By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
In her career of more than 35 years at the Cobourg Public Library, Rhonda Perry has worked in every department.
But anyone who has met her and seen her in action knows that working with children is where she truly shines.
Perry was originally hired as a secretary in technical services – “basically administrative assistant to Valerie,” she said, referring to long-time CEO Valerie Scott.
“I have been meeting-room co-ordinator, the library’s first volunteer co-ordinator, I’ve worked on the reference desk, supervised circulation and tech services – I’ve worked in every department.”
Though she’s best known as the children’s librarian, the title later became youth services co-ordinator and then youth specialist.
It was always her dream. And looking back, she can see she was always going in that direction.
Sharing a coffee at the Tim Hortons where she worked as a teenager, Perry displays a very thick scrapbook of remembrances from such highlights as a wedding at the library in 1997 that she helped the couple set up for.
One of the most rewarding memories she has is the many and varied community partnerships she established – especially with the Cobourg Cougars, who showed their support in different ways from reading to the children to helping patrons at the annual book sales carry their purchases to the car.
Other community partners include the New Canadians Centre, the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority and McDonald’s, where she never missed a chance to be an enthusiastic (if somewhat inept) celebrity server for McHappy Day.
She established a regular story time at the old Shoeless Joe’s restaurant, and the Cat and the Fiddle once held a string of events with them to celebrate Ontario Public Library Week.
Businesses like B&D Liquidation and Sommerville’s were so generous with donations of rewards and incentives for their programming.
More recently, a partnership with the Early On Centre helped her continue her beloved Mother Goose program for the library’s youngest visitors (with their parents or caregivers) in a virtual format during the pandemic.
One partnership Perry takes particular pride in was in support of her Share Your Stories writing contest for students that stopped during the pandemic.
“It had a great run, having (authors) Ted Staunton and Shane Peacock co-ordinate with me. They were so helpful, going out to the schools and promoting it. We had a really great time putting that program together for students,” she said.
Mentioning the authors reminded her of the time she learned a favourite of hers, Ted Wood, had responded to the regular newspaper column she wrote in praise of the library’s many wonderful volunteers by becoming a volunteer himself at a time when he was living in the community. It was a true celebrity encounter for her, as she recalled how popular his books had been back at the library’s old Chapel Street location.
And of course, she loved the chance to meet even more authors at the annual Ontario Library Association conferences.
Leafing through the scrapbook and seeing the familiar faces brought a wistful touch of nostalgia.
“I have said goodbye to many staff, more than I can even think of,” Perry said over a clipping announcing the retirement of Elizabeth Ledgard and Dorothy Lees – an event town crier Tom MacMillan was present for – and notice of Scott’s retirement.
“I’ve learned something from all the CEOs I ever had,” she said, reeling off a list of seven or eight, spanning both locations.
The move out of the former Trinity United Church Sunday school building on Chapel Street in 1995 took them from a building she described as “kind of in rough shape – bats in the evenings, mice in the waste-paper baskets. The roof caved in in the upper-storey meeting room while I was there working in one of the offices.”
She recalls the feasibility study for the present library building, which was eventually named the C. Gordon King Centre. There are clippings in the scrapbook of her helping to pack up the books for the big move, as well as one of a very special reading program held outside on the lawn at the new location, the children enjoying their books while sitting in the large-bore concrete sewer pipes waiting to be laid during the roadwork.
Not to say things remained in moving-day perfection at the C. Gordon King Centre – they had a massive flood one winter a few years back, forcing the library to operate out of what vacant space Northumberland Mall could offer. She recalls setting up Story Time At The Mall during those months while they waited for the problem to be fixed.
Over the years, she recalls a lot of changes in the thinking around children’s literacy. It used to be assumed, for example, that children don’t read chapter books. Children’s magazines were successful because they had short articles and lots of pictures. And then the age of technology – but then, she said, kids cannot really use technology without learning to read.
She even embraced the new Manga books and graphic novels as a legitimate reading experience.
“Literacy can come from anywhere – reading cereal boxes, reading road signs on car trips,” she pointed out.
“I am pleased we have accepted all forms of literacy, though we still have a ways to go before we have a higher population of literacy.”
Perry loved making a library visit fun for children. A popular summer program was a storytime-in-your-jammies night, where children could come to the library in their pajamas for a bedtime tale.
And regular summer reading programs were a delightful cavalcade of events and activities with incentives and rewards that encouraged children to enjoy reading as a pastime.
They always participated in Santa Claus parades, as well as providing an after-parade spot to say a personal hello to Santa.
They partnered with a library in England to enjoy Flat Stanley programming. When the library heard about their flood, she added, they sent hearts to show their support.
“Another really big thing that happened during my career is the explosion of Harry Potter. I predicted early he would be a classic,” Perry declared – and she showed her support from the start with an in-costume reading at C.W. Hay Bookseller in downtown Cobourg.
“One of the things that has really meant a lot to me is when pages, summer students and volunteers become staff. That is one of the most rewarding things when that happens,” she said.
“Our outreach co-ordinator Rachel Spence was a volunteer in the children’s department when she was in high school.”
So many of Perry’s scrapbook pages are photos of the children who have visited her and the thank-you notes they have sent. Once in a while she gets a thank-you visitor, like the young man – now 22 – who dropped in to tell her how much he used to enjoy her story times.
One of the children in her photos is actually herself, in the library at the former Thomas Gillbard Public School. She was in Grade 12, and it was a co-op placement.
Perry is a life-long Cobourg resident, the daughter of Ron and Ruth Wilde, alumna of Grant Sine Public School, C. R. Gummow Public School and CDCI West – before going on to Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. But that taste of big-city life was disagreeable, and she was so happy to get back to Cobourg.
She got that first job at the Cobourg Public Library on Chapel Street in June 1985. The following month, she married her husband Greg at Trinity United Church – just across the street – and the entire library staff attended, leaving a page named Heather to hold down the fort.
They welcomed son Brandon and officially became a hockey family. And she has watched with pride as Brandon has found his own passion as owner of Colossal Fitness in Cobourg. It was hit pretty hard during the pandemic, she said, but he persevered.
“He’s very creative with his business ideas. It has been an absolute pleasure to watch him build his business and maintain it through a pandemic,” she said.
“Every parent is proud of their child, but I am super-proud of the young man he is, and I can only imagine where he is going to take his business into the future.
“And he still plays hockey.”
Among the many gifts the life of a librarian has given her is a personal one. Quite shy as a child, Perry found her chosen career required her to be outgoing to at least some degree, even required public speaking on occasion.
“I was always thrilled to talk about the library,” she said.
“Working for the library, I have grown as a person. I’ve come out of my shell and I’ve learned a lot of personal growth and development – and that’s something I want to continue to work on in retirement.”
One thing she’ll be glad to have more time for is the special sorority of staffers who worked at the old Chapel Street location. They meet regularly to look in on each other and share memories and fellowship. And once in a while, one of them will still refer to the C. Gordon King Centre as “the Ontario Street location.”
“That relationship is so real and so special, and I’m really looking forward to when we can get together again,” she said.
There is at least one more annual bookmark spree to come, with Perry already having made 500 bookmarks to give out to patrons at Christmas time. It’s something she truly enjoys and would like to continue to do.
And her visits to read at the Cobourg Retirement Residence that she had to suspend because of the pandemic are something she wants to resume as a volunteer in retirement.
Another pursuit she is looking forward to with her husband is having more time to put their new trailer to good use.
“We love camping, we love the outdoors, we love travelling,” she said.
One of their last big trips prior to COVID was attending the World Junior Hockey Championship in 2019 – cheering in person for Team Canada just feels so patriotic, she said, and it’s something they hope to do again.
“That’s the kind of adventures we are hoping for when we retire.”
Both Perry and her husband always planned to retire pretty well on schedule in order to have time for these wonderful prospects, but COVID cemented that decision with the changes it necessarily made to the way she had to do her job.
One big example is the way she could no longer encourage the enthusiastic hugs with which so many kids want to greet her.
“I always wanted to be that librarian who knows their name when the kids come in, establishing a relationship with families,” she said.
“My role has changed in the last couple of years so that isn’t how my job works right now.”
While she is moving on, she said, COVID is not forever and the library is doing a good job in spite of it.
“Under the current leadership scheme, they are heading in the right direction, and the community is in very good hands in my opinion. They do great things and will continue to. They are a good group of people with a vision like no other,” she declared.
“I am very fortunate to have the career that I did, and it played out exactly as I had hoped. I loved being a children’s librarian for the Town of Cobourg.”
She does feel she met her biggest career goal.
“One of the things that I always said I wanted was to just make a reader out of one kid and to know I made a difference in one child’s life – to know that because of their visit to the children’s department, they loved books and reading,” she said.
An e-mail she recently received from a library patron encouraged her to feel she had succeeded.
The woman stated that her little girl always looked forward to her visits to the library at least in part for the chance to see Perry.
“You made reading fun to a kid who really didn’t care for it at all,” the woman wrote – “So many friends and adventures and memories.”
“At the end of the day, you have goals that you set for yourself. What do you want to achieve in your life?” Perry said.
“I have so many things I want to do. I still have a lot to offer, and I am excited I will be able to volunteer at the Cobourg Retirement Residence, to give back.”
As the Cobourg Public Library prepares to say goodbye, they are inviting everyone who wishes to join them to be at the library (200 Ontario St.) Friday, Aug. 6, at 2:15 p.m. where – in an outside gathering – they will be able to offer cards, pictures and messages to say farewell.
And if you can’t be there on Aug. 6, please bring your cards, pictures and messages to the children’s department to deposit in the Message For Mrs. Perry box.