Beloved librarian ready to retire

In this June 21, 2018 photo, Katie Gross, head of the children's library division, reacts as she opens a gift during her retirement party at the Decatur Public Library at the Decatur Public Library In Decatur, Ill. The library is also hosting "Cookies with Katie" Thursday July 12th open to the public from 6pm to 8pm as a celebration of her 33 years of work at the library. (Jim Bowling/Herald & Review via AP)

By VALERIE WELLS

Herald & Review

AP Member Exchange

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — City librarian Rick Meyer is a self-described “numbers guy,” so when he came to the staff’s retirement gathering for children’s librarian Katie Gross, he came armed with a few statistics.

“Because of you, there are 2.5 million books a kid read or had read to them,” he said. “Because of you, there have been 60,000 story times.”

Gross had her own number to share: 33 years as children’s librarian at Decatur Public Library. Half of her life.

“I feel like I’ve leapt off a cliff,” she said.

Gross’ last day as children’s librarian was June 29, and she spent the following week clearing out 33 years of accumulation in her office, she said. On July 12, a public “Cookies with Katie” event will be held in the children’s department to allow the public to celebrate, too.

Gross took a class in college that intrigued her so much that she asked her professor what sort of career she could have, and when she heard “children’s librarian,” she was skeptical.

“Isn’t that an old lady who knits and tells people to be quiet?” she said.

Instead, Gross has influenced children to love books, through creative programs, an extensive collection, and the vision that saw the potential in Really READiculous.

“You trusted us, sight unseen,” said Alissa Henkel, who used to work in the children’s department, moved to the adult department, and will now serve as interim children’s librarian until Gross’ successor is hired.

Henkel and Susan Bishop, who is a library assistant in the children’s department, perform children’s books as READiculous at the library and at area schools and other venues, acting out the books in costume and in character. Gross gave them her approval when they first proposed the idea, before she knew what their show would be like.

Meyer said he came to Decatur Public Library four years ago, and Gross was supportive of him and the changes that had to be made at the time due to a tight budget. He never considered changes in the children’s department, he said, because it was running so well under her leadership.

He expects a search will begin soon, after a study of the library’s organizational chart and possible changes are made, but he thinks it will be at least a few months before someone is found.

“I kind of feel sorry for whoever takes her place,” he said. “It’s hard to replace someone so beloved.”

Mary Laskowski’s daughter, Mandy Salmons, now grown with kids of her own, had two mentors, Laskowski told Gross.

“You’re in good company,” Laskowski said. “It’s you and Mister Rogers.”

Mandy wrote a letter to Gross thanking her for the influence she had on her, which her mother delivered for her as she wasn’t able to attend. Salmons homeschools her children and credits Gross with helping her when the family lived in Decatur, guiding her and being a calming influence when Salmons feared she wasn’t doing enough for the kids.

“She was always there on rainy days to brighten the afternoon with puppets, chess and dollhouses my children will never forget,” Salmons wrote. When the family moved and the library in their new community is a fraction of the size, she said, she realized how valuable the Decatur Public Library had been to her.

“This is the place where we dragged home a wagon filled with 80 books at a time, knowing a fine or a lost book would be inevitable but it was a small price to pay for an education,” Salmons said. “The Decatur Public Library has been a hangout for me since I was a little girl myself, and Katie Gross has been my librarian since before I can remember. When I wanted to read everything, she could narrow it down for me, guiding me in the direction of books. I will always find her dear to my heart.”

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