Chance Commitment Leads To Lifelong Career

By+Kathe Brunton

It is a good place for reminiscing…this breezy, open, airy spot that is awash in light on even the gloomiest of days. This, said Don Napoli, is one of his favorite places, and one he actually had a hand in creating.

It is the Centre Township Branch Library, built in 1999, and you’ll be forgiven if, at first glance, you think it looks more like a home than a public institution. At the corner of Kern and Miami south of the city, the angular, one-story stone and stucco structure is surrounded by an array of flowers that seem to grow in wild profusion. Inside, light wood trims the perimeter and desks, while sage green and cream flow along the walls. A secluded courtyard at the back features a pond with goldfish, stonework, trees that provide restful shade on a hot day, and tables that encourage one to kick back with a book.

“I like to come here with family and friends whey they visit from out of town,” Napoli said. “Maybe have a cup of coffee in the courtyard.” Of course, Napoli visits Centre Township and the other eight library branches often in his role as director of the St. Joseph County Public Library, a position he has held for 31 years.

Today, Don reminisces about a chance comment that propelled him into the library field.

Fresh out of the army in 1967, having previously earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Boston College, Don was dating the woman he says he “knew right away was the one.” But even though he was smitten with Carol, he remembers, “We needed some time and I needed a job or a way to support myself while we dated.” During an interview with the Hecht Company, a chain of department stores in Baltimore-Washington, D.C., the interviewer realized, as Napoli did, that he was looking for just a temporary job, one that would last maybe a year.

“She mentioned a one-year trainee program for paraprofessionals at the Enoch Pratt Public Library in Baltimore. At the end of the year, the library expected the trainee to go on to graduate school to get a master’s degree in library science. There was a shortage of librarians at the time,” he recalled.

When he heard about the program, “My ears immediately stood up,” he said. “I made a beeline to Pratt and filled out an application.” Napoli was granted an interview on the spot, during which he was asked how long he’d been thinking about becoming a librarian.

“Oh, quite some time,” he told the interviewer. Remembering that comment, he laughs and says, “Actually, it was only about 10 minutes. But I realized I have always loved libraries. Even before high school, I would spend a good part of my summer days at the Somerville (Mass.) Central Library. I loved to just look at the non-fiction titles on the shelves and was fascinated by the subjects and how they were arranged.”

Don also spent a good deal of time while at Boston College in the university library. “I loved being there, surrounded by all those books,” he said. “But it never occurred to me that I would ever work in a library, that I could actually get paid for this!”

After completing the paraprofessional program, Napoli attained his master’s degree and took a job with the Baltimore County Public Library, where he spent eight years in increasingly responsible roles. The library’s associate director mentored him and, knowing Don wanted to advance in his career, suggested he apply for director-level library positions to gain experience in interviewing for an administrative role. That’s where South Bend comes in.

In 1977, the South Bend Public Library, as it was then called, was seeking a new director. Don sent his resume, was granted an interview, and then offered the job. At first, he turned it down. He wanted to stay in Baltimore. But South Bend wanted Don, and Napoli’s mentor encouraged him to take the job.

Fortunately for this community, he did. In his three decades at the helm, the St. Joseph County Public Library has flourished. One of the first things Napoli did in his early years was replace the four leased branches with new owned branches, freeing up several thousand dollars in lease fees and turning that money into new books, which, he knew, was the bread and butter of any library.

Over time, “Circulation went crazy,” he recalled, “from 900,000 to 3 million annually with the same population and the same number of library buildings.”

He also oversaw an $8 million, 39,000-square-foot expansion and renovation of the main library, which was completed in 1992. Around that same time, Napoli attended a library conference and “heard about a new thing called the Internet.” His interest in technology and his innate curiosity led the SJCPL to become the first public library in the United States to establish a website, the first to offer public Internet access in Indiana, and the first in the world to provide a searchable database of its resources via a web page over the Internet.

It’s not surprising that, since 1996, SJCPL has consistently ranked within the top 10 of the 334 similar-sized libraries in the U.S.

Closer to home, just this year SJCPL won the coveted Leighton Award for Nonprofit Excellence from the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. The award is a $100,000 endowment challenge grant given to an organization that demonstrates superior leadership, management and programming.

In presenting the award, Rod Ganey, chair of the Leighton Award Committee, said, “The St. Joseph Public Library is not trapped in some fixed notion of what a library should be, but rather seeks to define itself by what the community needs.”

Napoli himself gives credit elsewhere. “We’ve been blessed with a community that supports us when we want to renovate a branch or build a new one,” he said.

Currently, Napoli has no concrete plans for retirement, though he’s aware it’s looming on his horizon. He points to the new German Township branch, under construction, as a place he’ll probably frequent when he becomes a man of leisure.

“It’s a nice two-mile walk from my home and will be a great place to visit and spend half my day looking through all the new books and magazines,” he said. With a Bavarian architectural style, the new branch reminds Don of his time in Germany while in the army, as well as a trip he took this summer with his wife to a mountaintop retreat in Bavaria to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

“The new branch looks like a large Bavarian or German cottage. It has two towers and a window in the children’s area that remind one of the doors and windows in the homes of Middle Earth,” he noted, with a reference to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As for his own reading pleasure, Napoli immerses himself in stacks of books on a particular subject whenever he wants to learn something. Usually, that something has to do with home repairs, so he has become well versed with “how to” books. He jokingly calls home repair his hobby, noting, “If I did not view this as a hobby, I’d go out of my mind or break into a cold sweat just thinking about everything that needs to be done in my old house.”

And perhaps that’s where his retirement will take him…where he already is: learning new things, fixing up the home, spending time among aisles of books, and reminiscing about good times.


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