March 7, 2014

Celebrating Bedford Hills Free Library’s director Rhoda Gushue

You can tell a lot about a town by its library. Is it a place people really want to go? Are there visitors of all ages? Is it a center for creativity, youth and cultural events? In short, is it a place where you feel welcome and can “hang out” as easily as prepare a term paper or a report?

The Bedford Hills Free Library prides itself on being the “friendly library.” If there’s any one person responsible, it is Rhoda Gushue, the Bedford Hills Free Library director who retired in 2013 after 43 years of service. “We are told we are one of the friendly libraries,” said Ms. Gushue upon announcing her retirement last fall. “People do enjoy their little visits. The children who came in the beginning are now coming in with their children. I have been here since 1970, but it doesn’t seem like a long time.”

The library at 26 Main St. is a former home built in 1860 that served as the residence of the Aaron Clark family and provides the feeling of walking into someone’s comfortable living room. The narrow stairway only enhances the quirky literary feel of this unique structure.

When it arrived at its current location on Main Street in 1952, the library only took up the downstairs. Upstairs was an apartment where a woman named Helen lived.

Ms. Gushue remembers Helen. “If you look closely at the walls behind the shelves and all the books, you’ll see Helen’s wallpaper,” she said in a 2008 interview. “It’s pretty.”

While raising her children in Bedford Hills, Ms. Gushue spent a nine-year stint working at the Bedford Hills Elementary School. She said one of her memories was her duty as a recess aide. It was a time, she said, when children would go sledding outside on lunch trays.

When her own boys were in middle school, Ms. Gushue decided to look for a paying job. Ms. Gushue said Mary Hyatt, the director of the Bedford Hills Library for 26 years, got her interested in working there. Ms. Gushue began working at the library in 1970, appreciating the library’s local character while leading the institution into a new digital age.

When Ms. Hyatt retired in 1975, Ms. Gushue was named the library’s director. During her time as director, Ms. Gushue saw the establishment of the Westchester Library System, which provides a centralized catalog of media to libraries throughout the county. The system allows libraries to borrow and lend from one another easily, and it improved Bedford Hills’ capabilities considerably. The library has been fully automated since 1989. “We were among the first in the system to become automated,” said Ms. Gushue in 2008. “Of the 37 libraries in the county system, we were the third to be online.”

Ms. Gushue worked with much of the same staff throughout her career at the library, many of whom live in town. The main difference now is that “Back then we knew everyone’s name,” Ms. Gushue said. “It was a more social environment. Our impetus now is to reach the children and through the children reach the parents.”

In 2010, the Bedford Hills library, along with other town libraries, felt the harsh realities of the nation’s economic crisis and resulting budget cuts and turned to the community and town for help. “We have cut back on our materials budget just to try to keep our shortfall to as much of a minimum as we can,” Ms. Gushue said at the time.

The town and its residents met the challenge and the library continues to thrive — in very large part to the efforts of Ms. Gushue.

Mary Esbjornson replaced Ms. Gushue on Feb. 10.

A Minnesota native, Ms. Esbjornson lived in New York City and worked for nonprofit organizations before coming to Bedford Hills.

“I think it’s just amazing what she has contributed to the library,” Ms. Esbjornson said of her predecessor. “It’s going to be very difficult to fill her shoes, and I know that the library has been a kind of home for her too, and so I hope to stay connected with her and I hope that she’ll stay connected with the library.”

Without a doubt, Ms. Gushue will remain connected, and those who continue to find Bedford Hills Free Library a welcoming place will remember her lengthy and committed service to the community.

On Thursday, March 13, Ms. Gushue is being honored by neighbors and friends at the GlenArbor club. Co-hosts include the Bedford Hills Neighborhood Association; Bedford 20/20; Bedford Free Library; Bedford Hills Historical Museum; Katonah Village Library; Lions Club of Bedford Hills; Bedford Hills Woman’s Club; the Paint Box; and Vine & Co. The reception will include a buffet catered by the GlenArbor club and wines supplied by Vine & Co. of Bedford Hills. Music will be provided by Glenda Davenport and her band.

To “book” the evening, call the Bedford Hills Free Library at 666-6472.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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