Kathleen Zaenger, the “driving force behind the renaissance of the Howell Carnegie District Library” is being feted with a community open house on Dec. 3 to mark her retirement after a 38-year career in which she grew the small facility into a community powerhouse.
That growth involved rallying the community, political forces, and financial resources, a herculean effort that Zaenger made look easy.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with her,” said Lynne Bondy, chairperson of the library board. “She’s overseen two major building renovation projects and multiple civic service contributions in Howell, Livingston County, and the state.”
It was during the first of the two major building projects that I met Zaenger.
I was a new reporter at the Livingston County Press, and my assignment was a story on the progress of the remarkable expansion and renovation of the library. Donning a hardhat, I followed Zaenger and the construction supervisor through the building, trying to keep my jaw from dropping.
The work was remarkable. The modifications to the library made during the energy crisis of the 1970s, or to deal with maintenance issues over the years, had been stripped away to reveal the building’s original, majestic bones.
The result was breathtaking.
I remember looking up into the skylight in the rotunda that had been covered by a drop ceiling for years; gobsmacked by the view, I thought about how satisfied Zaenger must have felt with the results of what was surely a beast of a project to lead. It was work akin to a well-crafted novel, in which each page unearths some literary gem, or something that could be described as a small-town architectural dig.
And on top of the new life breathed into the old treasure — the likes of which we will never see again — was an addition nearly three times the size of the original facility, crafted to complement, not compete with it.
Making the project all the more remarkable is that just after ground was broken in July 1989, Zaenger gave birth to her daughter, Samantha Marie Strasser. Less than two years later, the restored and renovated library opened to the public.
The project continues to amaze.
“Whenever anyone experiences the Howell Carnegie District Library for the first time, it’s almost a jaw-dropping experience,” said Pat Convery, president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. “From its gorgeous architecture inside and out, its extensive collections, its many programs and special services, the library became a beloved and valuable institution under Kathleen’s leadership.”
Now, Zaenger is retiring.
“To say we will miss her is an understatement,” Bondy said. “Kathleen’s extraordinary character and integrity is a hallmark of the significant contributions she had made at the library.”
In 2012, Zaenger was named the Howell Citizen of the Year at the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner.
It was an honor that recognized more than just Zaenger’s work at the library. The award was also a nod to her love of the facility and community, as well as admiration for her quiet, steady leadership style.
“She deflects praise and turns it back on her staff and the community at large,” Convery said. “A true servant leader, she has contributed so much to this area.”
Zaenger will also lead the Fantasy of Lights Parade this year as its Grand Marshal, further proof of the admiration, affection and gratitude the community feels for her.
Zaenger’s retirement party, called a “celebration of new beginnings,” is set for noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, at the library, of course.
There will be light hors d’oeuvres and desserts; live performances by the award-winning Howell High School choirs and band, including the drum line; a special book sale, sponsored by the Friends of the Howell Library; an exhibit featuring the work of the late community icon and photographer Duane Zemper; and a chance to visit with friends and neighbors, and wish Zaenger the best.