Longtime librarians’ retirements mark ‘new era’ at Alpena library
ALPENA — Judy Cross and Mary Clute can’t explain it, but they both knew this year was their last working at the Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.
A lot has changed in the past two-and-a-half decades or so that they’ve been there. The library expanded and renovated — twice. VCR collections turned to DVDs, and reference computers have grown to hold more information than any building ever could.
In that time, Cross and Clute met, grew with and learned from generations of Alpena County residents. It’s hard to find the words to describe the feeling that they ought to leave their jobs, they said. But each said it with conviction.
“It’s time to take time,” Clute said this spring.
Both Clute and Cross ended their decades-long tenure at the library earlier this spring. Their combined departures within the span of a month embodies more than 55 years of institutional knowledge leaving the library, a wealth of insight and character that Library Director Eric Magness-Eubank said is “irreplaceable.”
The dolls in Clute’s iconic puppet shows have grown a life of their own. She’s honed her summertime arts and crafts with years of practice, and her storytime has become a staple for area toddlers, and their families.
Cross has offered countless book recommendations to thousands of patrons, despite not often remembering their names. Her energy and enthusiasm at the service desk seemed to fuel a “constant blur of motion,” Magness-Eubank said.
“She’s been the face of the library,” he said.
Cross has always loved reading — and libraries, she said. She grew up poor in Alpena and the Alpena County Library, with its collection housed in Alpena High School at the time, offered her the entertainment that she and the kids she babysat in her youth craved.
She worked various jobs in different towns as she raised her three children through her young adult life. But libraries were always a constant.
Cross’ love of reading and decades of wandering bookshelves made onboarding with the Alpena Public Library at 53 feel like a natural transition. Now, at 80, it’s hard for her to remember exactly how many years she’s been there “because I’ve loved it so much,” she said.
“I would love to keep working,” Cross said. “But I know it’s time to leave.”
Clute, who served as the children’s librarian, often brought her four children to the library while raising them full time in Alpena County, she said. She worked for a few years in childcare after they had all grown and moved out before starting as a desk clerk in the mid 1990s.
Early in her career she volunteered to read a story to children. She’d been “really super nervous” at the time, a feeling that never really throughout the years. It’s the spirit of the children that kept her coming back, she said.
“Kids just love to hear stories,” she said. “The funnier, the better.”
Over the years, Clute developed a summer book club and arts-and-crafts programs — she has her family and an army of volunteers to thank for many hours of help preparing macaroni sculpture kits and seemingly limitless support.
Clute, now 71, has now told stories to the children of some patrons who she read to when they were kids themselves. A handful of people who listened to her while sitting crisscross applesauce in their youth have since become colleagues.
But the past few years have been tough, both said.
The pandemic, combined with the renovation of the library building, challenged both of them. Each said they’re looking forward to spending more time with their families — Clute with her four children and seven grandchildren and Cross with her three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Losing both Clute and Cross will change the “personality of the institution,” Magness-Eubank said of the Alpena County LIbrary. Many new, and younger, staff have taken positions once held by long-time employees, many of whom worked at the library for years before he became library director more than a decade ago.
While Cross and Clute both plan to return as patrons, their combined retirements in many ways accelerates the arrival of a new era at the library, Magness-Eubank said.
“Things won’t be the same,” he said.