BY JAMES FARRELL
Dennis Walcott, 65, wasn’t planning on running the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 20. But he woke up on his own before dawn and made the last-minute decision to hit the streets. It was 19 degrees, but he didn’t know that—he made a point of not looking at the temperature.
Walcott usually runs about 13 miles per outing, between three and five times a week. He’s usually on the streets by 4:15 a.m. He doesn’t wear headphones. He runs in silence, except for when he sees somebody. He’ll always say hello.
“The running is my time to think,” he says. “I just concentrate on my thoughts, plan out the day.”
But this Tuesday wasn’t an ordinary day. By 8 a.m., he had to be in Manhattan for an interview on “Good Day New York” about the upcoming opening of the Elmhurst Library scheduled for noon, a laudable milestone in his short tenure as president and CEO of the Queens Library. In the evening, he had a library board of trustees meeting until after 8 p.m., putting his workday somewhere in the 12-hour range.
So Walcott settled for a short, six-mile run.
The PRESS of Southeast Queens had the opportunity to shadow Walcott on this busy Tuesday to get insight into the life of the Queens Library president, whose day begins before the sun rises and ends well after it sets.
On most mornings, Walcott knocks on the window of the Cambria Heights library on his way back from his run, waving at the maintenance staff. Usually, he’s back at his Cambria Heights house after 6 a.m. to shower and eat. Then he helps his daughter Dejeanne by warming up her car and taking his granddaughter Malia out to the car in her car seat. He’ll usually drive to the central library branch in Jamaica listening to jazz on WBGO 88.3 or sports radio. Today, however, he was on the road a little sooner than usual to be at “Good Day New York.”
Sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway on the way to Manhattan, Walcott said he wasn’t nervous about his “Good Day New York” interview. He has a cool, crooning voice. When he has WBGO’s jazz station on, he sounds like a radio DJ, cuing up Coltrain or Freddie Hubbard over soft saxophone. He told me how he started running.
“Life is about challenges,” he crooned. “Complex jobs, complex challenges, working on things that are not easy.”
So at 50, he challenged himself to go skydiving. He did it. At 60, he challenged himself to run a marathon. He did it. Twice. Now he runs nearly every day. In fairness, he has a history of athleticism. In his 20s, he played in a football league. His friends called him “Dirt” because he wasn’t afraid to get dirtied up and bruised. He once played with a dislocated shoulder.
Walcott talks to everyone he sees. Back stage in the “Good Day New York” studio at 8 a.m., he struck up a conversation with Anthony Butler and his first-grade son, also named Anthony, who was scheduled to appear in a Toys “R” Us segment on the show.
He sat next to the elder Butler and leaned in like they’d been friends for years.
“Are you excited?” Walcott said to the little boy. Anthony sheepishly nodded,
“I would be too, I would be very excited,” Walcott said.
A few minutes later, Walcott was just off stage, behind the cameras, waiting to join “Good Day New York” hosts Greg Kelly and Rosanna Scotto. When he got on, he touted the soon-to-be-opened Elmhurst library as the largest upcoming customer library, with 32,000 square feet and 1.2 million customers expected by the end of the year.
After the interview, he sat in on a 10 a.m. meeting at the Fresh Meadows library with various branch managers. He likes to visit the libraries, and is trying to visit every library in the system to share holiday greetings before the holidays are over. On his way out, Walcott stopped in to every room to talk to stray staff members, wishing them a happy holiday. Outside, he ran over to shake the hand of a man getting out of his car. He had no idea who the man was.
“When I was [education] chancellor I would make it a habit to make sure that I said hello to the individual staff,” he said. “I do that religiously.”
The Elmhurst library’s grand opening at noon was one of the biggest events in the library’s recent history. It was a long-awaited opening, far removed from its initial completion date of 2011. Walcott emceed a jovial press conference with a long line of elected officials.
He officially opened the library doors at 12:57 p.m.—three minutes early. He spent another hour or so greeting new customers, mingling with politicians and admiring the architecture. Many asked him if he ran that morning. “I did run,” he told them. “I didn’t look at the temperature.”
While going up the stairs to the upper level, Walcott stopped to look back down at the first floor. He saw an Asian American man reading an Asian-language newspaper, sitting comfortably on the heater next to a Christmas tree. It was Walcott’s favorite image of the day. Less than an hour after opening, the man had already found his place.
“It just captured the role of the library,” he said. “People have been waiting for it. People will seek out what works for them.”
While opening a new library is hardly part of a typical day, Walcott has completed many capital projects since taking over.
“We have been to more groundbreakings and more ribbon cuttings of libraries than I’ve ever seen in my 20 years in elected office,” said Borough President Melinda Katz at the press conference. In 2017, Walcott will host similar events at the Kew Garden Hills and Hunters Point libraries.
When the celebration was over, Walcott swung by the Rego Park library for a “hot minute,” to run in and shake the hand of every employee he saw—another library down on his holiday greeting tour.
Walcott spent the afternoon working in his cubicle in the Jamaica central branch. His cubicle is out in the open in the main lobby, giving him constant access to library staff and customers. He touched base with staff on everything from fundraising to glowing reactions to the Elmhurst opening. He also shook hands, waved and talked with customers, who instantly recognized him.
Customer feedback is important to him.
“You have your regular customers who come in,” he says.
At 6 p.m., the evening’s meetings began. First, the board’s labor committee met. Then it was the full board meeting. In his president’s report, Walcott beamed over the Elmhurst opening. They had 3,401 people pass through the library on its first day.
“Today was a glorious day,” he said. “Can’t say it any other way. People worked long and hard over a long period of time for today to actually happen.”
After the meeting, Walcott stopped by his cubicle one last time. It was about 8:30 p.m. Two men were sitting on chairs near his desk. He chatted with them before saying goodnight. In a scene out of “Cheers,” where everybody knows Walcott’s name, Walcott left the library, waving goodbye to familiar faces at tables around the library.
If his granddaughter is awake, he will spend some time with her before going to sleep.
“If not, I have a good book waiting for me,” he says.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.