The programming dervish of the public library

Debby Preiser just turned 70, though you'd never know it

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Contributing Reporter

If you've ever attended an Oak Park Public Library author talk or film showing, walked through the art gallery or attended a meeting of the Photo Club, taken part in any of the National Endowment-funded activities from Big Reads to Civil Rights programming, or simply set foot in the Main Library, you have benefitted from the gifted efforts of Debby Preiser, community relations coordinator and library employee for 23 years.

Preiser turned 70 on Oct. 17 but neither her energy nor her efforts are flagging. Exercising twice a week on average, she attributes her remarkable energy level to "good genes and 35 years of Jazzercise." She has already started working on her grant proposal for next year's National Endowment programming on immigration.

But right now, her focus has been on this year's World War I offerings, commemorating the 100th anniversary of America entering the war, which include book discussions, a film series, author talks, performances, lectures, and a tie in with the new Oak Park River Forest Museum. (See Art Beat, page 5.)

"When there was a new grant application to write, I thought, 'I haven't had much schooling on World War I'," Preiser recalled. "Talking to seniors at Brookdale [retirement facility], they hadn't either. And with it being 100 years, I thought there would be a lot of activities we could do."

Preiser began writing grant proposals in 2006, resulting in 13 grants from either the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund programs at the library. These include Big Reads, where nearby Oak Park and nearby communities read and participate in activities focusing on an author or title, such as last fall's Into the Beautiful North. Other programs have incorporated subjects from jazz to Negro League baseball.

Oak Park Public Library Deputy Director Jim Madigan says these grants bring valuable programming to the community as was done in 2009 with Pride & Passion: The African American Baseball Experience.

"The display right in the Main Library meant everyone could see it," he said. "And we had speakers and book discussions at Main and the branches. Having the Negro Baseball League story here enriched the library experience."   

Preiser did not start out organizing events. Her days at the library began in 1990, when she was hired by then-director Barbara Ballinger to work 10 hours per week to do library communications as a freelancer — the first to fill that role. Preiser affectionately calls Ballinger her "fairy godmother" for giving her the opportunity.

One of her early tasks was crafting the message on an operating fund referendum, which passed in March 1992. By 1999, she was a full-time employee, just in time to prepare for the next referendum.

The village had outgrown the 1960s-era Main Library. To help explain the need for a new building and convince residents to vote for a $30 million referendum, Preiser wrote community updates, put out a questionnaire, and even held open houses for a historically significant home, located on library property, that needed to be sold and moved before a new structure could be built.

"The Hemingway [Interim] House that sat on the property couldn't be torn down," Preiser said. "Ernest Hemingway learned to read in it. So I sat through open houses while we waited for a buyer."

The house eventually sold and was moved. And the referendum passed in March 2000, providing the go ahead for construction to begin on the new library as well as much-needed renovations at the Maze branch. Madigan, who has worked with Preiser for 22 years, said she played an important role in paving the way for passing the referendum.

"She becomes friends with everyone she meets, the program audiences and library users," he said. "When we went to referendum, it was like she was talking to people on a friendship basis and there was an enormous amount of trust in what she had to say."

Soon after the new library opened in October 2003, another need arose when a 70-year-old man walked in looking for a camera club. Preiser, an avid photographer, took on the challenge, recruited a former library trustee and member of the disbanded Oak Park Camera Club, put up fliers and held the first meeting not knowing what would happen.

"We had 50 people show up, of all ages and backgrounds, and we had reserved the small meeting room," Preiser recalled. "We had to walk over to the Veterans Room and switch with the meeting that was going on there."

The Photography Club continues to meet twice monthly in the Veterans Room, and Preiser attends every meeting, unless she is out of town.

Sharing art with the community is another of Preiser's specialties. For exhibits in the large naturally-lit gallery space on the second floor, she screens submissions by local artists, then features one artist's or group's work each month, as well as hosting an opening reception. That's 168 shows to date at the new library alone.

Preiser's realm also covers adult programming, whether that be an author who talks about her latest book, a film director showing his documentary, scholars speaking on historical subjects, or panels discussing social justice issues, she is behind it. Preiser has put together so many author talks, she can only estimate "several hundred." She has brought in such writers as Tim O'Brien and Michele Norris, as well as notable local authors Elizabeth Berg, Alex Kotlowitz, Jane Hamilton, Stephen Kinzer and William Hazelgrove.

"Debby has tremendous curiosity and is genuinely enthusiastic about artists, authors, films and other programming," said Madigan. "Because she's excited, that's contagious. She will do whatever it takes to build up audiences and it comes through her desire to build community."

Her reach goes beyond the library. As a volunteer, she uses her photo skills to capture events for the Hemingway Foundation and the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest. She also leads book discussions once a month at Brookdale with the senior residents there.

Preiser grew up in Richmond Heights, Missouri. She was editor of the newspaper and co-editor of her yearbook in high school and went on to major in advertising at the University of Missouri Journalism School. In 1969, she was hired by an on-campus recruiter to be a copywriter for Sears.

"My aunt and uncle gave me their 1957 black Volkswagen Bug and I drove it all the way to Chicago," she said. "I would pick up other Sears copywriters every day along my route."

During her years at Sears, she moved into marketing and public relations, eventually editing their "Tower News." When she came upon a cabinet filled with 35mm cameras, she decided to take classes to learn photography.

Preiser left Sears and moved to Oak Park in 1983 when she and her husband started a family. Soon after, Preiser began freelance writing for Wednesday Journal, covering such things as the first computers at the middle schools. 

"I applied at Wednesday Journal with a two-month old on my hip and exercise pants on," she laughed. "It is one of the most fun jobs I've had. I was new to Oak Park and I really got to know the community, which I truly do love."

When the new Main Library opened, a dedication plaque was placed at the entrance recognizing library trustees, the architect, the library director …  and Debby Preiser.

"It privately gives me a great deal of pleasure," she said. "I call that my lifetime achievement award."

What a lifetime it's been — so far.

Reader Comments

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Teresa Powell  

Posted: October 22nd, 2017 5:58 PM

Debby is a real treasure for our library. Thanks for this great article.

Dan Haley from Wednesday Journal Wednesday Journal Employee

Posted: October 19th, 2017 5:01 PM

Debbie was one of the great freelance writers we've ever had at the Journal. Endlessly curious and kind and she always made deadline. What a terrific person for the library.

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