Susan Merrell loves three things about Catherine Creedon.
“One, she is the most trustworthy friend a person can have,” said Merrell. “Two, she is a great cook, although I am hesitant for people to know this because I am a personal beneficiary of her talent, and three, I love the way she dresses.”
When Merrell speaks of Creedon in glowing praise, it is also clear that one of the things she loves most about Creedon is her dedication to the Sag Harbor community and its aging library, which clings onto its historic edifice, awaiting a voter-funded and not yet village approved restoration and expansion of its historic shelter.
Creedon has been the director of the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) since 2007, as the library board of trustees revisited once more how it should expand and restore the current building with public support and financing. After a failed 2004 referendum, still caught in the wide-ranging community debate and divisiveness over the future of JJML, Creedon was hired to fill the directorship left by Allison Gray. As many library board members and staff recount, a new era began at Sag Harbor’s hometown library.
“I remember running into her on the street a week after I met her and having this amazing conversation about books and we were just so simpatico,” said Merrell, a longtime friend and former board member at JJML, who urged Creedon to apply for the position when Gray left Sag Harbor.
Creedon was a book hound early on, who was assistant librarian in the Hennepin County Library in Edina, Minnesota, from 1975 to 1981 before taking a number of positions from curator to cataloger to director of children services to research librarian at a number of libraries including The Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, the Suffolk Cooperative Library Systems in Bellport, even working as a children’s literature specialist at workshops hosted by the Walker Art Center and Minnesota Center for the Book, as well as the Peconic Teachers Center.
Merrell and Creedon’s friendship blossomed over a decade ago, in a writing group organized by Merrell where Creedon wrote her fantasy novel for children, “Blue Wolf,” which was published in 2003 as one of the inaugural titles in the “Julie Andrews Collection” imprint at HarperCollins.
Merrell said she was desperate early on for Creedon to have the directorship at JJML, and when the job opened, Creedon initially declined to interview for the position.
“I remember she was writing and in a more creative place,” said Merrell, who asked Creedon to meet with then-JJML board of trustees president Christiane Neuville. Creedon grudgingly agreed, but warned Merrell she would still not apply for the job.
“They had an hour long conversation and then I think they had tea and she called me and said, ‘You totally manipulated me,’ which I did not intend to do,” remembered Merrell. “Talking to Christiane, I think she figured out she would have the ability to do what she really believed in at the library.”
“I begged her to apply because I could see she had a lot of potential,” said Neuville. “She is an unusual person because when you first see and meet her you do not grasp all that she can accomplish. When I see what she is able to do, especially now, with everything that has been going on, she is a true leader.”
“I had never met Cathy until she came in for the interview, and I immediately fell in love with her,” said board of trustees member Carl Peterson. “She was far and away our choice. She was perfect for the job.”
John Jermain Memorial Library technical coordinator Eric Cohen, who served as co-interim director with Pat Brandt prior to Creedon’s appointment as director, has known Creedon casually for years. Upon hearing she was a candidate, and knowing she was “a lovely person,” Cohen said a number of staff members lobbied the board for her appointment, also feeling it was important to have a Sag Harbor resident in charge of Sag Harbor’s library.
Once she was hired, Cohen said she arranged meetings with every employee at JJML, with Cohen and Brandt first on the list. Creedon asked the pair if there was anything she could do to make the transition easier on them, and what she could do to make their jobs more enjoyable.
“I thought, this is pretty cool,” said Cohen. “It was a great way to start off and I think everyone had a similar experience with her during those first interviews.”
Neuville said the biggest pleasure she had as president of the board was hiring Creedon, who she called “irreplaceable.” Neuville added she believes Creedon was instrumental in the successful passage of a $10 million referendum this summer. Those monies, following village approval of the project, will enable the board to restore the historic Main Street, Sag Harbor structure and expand the library by 7,000 square-feet.
“I know that each of the board members spent many hours on the phone talking to people about the vote, but she went to every single organization,” said Neuville. “I don’t think she missed one. In fact, she showed up places we never even knew existed.”
Neuville said it was not only Creedon’s dedication to the project, but how she presents ideas and listens to people that was her greatest asset leading up to the referendum.
“She has a very non-threatening way about her – people listen to her,” said Neuville. “She never raises her voice, but speaks with real strength.”
“She was probably 99 percent of the reason [the referendum] passed,” laughed Diane Gaites, the most recent president who stepped down from the trustees this year after 15 years on the board.
Gaites said when the board resumed discussions about how, and where, the library should be expanded with Creedon as director, “we were nine different people with probably nine different ideas and opinions about what should happen.”
Gaites, the only board member left from the failed 2004 referendum said she carried baggage from that loss, and that it was Creedon who made the board see they all had the same goals for the library despite their differing views on how it should be carried out.
“I think she had a great way of making sure we did things together, through consensus,” said Gaites. “Eventually, she made us realize we had the same interests at heart. We became more cohesive.”
Peterson agreed that Creedon has had a unifying effect around JJML and the community at large.
“I think because of everything that is so great about her personality, she was able to bring a lot of different communities in Sag Harbor together,” said Peterson. “I do that a little too, but nowhere near what Cathy does. I think we all worked hard for this, but a lot of it was Cathy.”
“I don’t think Cathy came to the job with any preconceived notions about what should happen,” continued Peterson. “She went through her own process and digested the issues and people watched her mind work and respected the conclusions she came to. Instead of having all the different factions on the board, everyone liked Cathy so much that we started letting go and let her be the one voice, rather than have one voice for this position, one voice for that position.”
“I think — which she doesn’t appreciate about herself — that Cathy has a natural gift to connect groups of people,” said Cohen. “You always know she is speaking from the heart.”
Cohen added that Creedon “worked her butt off” to get the referendum passed, going to groups more than once and keeping her office door open for anyone who had questions about the expansion plan – a trait she continues post referendum as the library gears up for the village’s review of their project.
“She never patronizes people and always takes concerns to heart,” said Cohen. “I think people saw that we were taking a responsible approach to the project and really listening to what they had to say. The full board deserves a lot of credit for this as well.”
It was Creedon’s love for what libraries can bring to a community, and her particular fondness for JJML – Creedon’s hometown library – that made her such an ideal candidate for director in Gaites’ eyes.
“I had to look at the position as not just for someone looking to run a library, but a person who had a connection to Sag Harbor and knew how to take a library and really play up its strengths,” said Gaites. “It is not just a business to her, or a job even. It has great personal value for her.”
Gaites noted Creedon has accomplished far more than a successful referendum, implementing a slew of new programs and rearranging the current space at JJML to make it more efficient.
“She looked at the space differently,” said Gaits. “She has been able to physically fit more in and in a very innovative way.”
“Her vision is larger than just books,” said Gail Slevin, a member of the Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library. “With extraordinary limitations – a leaking roof, no heat, she made physical changes like moving the reference department downstairs from the third floor where it was so inaccessible. She carved out places here and there, she cleaned. The overall effect has been wonderful.”
Circulation at JJML, in Creedon’s tenure, is up almost 20 percent.
“For a long time before Cathy, we kind of felt like the library was not going anywhere, not serving the needs of the community as well as we thought it could,” said Cohen. “She brought an ethic of wanting to serve the community to the fullest.”
Like nearly everyone interviewed for this piece, Gaites said it is her hope Creedon has found a lifelong home at JJML and in Sag Harbor.
“It’s like she came home,” said Gaites. “She went other places, but here, she kind of is home. Personally, I don’t see it in her to lose that enthusiasm for this place. We have a lot to be thankful for.”