Rodger Brayden didn’t even know where Forest Park was before he took the job as director of the Forest Park Public Library in 2004. During his 11-year tenure, he has seen the library transformed, thanks in part to his leadership. Brayden is retiring this year and received a rousing farewell at the library on Dec. 11. 

Mayor Calderone was on hand to read a proclamation celebrating Brayden’s many achievements and his devotion to the Rolling Stones. He was presented with a painting of the library, which was done by Forest Park artist Lin Beribak. 

For his part, Brayden talked about how much he has enjoyed his time in Forest Park. He said he has dedicated his life to God by serving man. Directing the library was part of that service and it gave him joy every day. 

This is Brayden’s second major retirement. The native of Maynard, Massachusetts volunteered for the Air Force, after earning degrees in English and Secondary Education. Beginning in 1971, he served seven years as an enlisted man, doing administrative duties. He continued his career as an officer for 16 years and taught ROTC.

Brayden’s military career took him all over the map: Taiwan, Germany, Italy and five different states. His assignment to Great Lakes Naval Base brought him to the Midwest for the first time. He oversaw the entrance process for new recruits. In 1995, Brayden left the Air Force and transitioned to civilian life. 

“I had taken library courses in Tampa,” Brayden said, “It planted a seed.” He became a department manager at the Waukegan Public Library for eight years.

Brayden still lives near Waukegan, in Gurnee, which is why he wasn’t familiar with Forest Park. When he came in as director, he saw many adjustments had to be made to the library. 

“Our resources were poor,” Brayden recalled, “but we became a lot better off after we passed the referendum in 2006.” He worked with the library’s lawyers to get the wording for the referendum exactly right. “Then the board members sold it to the people of Forest Park.”

Brayden acknowledged that Forest Park is not a wealthy town, but the citizens have a spirit of generosity. The tax levy from the referendum boosted the library’s budget for four years. “We were able to extend our weekday hours, and we agreed to be open from 1-5 every Sunday. We stopped charging for video rentals and added staff members.”

Though he’s too modest to take credit, Brayden changed the culture of the library. 

“We had the idea that we didn’t want to be huddled inside four walls,” he said. “We wanted to reach people who wouldn’t normally come to the library.” Part of this outreach was Trivia Night at the Beacon Tap, which began in 2008. 

“Youth Services has taken story time out of the building,” Brayden added. “They have a circuit of daycare facilities and preschools where they are very well-received.”

These kinds of programs wouldn’t be successful, however, without the influx of talented staff members. 

“We had the revenue to raise our pay scale,” he noted. “So people wouldn’t have to sacrifice to work at the Forest Park Library.” Higher pay attracted young, innovative librarians, who became rising stars. “They stay for a few years until they get noticed for their good work. Then they go onto bigger libraries.” 

Brayden has never resented it when one of his talented crew left for a better position. “Ben Haines ended up in Tacoma, as a manager,” he said. “Lindsey Kraft became the director in Allegan, Michigan.”

And he doesn’t take credit for how these librarians improved services in Forest Park.  

“They did all the doing,” he said. “I was just the witness. We made Forest Park attractive enough for them to come, and the library was better off when they left.” 

There is no mandatory retirement age at the library but Brayden decided to call it a day at 66 while he still has the energy to travel and care for his three grandkids. His wife, Christine, and family were at his retirement party. 

“We plan to travel and get more active in our church ministries,” he said. “I might join the Friends of the Library in Gurnee.” 

Brayden noted that the Friends of the Library in Forest Park could use more members to continue its long history. He sees the village as a unique community where there is “nothing but cooperation” between the village government, the park district and other governmental bodies. He believes the library plays an important role in the community. 

“We provide sanctuary for working parents. We’re not daycare. But we’re also not just a place to get out of the weather. Youth Services has programs continually.”

Brayden said that being retired will make it easier to see his grandkids, who live south of Champaign. He also won’t miss the commute from Gurnee. He recalled the one night he couldn’t make it home during the winter of 2008. Stuck in traffic during a blizzard, “I stayed overnight at the Super 8 in River Grove.” 

He said he’s out of the work force for good. 

“I’ve retired once. This time I’m going to get it right.”

Brayden will be missed by staff members like Deb Harris. She is the longest-tenured employee, serving as business manager for 25 years. 

“Rodger brought everyone together with warmth and made everyone feel important,” Harris said. “He was very approachable and worked closely with staff. He is leaving on a high note.”

Alicia Hammond came to the library only a few years ago to take the newly-created position of Community Engagement Librarian. 

“Rodger’s a very encouraging manager,” she noted. “He’s a good communicator with the staff. He has made the Forest Park library a great experience. It will be strange not to have him.”

Like Hammond, Magan Szwarek is part of the team that extends the library’s reach beyond its walls. 

“I’ve never met a more genuine and kind person in my entire life,” the Adult Services manager said. “For sure, Rodger will be a tough act to follow.” 

The person who will follow Brayden’s act has yet to be chosen. The library board plans to appoint an interim director while they search for the next person to carry on the leadership of this former military man. 

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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