Westporters have a special relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Every year, puzzle editor Will Shortz hosts a competition at the library. (The upcoming 19th annual event is February 3.)
When library director Maxine Bleiweis retired in 2015, Shortz showed up — and presented her with a specially created, “MB”-themed puzzle.
Two months ago, “Westport” was even the answer to a clue — “Affluent Connecticut town” — in a Times crossword puzzle.
But our special relationship goes only so far. To be published by the paper, a puzzle must be good. Very good.
Alan Southworth’s is. Which is why — ta-da! — the 2010 Staples High School graduate makes his debut today as a New York Times puzzle constructor.
Alan Southworth (left) and Will Shortz, at last year’s Westport Library crossword puzzle contest.
The best constructors know a lot, about a lot of things. They have varied interests. Southworth definitely does.
At Staples he sang with the Orphenians, joined the jazz band, competed on the math team, and played freshman basketball.
At Princeton he majored in geosciences (and was certified in sustainable energy and environmental studies). He works now as an energy market consultant, in a Manhattan firm run by 2001 Staples grads Gabe Phillips and Jonathan Spivak. In his spare time, he plays singer-songwriter gigs around the city.
Southworth always loved words. He grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with his mom, and relaxed before bed with Sudoku and KenKen.
In college, he discovered crosswords. He and his friends challenged themselves with the Times puzzle in the dining hall.
After graduation, he commuted nearly 2 hours each way. Vowing to be as productive as possible, he spent his train rides writing song lyrics. That soon morphed into crossword theme ideas.
His college friend Ryan McCarty had a couple of puzzles accepted by the Times. He wanted to collaborate. So Southworth devised themes. McCarty did most of the grid construction. Together they wrote clues.
They’ve kept a Google Doc of puzzle ideas ever since.
Their first 2 puzzles were rejected. This one was accepted, Southworth thinks, because the theme answers were a bit “cleaner,” and the grid more open (fewer black squares in the middle).
Having a crossword accepted is quite an accomplishment. Having your first one run on a Thursday is remarkable. That’s the toughest day for a themed puzzle. (Monday is the easiest; Tuesday and Wednesday are a bit harder. Friday and Saturday are reserved for themeless — but more difficult — puzzles.)
Southworth has a digital subscription to the Times. But today he’ll buy a dead-tree copy of the paper — and make copies for his co-workers.
Here in Westport, his parents have promised to save their copy for him too.
Last year, Maxine Bleiweis announced her retirement. After 17 years as director of the Westport Library — and for 18 years before that, doing the same job upstate — her many fans and friends wondered how she’d handle the transition to “consultant.”
It’s been nearly a year, and the answer is: pretty well.
Maxine Bleiweis (Photo/Stacy Bass)
So well, in fact, that Maxine has done something very librarian-like. She’s written about her experience for Library Journal.
In a piece called “Letting Go While Hanging On,” Maxine admits that being a library director was “all I knew.”
I was used to having ideas, throwing them out to a group, seeing them put into action, and developing direction and policy for institutions that had impact on the community. I stayed for more than 15 years each at two institutions, which meant I had hired a majority of the staff and knew every mover and shaker in the area. I was accustomed to having a title and a position in the community.
She could have been lonely. She could have looked over the new director’s shoulder.
Instead, she made a new life — while letting go of the parts of her old one that she needed to.
Maxine offers 10 lessons. They describe her post-Westport Library life. But they’re a blueprint for any other boss who’s changing any career they’ve been in for a while.
For example, Maxine writes:
Don’t be tempted to go back to say hello or give advice. You’ve handed over the reins to someone else: free that person of your shadow. It’s enough that your past memos and emails and name on annual appeal letters and newsletters are in evidence. Your presence is felt without you actually being there….
After retiring, Maxine Bleiweis keeps her distance from the Westport Library.
Don’t keep up with anyone without permission. Start out at a distance through Facebook. You’ve been their supervisor, not their colleague. There may be some who want to develop a different relationship, but you should think about what they might report back to their coworkers and how that might translate on the job. If you have a relationship, avoid speaking about work, and don’t offer opinions.
Being untethered brings new opportunities, including spreading the library word when it is not expected. You can observe from an outside vantage point and have a better perspective about why the library isn’t on the minds of people the way you want it to be. You can write letters to the editor without worrying that you are taking sides politically. Being on the “outside” is both refreshing and jarring.
She also describes how she gets her reading fix without going into the library; learns not to apologize for leaving the non-profit world; rearranges her schedule; creates a new work environment, and spends time doing things she never had time for.
Nowadays — in between consulting work — Maxine Bleiweis has time for herself. However, she does not spend it in a Westport Library reading room.
Was all of this easy? Not a chance. I’m fortunate that my consulting work and family took up time and energy and made up for some of the loss I felt. I still look at my email too many times a day and wonder why I’m buying “work” clothes when I have more than enough.
Check back in another year, and I may have conquered the rest of the library director habits.
(To read the entire Library Journal story, click here. To learn more about Maxine’s consulting business, click here.)
Libraries, says Bill Harmer, are “places of connections.”
In one of his first library jobs, he met a mother and daughter. The younger woman had just been diagnosed with a very serious cancer. Day after day, Harmer helped them research the disease and treatment options.
One day, they brought flowers. “You’ve done more for us than our doctors have,” they said.
“Those are the moments that happen in this profession,” Harmer says. “It’s almost like a calling.”
The librarian has been “called” to a new position. Last month, he became executive director of the Westport Library.
Bill Harmer, in his new digs.
Maxine Bleiweis is a very tough act to follow. But with passion, energy, creativity and a community-minded sense of purpose, Harmer seems poised to pick up exactly where she left off.
His path to Westport was “meandering,” he says. “I wandered in the forest of journalism and publishing.” His experience with libraries had been limited to “checking out books.” But the publishing job introduced him to reference sections, and the company paid for his graduate degree in library and information science.
He spent the past 9 years at the Chelsea District Library in Michigan, near Ann Arbor. His achievements included moving a rural library into a 30,000-square foot, state-of-the-art downtown building. He quadrupled his budget and staff, and turned the library into a beloved community asset.
He put the library on sound financial footing, during tough times. A millage increase passed by a landslide — just a few years after the bond issue to build the new library had squeaked by.
Harmer loved Chelsea, and his very innovative library. And Chelsea loved him.
Bill Harmer’s old digs.
But when he saw a posting for the Westport job, he was intrigued. Harmer felt a “kinship” with this library’s vision and philosophy. He already knew about the Maker Space.
As he researched Westport’s broad and diverse programming, and saw the “talent, expertise and resources” of the community, he recognized a great opportunity. “People here have their hands in the arts, business, you name it. There’s the Maker creativity. And the library engages everyone, of all ages. It really is a community resource, from birth to death.”
The proposed transformation of the library for the 21st century was truly exciting.
“Ten or 15 years ago, no one could have predicted where libraries would be today,” Harmer says. “Chelsea’s building is beautiful, but we’ve found physical limitations. I love the flexibility in Westport’s plans. The potential to engage people, do exciting things and have an impact on the community are enormous.”
The Westport Library provides a warm home for all.
One of those “exciting things” occurred on his very first day of work. Salman Rushdie agreed to give the Malloy Lecture in the Arts in October. Harmer takes no credit for that coup — it was in the works before he arrived — but it was a vivid reminder that in this town, and with this library’s staff, “people make things happen.”
He’s spending his first weeks getting the lay of the land: talking personally with employees and patrons, learning the budget, figuring next steps for the Maker Space.
He’s also immersing himself in Westport. He’s meeting with Rotary clubs. Miggs Burroughs gave him a “Tunnel Vision” tour.
Jeff Wieser showed off the Gillespie Center. “I love what it does, and that it’s right across the street from us,” Harmer says. He’s made plans for his staff to prepare and serve a meal there.
Harmer is learning about the Y, Senior Center, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association and Arts Center. He hopes to collaborate with town organizations as much as possible.
He’s grateful for the “well-oiled machine” that Bleiweis left, and her “incredible legacy.”
He knows he’s filling big shoes. He knows too that expectations are high. Fortunately, Harmer says, “there are plenty of outstanding people, in the library and the community, to make sure we keep innovating and making a difference.”
Bill Harmer arrived in Westport in time for the summer Book Sale.
Every move — career and personal — is filled with challenges. Was there one moment when Harmer realized that — despite those challenges — he’d made a good decision to come here?
It came quickly, he says. He decided to come a week before his official start date, to see what the huge Summer Book Sale was all about. An easy 2-day, 2-car drive east with his wife and 3 children ended with a horrendous, Friday traffic jam on I-95.
That evening coincided with the library staff’s annual Compo cookout. After 2 hours of gridlock, the family’s nerves were frayed. Just to be social, they headed to the beach.
“Before we set foot on the sand, a dozen staff members swept in,” Harmer says with awe. “They fed us, gave us a warm welcome, and made us feel part of their family.
“We saw the entire staff. There was a breeze, and a beautiful sunset. As we drove away, my wife and I knew we’d made the right move.”
As sad as Westport is to see Maxine Bleiweis go — and we are very sad — we’re not the only town sorry to lose its library director.
The Chelsea District Library bids farewell to Bill Harmer. And throughout Michigan, the tributes are pouring in.
Board president Elizabeth Sensoli calls him “brilliant … his talent and spirit have made our library a very special place … I will miss his unquenchable enthusiasm and ‘out of the box’ thinking.”
Trustee Robin Wagner adds, “Bill is a remarkable leader, driven by a contagious passion for continuously improving the library experience for guests, staff and community. Bill’s constant focus is understanding what is this library today, envisioning how can it be better tomorrow, and wondering how to get there sooner than tomorrow.”
Well, Chelsea’s loss is Westport’s gain. All those plaudits are for the Westport Library’s new director.
Harmer takes over from Bleiweis on July 27. Sounds like we’ve got ourselves another world-class winner.
More than 400 of Maxine Bleiweis’s closest friends packed the Westport Library tonight, to bid a fond farewell to their favorite library director.
From the Maker Space (“people thought I’d lost my mind when I brought that in,” Maxine joked) to the tables where puzzles and chess sets often entice users, boldface names and “regular” patrons sat together — as they always do there. All were united in their love of the library, and the leader who is leaving after 17 years.
Like Beyoncé or Pele, Maxine needs only one name. And like those superstars, she is one of a kind.
Maxine does it all.
Dianne Wildman expressed the sentiments of many in the crowd.
Tech guru David Pogue — who joked that Maxine got him involved in the Westport Library even before he moved from Stamford — performed an original (and never-to-be-heard again) number: “The Bleiweis Zone.”
A small part of the large crowd tonight. Some stood on the balcony above.
New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz presented Maxine with a special gift (see below).
Shortz’s gift was a word game, in which every 2-word answer starts with the letters “MB.” Each includes a circled letter. When read in order, you’ll never guess what they spell!
Westport’s state legislators Jonathan Steinberg, Tony Hwang and Gail Lavielle were in the house (Toni Boucher was also there, meeting a constituent). Steinberg presented Maxine with a proclamation signed by “a governor who tried to cut library funding.” Hwang praised her for educating him on the vital importance of public libraries.
Maxine said that she was almost speechless — in English. So instead she pronounced herself “verklempt.”
Posted onJune 5, 2015|Comments Off on Maxine Bleiweis, Sam Gault: “1st Citizens Of Westport”
One is leaving. Another is staying. And 5 more have fantastic futures ahead.
This Tuesday (June 9, Westport Inn, 6:30 p.m.), the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce presents First Citizen Awards to Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis (she’s leaving, after turning it into an amazingly lively and innovative place) and Sam Gault (5th-generation president of the company that bears his family’s name; driving force behind Saugatuck’s wonderful rebirth — he’s staying).
The Chamber will also honor 5 “Young Entrepreneurs”: Staples seniors Harry Epstein, Nick Massoud and Scott Pecoriello, and Weston High’s Rebecca Marks and Michael Sitver. They’ll be cited for their efforts in creating “new and intriguing business ventures.”
Scott developed a subscription weather service, a weather app and a general interest blogging platform. Nick owns Top Hat Tutors, employing 22 tutors in a variety of subjects. Michael blogs about emerging technologies, and is a website consultant to businesses.
That makes sense — the Chamber of Commerce is all about supporting local businesses.
So — this also makes sense — Tuesday’s keynote speaker is Ron DeFeo. He’s CEO of Terex Corporation. It’s a local business (in the sense that it’s headquartered here). But it’s also a $7.1 billion manufacturer of heavy equipment, with over 15,900 employees and 50 manufacturing facilities on 5 continents.
The library. Saugatuck. Construction cranes.
That’s a paragraph that may never have been written before, in the history of the world. But it’s all on tap here this Tuesday — plus catering by Garelick & Herbs.
Maxine Bleiweis has mastermined 17 “Booked for the Evenings.”
But tonight was her first honoring a homegrown hero.
Lynsey Addario — Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur genius grant awardee, inspiration for an upcoming Steven Spielberg movie and now best-selling author — drew a packed house to the Westport Library.
Friends from childhood, friends of her parents, family members (including her 102-year-old grandmother), and just proud Westporters, they were already impressed by the New York Times photojournalist. When they saw her compelling images, heard her harrowing stories of her work in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur and Libya, they left even more awed.
Lynsey Addario speaking tonight at the Westport Library’s “Booked for the Evening.” One of her vivid photographs is projected behind her.
It was a hometown evening. Actress Cynthia Gibb (Staples High School Class of ’81) read excerpts from Lynsey’s book, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Doug Tirola (Staples ’84) produced a tribute video (narrated by CNN anchor and Easton native Ivan Watson). Eli Koskoff (Staples ’15, and Lynsey’s colleague Tyler Hicks’ nephew) played guitar.
Lynsey was called “brilliant, articulate, warm, engaging and very kind” — and she did not disappoint. She gave shout-outs to her sisters, parents, and the town she grew up in. All helped provide the one quality that, she said, every photojournalist needs: “being non-judgmental.”
It was a wonderful evening: for Lynsey, for Westport, and for the library that — in 17 years of “Booked” events — has raised over $3 million.
As New York TimesMagazine director of photography Kathy Ryan said: “This is the rocking-est library I’ve ever seen!”
He begins: “There are two ways to run a public library in a small town: the traditional way, or the Maxine Bleiweis way.”
After praising the director for being “a vibrant tool for bringing out the best in others,” he cites her for not knowing the definition of “can’t.” Her library, he says, can be “noisy, boisterous, provocative, outrageous (and) entertaining.”
Kasanoff adds that Bleiweis’ best talent may be bringing out talents in other people. He cites these traits that we all should emulate:
Boldness: If it will benefit the library, Maxine will ask anyone to do anything. She enlists CTOs of Fortune 50 companies, top journalists, famous authors, and a huge corps of enthusiastic volunteers. Just as importantly, she always has a bold idea and a few “asks” ready; if she spots you in the library, the odds are 100 to 1 that she’ll tell you about her latest projects and how you can help.
Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech guru-writer-video star happily obliges.
Warmth: The Westport Library is partially funded by the town, and also depends on donations from its supporters. There’s never enough money, especially now that the library is embarking on a capital campaign to reshape the building to be much more of a gathering, social and performance space. Leaders in such an environment don’t get to bark orders. Maxine leads with warmth, charm and enthusiasm. She understands that her role is to be uplifting and aspirational.
Imagination: What if we turned the middle of the library into a Makerspace? Could we teach kids to program computers by buying two Aldebaran robots for them to program? Maxine discovered the answers to both these questions was “yes.”
The Westport Library’s Makerspace has a prominent position in the Great Hall.
Maxine taught an entire town not to be limited by outdated conceptions of what you or your organization is supposed to be doing. She showed an entire generation that you are limited only by your own imagination, creativity and willingness to whatever it takes to bring your dream to life.
Most importantly, she showed us what happens when people with diverse talents, abilities and interests work together to uplift a community. The answer, of course, is that magic happens.
The Westport Library serves everyone. This week everyone, it seems, wants to serve it.
Hot on the heels of this morning’s announcement that director Maxine Bleiweis will receive one her profession’s highest awards comes more news: Westport is a finalist for one of the library world’s greatest honors.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services has included Westport on its list of 15 libraries vying for its National Medal. Each was chosen for its significant and exceptional contributions to its community, and its extraordinary and innovative approach to public service.
Westport joins the likes of the Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Phoenix public libraries. It was singled out for “exemplary leadership in promoting lifelong learning while engaging and inspiring the public.”
The Westport Library provides every conceivable service, for every imaginable perspective. (Photo/Dave Elgart)
The Westport Library offers over 1600 programs a year. Its annual Maker Faire attracts 4,000 inventors, hobbyists, scientists, teachers and individuals. The library earned 5-star status from the Library Journal — an honor granted to less than 1% of American public libraries.
Winners will be named this spring. They’ll be honored in Washington, DC. They’ll also receive a visit from StoryCorps, the nonprofit that records and shares oral histories.
In the meantime, IMLS encourages Westport Library users to share their stories on Facebook (click here).
Stories, after all, are what the Westport Library is all about. Plus magazines, newspapers, videos, computers, art, lectures, recitals, 3D printers, robots, crossword puzzles…
When Maxine Bleiweis was young, she says, “I was not a very successful library user.” She learned through hands-on experiences, not books. And she liked to talk.
If she were a kid today, she’d thrive at the Westport Library — an institution run by the now-grown Maxine Bleiweis. It’s a place filled with noise — of chatter, programs, and the hands-on learning, exploration and invention being done in the innovative MakerSpace, smack dab in the center of the place.
When Maxine was younger too — just starting out as a library director — she was influenced by Charlie Robinson. As head of the Baltimore County system, he believed that libraries did not have to follow a “business as usual” model. Rather than assuming libraries were arbiters of community taste — deciding unilaterally which books to purchase; decreeing that users must be silent everywhere — he said, essentially, “give ’em what they want.” Even if “they” had no idea what it was.
In June, Bleiweis receives the Charlie Robinson Award. The Public Library Association honor goes to one innovative leader, risk taker or change agent each year.
“Having my name under his on that award is pretty amazing,” Bleiweis says.
It’s also fitting. For the past 17 years, she’s been a pretty amazing director of the Westport Library.
As she prepares to leave her post — she’s “retooling” (not “retiring”) as of July 1 — she spent time recently looking back on a career she’s embraced with a gusto that may once have seen out of place, back when librarians’ main job was to tell patrons “ssshhh…”
Her innovations — the basis of that Charlie Robinson Award — stem from her philosophy that a library should know what people need from it, even before those people know it themselves.
Everyone, she says, “has a need and a right to succeed at, and be validated by, this miraculous institution: the public library.”
To do that, she’s “taken herself out of” the building. That’s allowed her to reimagine what it could look like, unencumbered by preconceptions and conventions. It’s enabled her to advocate for, and introduce, not only the MakerSpace but advanced technology, TED Talks, wide-ranging programs and events that draw the community together. A true joy, she says, is “watching 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds exchange ideas and information.”
A library, according to Bleiweis, is no longer just a place to get reading material. Anyone can do that anywhere. It’s a place to “debate, discuss, discover.”
Among those most memorable debates: the night Westporter Phil Donahue showed a documentary he produced on the Iraq war. A fight nearly erupted, in the SRO crowd. Bleiweis — wedged against a wall — grew worried. Finally — “in his best talk show host voice” — Donahue defused tensions by saying, “I think this is the part of the program where we all hold songs and sing ‘Kumbaya.'”
An important discussion came soon after a disastrous, alcohol-fueled Staples Homecoming. The library provided a place — “outside of school,” Bleiweis notes — to share community concerns.
Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Library.
As for discovery, Bleiweis recalls a panel of pioneering feminists. “They were wonderful, but at the end they looked at the audience and said, ‘We’ve done our job. What about you?'”
On the spot, a group formed. Out of that meeting came a grant proposal for a program in which college women would mentor high school girls. In turn, they would mentor middle school girls.
What ideas did not work? Bleiweis can’t think of any — because that’s not the way she measures success.
“We’re always in beta test mode, always in tryouts,” she explains. “The library doesn’t really lead. It just provides fertile ground for people to grow things. Inviting in people is more important than making sure all our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.”
One of the Westport Library’s new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)
But, the director notes, “the more this community realizes what a library can be, the more we’re struggling with a building that was not built to facilitate that.” She is proud of the innovative role the Westport Library has played, but knows it will be increasingly difficult to continue, given the constraints of the present building.
In every institution’s life, Bleiweis says, there are junctures where decisions will be made by the person who will be there to see them through. The Westport Library, she believes, is at one of those points.
She’s put forth her vision of what the facility should look like, and how it should function. But many more decisions must be made. And — based on the demographics of her staff — many hiring decisions lie ahead.
Those are part of the reasons behind her decision to step down now. Her personal life plays a role too. Bleiweis’ mother is 98; at the same time, Bleiweis is a new grandmother. “I need a bit of flexibility in my life,” she says.
As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology — or the needs of 21st-century users.
Asked what she would say to her successor, Bleiweis offers: “You’re absolutely blessed with the most vibrant, thinking community anywhere. Listen hard; the answers are within the conversations you’ll hear.”
In the 4 months before she leaves, there is still plenty of work to do — and energy to harness.
Plus, of course, there’s that Charlie Robinson Award to pick up. It’s presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference, in San Francisco. That’s the last week in June — which happens to be Maxine Bleiweis’ final week as director of the Westport Library.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)