Jim Madigan sits for a photo at Mills Park on Thursday, June 30, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Jim Madigan is proof that it’s never too late to write a new chapter in life — and, as such, he serves as an inspiration to others unwilling to rest on their laurels in retirement. Since retiring in 2019 as deputy director of the Oak Park Public Library, Madigan has been working toward a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). In late April, he was recognized with the inaugural 2022 Michael Anania Poetry Prize, a juried prize for graduate students in UIC’s English Department.

“When I learned that I was going to receive an award, I told my family that I might be getting the Oldest Student Award or something,” Madigan laughed.

Launching a new later-in-life career, especially one in which the odds of success are so slim, takes an extraordinary amount of courage. That fortitude is further tested when your classmates are half your age. But Madigan considered his age as an advantage. He has a lifetime of experiences to draw upon.

Madigan embarked on his literary career just days after retiring from the library, when he accompanied his partner, Deborah Adelman, to Ireland, where she was chaperoning a college study abroad program at Carlow College-St. Patrick’s, an hour south of Dublin. He sat in on a poetry class and something about it just clicked. It helped that his poetry instructor was encouraging.

Madigan accompanied his nervous poetry instructor to the first public reading of his first book. During the open mic following the reading, the instructor invited Madigan to read from his own poetry. Madigan discovered that he enjoyed the experience and, since then, has read at more than 50 public readings.

“When you’re over 40, you make people say no to you — you don’t say no to yourself,” Madigan said, summing up the philosophy that has guided his career.

Following a short stint as a corporate banker in the 1980s, Madigan took a job managing the video collection at Chicago’s revered Facets Multimedia, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and presenting independent films. He eventually became assistant director to founder Milos Stehlik. He then worked for three years as executive director of an Easter Seals center in Oak Park.

While researching job opportunities for a friend, Madigan saw a job notice from the Oak Park Public Library that involved financial planning, budgeting and community outreach. During his interview, he showed the committee a book about fundraising ideas for public libraries — which included a chapter on the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library’s annual book fair. Although the book was in the library’s collection, none of the committee members had ever seen it. Madigan got the job — and stayed with the library for 25 years.

During his retirement party, now former Executive Director David Seleb referred to Madigan as the “conscience of the library.” For more than two decades, Madigan led a number of initiatives that positioned the library as the heart of Oak Park’s uniquely diverse and socially progressive community.

One of his first projects focused on the open housing movement in Oak Park during the 1960s, as reflected in the personal stories of leaders including Roberta L. Raymond, Sherlynn Reid, Harriette Gillem Robinet and others.

In the early 2000s, Madigan was intimately involved in the planning of the new main library on Lake Street, talking with more than 40 community groups to get a referendum passed, meeting with building contractors, and overseeing the move to temporary quarters at the former Pep Boys building on Harlem Avenue. He also served as the project manager for the renovation of the Maze branch library at Gunderson and Harrison, which focused on adding an elevator to improve accessibility. Both projects, which were somewhat contentious, benefitted from Madigan’s ability to work with a variety of passionate people holding conflicting opinions.

One of the projects of which he is most proud was the 2016 One Book/One Oak Park, which revolved around Kevin Coval’s poetry collection, “A People’s History of Chicago.” To connect the book to Oak Park, library staff read poems at sites throughout the community that were relevant to Coval’s book. For example, a poem about racial justice was read outside the Percy Julian home. Outside Ridgeland Common, they read a poem about Fred Hampton because he organized to open a pool in Maywood for Blacks who were denied entry to Oak Park and Chicago pools.

Madigan plans to publish a book of his own poetry after finishing his master’s degree this fall. Nineteen of his poems have already been published or accepted for publication.

“Retirement is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. After 25 years at the library, I know that I’m strongly identified with the library. But you can’t coast on that reputation. I wanted to explore other opportunities,” Madigan said.

Obviously, Madigan is enjoying writing his next chapter.

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