue Public Library’s first director from 1966 through 2002. The Oct. 14 anniversary celebration included the dedication of the building’s community room in Lusak’s honor, an initiative Engelhardt unsurprisingly also had a hand in.
“Those who come to know her quickly value her leadership ability and her insight into things,” he said. “She never says ‘no,’ she says, ‘Let me figure out how to do it.’”
The director tried to sum up her feelings about the anniversary as it was still ongoing.
“The program says ‘celebrating our past, present and future,’ so that’s what we’re doing all in one day with the community,” she said in October.
The event featured games, a bounce house, farm animals, crafts, giveaways, snacks, face painting, balloon animals, music, a historical society photo gallery and tour, and a new gallery exhibit.
“We thought of it as a community thank you for the ongoing support that we’ve had since day one, across all three administrations,” the library director said.
Engelhardt’s vision has been a valuable resource in efforts to modernize the library and keep it vibrant, as Amazon Kindles and other similar technologies have infringed on what libraries used to be about for generations. As the times have changed, Engelhardt has shown a propensity to keep Comsewogue firmly positioned as a community hub.
“I think she’s done a superb job with respect to coordinating all of the interests of input from the community as to what services are being requested by the public, whether it’s the children’s section, the adult reference and the senior citizens, including all of the activities we offer and the different programs,” said Edward Wendol, vice president of the library’s board of trustees who has been on the board for about 40 years. He was the board’s president when Engelhardt was selected as director.
Wendol credited Engelhardt with spearheading efforts to obtain a Free Little Library not only for Comsewogue, but for several other area libraries. The program features a small, outdoor drop box where readers can take a book to read or leave a book for future visitors.
“Anybody can use it as much as they want and it’s always a mystery when you open that box — you never know what you’ll find,” Engelhardt said during its dedication over the summer. “There are no late fees, no guilt, no stress. If you want to keep a book, you can … we are pleased to partner with the historical society to bring this gem. The books inside will move you and teach you. We say that libraries change lives and, well, little free libraries can too.”
Wendol said she also played a huge role in reorganizing the interior structure of the library. Engelhardt has created reading areas on all levels, placed popular selections near the entrance of the building, and taken an overall hands-on approach to the look and feel of the library. He also lauded her role working together with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, an organization dedicated to serving the 56 public libraries in the county and assisting them in sharing services, website designs, group purchases and other modernization efforts.
“She’s great at what she does and seems to be having a great amount of fun while she’s doing it, and it’s kind of infectious,” said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and a friend of Engelhardt’s for more than 20 years. “She is one of the leaders in the county, not just in Port Jeff Station and Comsewogue, but somebody who other library directors turn to for advice and for leadership.”
Her community leadership efforts cannot be contained by Comsewogue Public Library’s four walls however. Engelhardt is a member and past president of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club; a member of the board of trustees at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital; and vice president of Decision Women in Commerce and Professions, a networking organization dedicated to fostering career aid and support, and generating beneficial community projects.
When she finds time in the day, she participates in events like the cleanup of Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches, a facility for children with special needs. This past November she helped, among many others, clean up the camp with husband, John, and son, Scott.