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Issue Date: May 2009


Book Smarts

Felton Thomas, Cleveland’s new library director, is a dynamic leader, but he’s no self-made man. He owes his success to his neighborhood library in Las Vegas and to mentors who helped him at every key moment in his life. Now he wants to do the same for Clevelanders.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com

CHAPTER 1

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Cleveland, and the speaker at this holiday celebration is not a politician or a minister, but a librarian.

It’s also Felton Thomas’ first day as director of the Cleveland Public Library system and the day before the first black president takes office. Today, Thomas’ job is bigger than taking charge of 29 libraries and 3.4 million books. He is speaking about Dr. King’s dream. And not just speaking: Thomas embodies it.

That may seem presumptuous, but Thomas, 43, is only the second African-American director in the history of the Cleveland Public Library. When Thomas was young, a library was a place of refuge in a city short on shelter. It gave his imagination and intelligence a home and gave him a mission. It also gave him mentors — people who showed him he could do what no one around him had done.

Thomas steps to the podium holding a book — a library book. Little white rectangles cling to its back cover like fallen confetti: the due date tags the Cleveland library put on books until a few years ago. His bald head and dark brown face are memorable and striking, with heavy-lidded eyes and a long and pointed nose. His face and his clothes — a burgundy shirt and tie under a black suit coat — look younger than those of the people sitting to his left and right.

“Today, I’m going to talk about the value of sacrifice,” Thomas says. “I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story from when I was 6. It’s one of the first memories I can remember.”

He recalls his pastor, a 6-foot-3-inch man with all-white hair, a preacher so creative he’d invent words like “preacherin’.” One day, the pastor quoted an article Martin Luther King had written about suffering and sacrifice.

Thomas opens the book and reads.

King wrote that after he was arrested five times, after his home was bombed twice, after getting death threats against his family almost every day, he was “tempted to retreat to a more quiet, serene life.” Instead, he decided to “transform suffering into a creative force.”

“I looked around,” Thomas recalls. “People in the church were crying all over, men and women.” His mother was crying, too. “It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry.” Then, he says, the pastor told the congregation, “Sacrifice is not about what is taken away from you but about what you can give to others.”
 

CHAPTER 2

It’s the late 1970s in Las Vegas, and Felton Thomas, age 13, is reading a book in the quiet West Las Vegas branch library. Today it might be Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders or Catch-22.

The librarians have all noticed him. A regular, he stands out. The library is too quiet, even for the librarians. Some days, almost no one comes in.

The children’s librarian probably recommended the book Felton is reading. She pushes him toward books a little beyond his age level. She can see that he loves books, but perhaps she senses he is there for other reasons.

“You know, you’re here every day,” she says to him. “You should work for us.”

So he does, for $2.25 an hour.

West Las Vegas, then a poor and mostly black neighborhood, was changing for the worse. Drug sales were on the rise, and the Crips and Bloods, the rival Los Angeles street gangs, were finding plenty of recruits in Las Vegas. “My best friends really started getting involved in the gangs,” Thomas recalls. “I knew my mom wasn’t having any of that.”

But he needed somewhere to go besides the two-bedroom house where he lived with his mom, his stepdad and his six younger brothers and sisters. “The house was too crazy to be there all the time,” he says. “I started going to the library and hanging out there after school.”

Felton had been visiting the library since he was 7, reading books by Beverly Cleary, the librarian turned children’s novelist. “We never got to travel,” he recalls. He never left the city until his junior class trip to Disneyland at age 16. “[Reading] could take me places I could never get to go on my own.”

As West Las Vegas got tougher, kids were beating each other up on the streets every day. Felton’s mother noticed.

“Mom was very protective,” remembers Felton’s brother, Ron, now a records manager for the U.S. Department of Energy. “There were a lot of kids my mom thought were not good to hang around with.

“We spent a lot of time inside the house being creative,” he says. “We never really went outside much. I think a lot of people in the neighborhood probably thought of us as a weird family.”

They were very poor. Felton’s stepfather worked, sometimes, as a porter in the Vegas casinos. Their grandmother gave them money to make sure everyone was fed.

Felton and his brothers wrapped tin foil in tape to make a ball that they hit with the handle of a plunger. “That was our baseball game,” Felton recalls, “which we played inside.”

Their mother, Virginia, read American history books and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and introduced her kids to black history and PBS documentaries. Felton absorbed her seriousness.

“He was always a little different,” Ron says. “Even the shows he watched on TV. No slapstick likeGilligan’s Island,which I liked. He liked M*A*S*H and Bob Newhart. Books came easily to him.”

Felton worked as a library page throughout high school. The librarians, mostly older women, saw potential in him. They put him in charge of a story hour, where he read to kids. Felton thought of his 12 hours a week there as simply a shelving job. He wanted to be a psychologist, because friends told him he was a good listener. Then two people changed his mind.

“When I was 15, out of the blue the director of the library system walked up to me,” Thomas recalls. “ ‘People tell me nothing but great things about you. I’m going to sit down and tell you what you need to do to be a director.’ ”

Felton, shocked, thought the man was crazy. But that same year, another visitor got him thinking.

The West Las Vegas library was so quiet back then, a whole day could go by without anyone checking out a book. “The staff would at times leave me in the library by myself,” Felton recalls. “ ‘We’re going to get our hair done! We’ll be back in a little bit!’ ”

So he was alone when a woman he recognized, the mother of kids he knew, came in, distraught. She’d come from her doctor.

“He gave me this,” she told him. “I don’t know what it means.” She handed Felton a doctor’s note.

“I put the medical dictionary in front of her. I looked at her face, and she looked back at me. And I just knew: She couldn’t read.”

Felton found her condition in the book. When he saw the description, he was relieved: It was a minor illness. He read the description to her. She started crying.

“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to live,” she said.

“I think that was the first time I really recognized how libraries can affect people’s lives and that the things that were there could make people feel sad or happy,” he says. “I think that was the first time I even thought,Maybe I could do something more with being a librarian.”
 

CHAPTER 3

The library still had more to give to Felton Thomas.

While working for the Las Vegas library system during college, Thomas learned that if he pursued a master’s program in library science, his employer would pay for tuition. So he applied to the University of Hawaii’s library school and got in.

But when Thomas graduated from college, he was broke. He’d spent too much money partying with friends. He told his boss, an assistant branch manager, that he’d defer library school for a semester because he didn’t have money to live in Hawaii.

The next day, Thomas came to work and saw an envelope left for him. Inside, he found a check for $1,000 and a note. “You are going to library school,” it said. He went.

A year later, Thomas returned home to become assistant branch manager at the West Las Vegas library. He brought along his now-wife, Linda, who was from Hong Kong and was also studying in Hawaii. He came back filled with ambition.

“He was going places,” says Daniel Walters, director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. Thomas wanted to find ways to take the library beyond book-lending, to make it a community center, a place for self-improvement in a poor neighborhood short on resources.

“He was full of energy and millions and millions and millions of ideas,” says Kelly Richards, the branch manager who hired Thomas in 1994. “He just wants to see people do better in their lives. He wanted to try to find a way to make it easier for them.”

Thomas and Richards developed a summer program for at-risk kids called Rites of Passage, which taught boys and girls ages 12 to 15 sex-ed, how to refrain from violence and other self-disciplines they’d need as adults. The library system built a new theater addition, and Thomas’ staff booked concerts, plays and author visits there.

In 2000, Thomas replaced Richards as branch manager. He set up a homework help center, carving out a space for aides, desks, 21 laptops and the same textbooks nearby schools were using. He earned a grant to catalog the West Las Vegas library’s African-American archives — all sorts of photos, books and papers donated over the years — into a well-organized collection.

Thomas and his staff visited West Las Vegas’ elementary schools, convincing kids to visit the library. Once the kids signed up for library cards, staff would send letters to their parents, inviting them to come in, too. The constant outreach worked: Circulation at the library tripled between 2000 and 2009.

“He has an innate fire as a leader,” says Walters. “He was emerging as a community leader from the position of a branch manager. That doesn’t happen often.

“The branch is seen as a community focal point. It’s really Felton who established that.”

Thomas’ work brought an unexpected reward. People he’d never met, who’d seen him working at the branch since he was a kid, began telling him how much the library had helped them.

“The one gift I take most from this,” he says, “[is when] I’d run into somebody and they’d go, ‘I just wanted you to know, I never said anything to you but now I’m a teacher, and I owe a lot of that to you and what people here at this library did for me, giving me a safe place to go.’ ”

For all the projects Thomas brought his library branch, he also brought something basic and hugely important, says Cynthia Watson, principal of the House of Knowledge Christian Academy, a nearby school. Thomas’ presence and position, she says, communicated to kids, “I’m a male, I’m African-American, and I love reading.” Parents could point to Thomas as a role model.

It sounds simple, but seeing someone like him in a prominent position for the first time opens up imaginations, ambitions and possibilities.
 

CHAPTER 4

Felton Thomas knows that impact as well as anyone. Ten years ago, at library conferences, he met the first black library directors he’d ever known —Andrew Venable of the Cleveland Public Library and Greg Reese, director of the East Cleveland Public Library.

Talking to them inspired him. It wasn’t that he’d thought discrimination would keep him from reaching the top of his profession. Mentors in Las Vegas had told him he could go far. But meeting Venable and Reese made the goal real.

“I know [that for] people who come from generations before me, the thought of a black president was an impossibility,” Thomas says. Older black librarians felt the same way about reaching the top of their profession: “The thought of a black director —they just felt like somebody would always stop them, something would always happen. I don’t think I ever felt that. But even then, when you just don’tsee any of it, you don’t see it as a likelihood.”

Back then, Reese was president of the black caucus of the American Library Association. He’d just co-written a book, Stop Talking, Start Doing: Attracting People of Color to the Library Profession. Thomas read Reese’s book, invited him to speak on the subject at a Nevada Library Association conference and got

Reese to send him a minority recruitment video titledMe? A Librarian?!! Thomas used it over and over in his presentations to schoolkids, who’d tell him afterward, “We don’t think you guys are as dorky as we thought you were.”

In 2004, Thomas was put in charge of one-third of the Las Vegas library system. Outside work, he began studying for a doctorate in information management. For one paper, which may become his thesis, he sent a survey to black directors of large library systems. There weren’t many, just 17.

But their answers showed a trend, one that disappointed him. On a list of important characteristics for library directors, they ranked mentoring near the bottom — lower than in a survey of library directors of all races. “I found that baffling,” he says.

He soon got the chance to be a different kind of leader.

Thomas received calls from headhunters all the time, but he wasn’t interested. He had a great job. Besides, he felt some of them called “solely because they needed some minority representation on the panel of interviews,” he says. The person who recommended him was always black. It sometimes seemed as though they already had a top candidate.

Then, last year, Thomas got a different call. Andrew Venable was retiring. Cleveland needed a new library director. Thomas listened for the usual hints that he was a token candidate but didn’t hear them. “The people who recommended me were directors in other library systems who weren’t black,” he says. The headhunters’ questions seemed to test Thomas’ character and whether he’d be a good fit. They told him about the city and asked a lot about him and his family. Thomas could tell they were serious, that there was no front-runner for the job.

He thought about Venable, Reese, how Cleveland seemed open to black leaders reaching the top. Yes, he was interested.
 

CHAPTER 5

Felton Thomas was justwhat Cleveland’s library was searching for.

He was “everything you look for in a youthful leader,” says Tom Corrigan, vice president of the library board. “It’s Obama-like, his big-picture enthusiasm and hopefulness.”

Thomas’ mission of making libraries serve residents in ways far beyond book-lending fit the Cleveland library’s vision. Corrigan liked that Thomas went back to his hometown and improved library service in his community. “He didn’t see it as limiting,” Corrigan says. “It’s almost a Cleveland story.”

Clevelanders may not know this, but librarians nationwide say our library system is one of the nation’s best.

Start with our main library, the envy of many cities and the country’s third-largest public research library. The original five-story building, built in 1925, is a gorgeous classical temple of learning. It and its partner, the glassy, 10-story Louis Stokes Wing built in 1997, include 65 miles of bookshelves for 2.6 million books.

Cleveland and Ohio have a century-long tradition of supporting libraries, says Corrigan. Cleveland helped invent the once-radical concept of open shelves for browsing and created the first modern business library. Inventive Ohioans such as Thomas Edison and Wilbur and Orville Wright turned to libraries when building their futures, he says. “The idea of democracy in information — Ohio has done it better than anybody else.”

Thomas also inherits a neighborhood branch system — 28 libraries, 800,000 books — that Venable worked hard to rebuild. Venable, like Thomas, believed libraries should be ambitious community centers. He not only started the choir that bears his name, he deployed a mobile library to locations such as the City Mission and a Cleveland Clinic children’s hospital.

Now the system faces the same struggle as almost every Cleveland institution: how to remain as good as ever in a shrinking city and economy. Voters renewed the library’s five-year levy last March by a 2-to-1 margin. But with property values declining and foreclosures spreading, the library board already knows it’ll run out of money before the levy expires in 2013. If the library goes back to the ballot early, Corrigan says, it’ll have to make cuts first to meet the voters halfway.

Thomas says his poor upbringing made him frugal. He often looks to make deals and find other suppliers “when I see money being spent in some fashion that I just cannot understand.”

The next levy campaign, years away, already motivates him. “When we go for that levy, if we don’t pass it, a number of people’s jobs are on the line,” Thomas says. “I can’t let ’em down. I have to work every day, as hard as I possibly can.”

Libraries are always more popular and needed when the economy is troubled. People use them to get back on their feet, to start a job search, to better themselves. That’s especially important in poor neighborhoods. Many Clevelanders rely on the library for Internet access, the bridge over the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

Thomas says he’s starting an “emergency initiative” that will change the library’s mission to help people through the economic crisis. This month, he’ll announce the system’s new top five priorities, based on a recent survey of patrons.

Thomas already knows he wants to market hidden gems at the main library (such as its chess collection, the largest chess library in the world). He hopes to create more programs for teenagers, since Cleveland’s libraries — unlike most elsewhere in the country — are filled with teens after school. One group has already met with him about starting a mentoring program similar to Rites of Passage. He also wants to do more to help unemployed patrons: classes on writing résumés, finding a job, filling out online applications — self-improvement.
 

CHAPTER 6

At the King Day talk,Thomas has finished explaining his former minister’s notion of sacrifice as a gift to others.

“Our sacrifice is never going to be at the level of Dr. King’s,” Thomas says. “I try to give five minutes every day” — reading to his children though he’s tired, he says, staying patient when dealing with a difficult customer or giving a talk to students who aren’t paying attention.

“That’s what I’m going to bring to the Cleveland Public Library: the leadership to understand that there has to be sacrifice.”

Thomas asks the audience to consider what they’re willing to do to improve the library, the city, the nation and the world. He gets a standing ovation.

Days later, in his new office, Thomas says changing the library’s mission to fit the community’s needs will require sacrifice. He’ll work seven days a week to make it happen. Staffers will have to give up favorite projects if they don’t fit the priorities that come out of the survey.

“Historically, librarians have said we know what the community needs,” he says. “I disagree. The community knows what they want. Our job is to interpret it and innovate for it.”

To go from librarian to leader, Thomas persevered through times of morale-testing indifference. At times he’d walk out of the West Las Vegas library and hear crowds of parents at the ballfields nearby, cheering their kids, crowds he wished could’ve made his library less quiet.

“There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets,” he says, “for getting communities [where] reading hasn’t been in their general plans every day to buy into that whole concept that their kids can be anything if they stay with education.”

But now’s the time to encourage kids’ ambition, Thomas says. He plans to give the library system’s youngest staffers the same message he heard 28 years ago. “I’ll be going in and talking to the pages and letting them know what opportunities they have and that, at some point, they could end up being me. Because I’m a prime example of the opportunity that is out there for them.”

He wants librarians to be mentors, role models, sacrificers for Cleveland kids.

“I think there’s a super opportunity right now simply because of Obama’s presidency. There are so many more kids who see they have an opportunity to truly be anything they want to be in this world. [We need] to get them to understand you can be smartand you can be cool.”

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