She built a legacy: Mahomet Public Library director Lynn Schmit wanted the community to have the 'very best'

Looking out of her two office windows now, it's hard to believe the Mahomet Public Library director's career began in a basement.

June 15, 1988, marked library director Lynn Schmit's first day on the job.

"She is 'delighted with her new position' and expects to 'enjoy the fun and challenge of her work,'" Schmit told Joyce Livesay in a June 22, 1988, publication of The Mahomet Citizen.

In December, Schmit will retire from her 30-year career of public service.

It all began when she was a child learning to read in Port Washington, Wis.

"I always had a love for libraries," Schmit said.

Schmit grew up with seven siblings. Her mother was an avid reader and a homemaker who made frequent trips to the library with her children.

"My early memories are of my mother taking me to the public library," Schmit said. "I remember reading 'Little House on the Prairie' and Nancy Drew. I remember liking reading and I was really proud when I came home from the first grade and was able to read from those little Dick and Jane books."

After she married and earned a master's in library and information science from the University of Illinois, Schmit began the job hunt.

She considered a position at the Oakwood Public Library but decided to apply for the opening in Mahomet based on a "good feeling."

When she arrived at the former 512 E. Main St. building, she found a small, cramped space in a community quickly outgrowing its facility.

Her first office was at the circulation desk, where people were constantly checking items in and out.

"People were coming in here and coming around us and going downstairs," she said. "I would place orders for books on the telephone by reading off ISBN numbers and so I'd be sitting there reading off the ISBN numbers and occasionally a child would say 'four, five, seven' and throw in other numbers on me," Schmit joked.

At the time, Schmit had no idea the crowning achievement of her career would be assisting in the building of a 13,000-square-foot library equipped with a room named after herself.

"At my first board meeting at the library, they told me they needed a new library," she said. "They didn't tell me that in the interview," she laughed. "They saved it until they got me, so I thought, 'OK, I guess I have to do that.'"

Eventually, Schmit left the circulation desk and set up shop in the 2,000-square-foot, unfinished basement. The room was divided into thirds, and Schmit shared her office with a public meeting room, the children's library and a storage space.

"One time, one of our upstanding citizens came into the office to talk to me and she was wearing a white coat. I saw a bug land on her coat that had dropped from the ceiling," Schmit said while laughing. "I didn't dare say anything. I just hoped it would fall off. I talked to the board and they said, 'Oh yeah, you need a better office.'"

The improvements included a ceiling and cabinets for Schmit's computer along with a partial wall, which was finished off with a shower curtain rod.

"People started coming into my office and saying, 'Oh, I didn't know you had a shower,'" Schmit joked. "Now that I think back, it's hilarious. But I was perfectly happy because everything was an improvement."

Despite the tight quarters, Schmit created a lifetime of memories in the former library.

Her favorites? Family Fun Night, Valentine Bingo and helping create Run for the Library.

"We use to do Family Fun Night outside of the community building," Schmit said. "We had arcade-like games for the little kids; that was right before they went back to school."

"We'd serve Pepsi and hot dogs and chips for $1," Schmit added. "They loved it."

When Schmit created Valentine Bingo, she had no idea it would become such a community hit. The event allows community members to come out and play bingo and possibly win free prizes donated from local businesses.

"Community members have to register ahead of time, and they're already calling in January wanting to get on the list to secure a seat," Schmit said. "We really fill the room with people."

When Schmit's not at the library, she's heavily involved in the Mahomet Rotary Club or the Mahomet Town and Country Women's Club.

In 2006, Schmit served as Rotary president and decided to create a joint project with both organizations to help raise donations. She and Jeff Fago, a former Rotarian, decided on a 5K run or walk and 10K run known as Run for the Library.

"It's the most income either group gets from any project," Schmit said.

Twelve years later and the event is still off and running.

But in order to meet ongoing programming and community demands for ever-changing technology, the need for a larger building was never more evident than in 2007, when the board of trustees put a ballot question before voters.

Taxpayers were asked to support an increase in the limiting rate to provide the library with enough money to build and operate a new facility, but it failed.

In 2008, they tried again with an additional bond rate increase to build the building. The bond rate passed, but the limiting rate failed.

"So now we can build a new building, but how are we going to operate it?" Schmit asked.

It was a big question. The old library was 4,000 square feet, and the new library would be three times the size. But concerns over funding operational costs didn't keep Schmit from looking to the bright side.

"We started construction in 2008 because it (the ballot question) passed, and the decision was at least you got the building and we'll find a way to operate it."

After the library opened in 2010, trustees tried for a ballot proposal once more, asking for a 5-cent operating increase to operate the library, but it failed.

"Now we're thinking, 'OK what are we going to do?'" she said. "So we thought, 'OK, we can do two years out,' and well, now we're eight years out."

It was a hard reality to accept, but Schmit and the library's trustees continued to move forward.

Schmit's favorite part of being the library director is selecting materials for the community.

"I want the community to have the very best," Schmit said.

In fact, Schmit's gone out of her way on numerous occasions for Friends of the Library Vice President Jim Matthews.

"Lynn's also pulled things out of the Friends of the Library book shelf and thrown them my way because she knows the kinds of things I like to read," Jim Matthews said. "She's got so much to think about and do and that she would take the time to be that personal has always meant a lot to us. She's just very thoughtful and very caring."

But the selection process is just one aspect of Schmit's job. She also fills her days with writing policies, designing programs and requesting and writing grant proposals.

"I hope it isn't true, but I think some people just think I sit and read the books and then approve 'em or don't approve 'em," Schmit joked. "Somebody once asked me if I read all of the books before I buy 'em. It's like, 'Heck no!'"

As she continued in her tasks, Schmit couldn't help but feel the time is right to retire.

"I love this job, but I'm past retirement age, and I realize that my time in life is getting more and more limited and I want to do things with my family and travel and take some courses and practice some languages that I've learned in the past."

First on her list of retirement activities is to sleep in.

"Then I'm going to read," she added.

For many years, Schmit's done most of her reading during her daily weekday commute from Champaign to Mahomet finishing one book every two weeks or so.

"I'll look forward to just sitting out on the deck or the lawn chair and reading," she said.

She also looks forward to regular lunches with her book club, all of whom are librarians, and taking OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) courses at the UI.

"You can take any subject you could possibly think of," Schmit said. I'm looking forward to that."

Schmit anticipates catching up on "The Big Bang Theory," traveling out of the country, taking yoga classes and attending her grandchildren's activities.

"I want to be able to see them grow up and spend more time with them so they'll remember me," she said.

In thinking about her last day at the library, Schmit said, "I'll probably cry," as she looked out her office windows.

"The last day, I think I'll leave knowing I've accomplished something and hopefully have contributed something important to the community."

For library board of trustees, staff and Friends of the Library, they have no doubt Schmit provided a legacy of excellence.

"We wouldn't have a library without Lynn," said Mary Ann Matthews, secretary for the Friends of the Library.

Library board President Karin Vermillion echoed Mary Ann Matthews' sentiment describing Schmit's legacy of work as the new building.

"She's a great advocate for the library, the board and the rest of the community," Vermillion said.

Tammy Caputo, library assistant II, said Schmit has been a "visionary" for the library.

"She spent her career striving to make Mahomet Library a resource the community deserves and can be proud of," Caputo said. "I will miss her terribly — her smile, her sense of humor and her presence."

When library board treasurer Jeanne Campion moved to Mahomet in 1989 and had two small children shortly after, she would frequent the library and was always impressed with Schmit, who would often go out of her way to say hello.

"She would call them by name and make them feel welcome," Campion said.

In 1991, Campion began pursuing her master's degree, and with Schmit's help, she was able to get materials in Mahomet rather than make the trek to the UI.

"She would joke with me that I would get little kid material and intellectual graduate material and there was nothing in between," Campion said.

Schmit's impact even reached newer library staff members, such as Maura Stutzman, the youth services and programming librarian.

"To be a female leader in any industry is amazing," Stutzman said, "but to have done that for the last 30 some years is remarkable. She is such an inspiration."

Accolades aside, Schmit will not take full credit for the well-visited 1702 E. Oak St. building. She insists the library was made possible given the tireless efforts of many in the community.

"It's (the library) not because of me. It's because I happened to be here when it needed to be done and I had the people to get it done — a lot of good people," she said. "I'm not responsible for every wonderful thing that happened because it took the board of trustees to be willing to do this, it took the community to pass the referenda to get it built, and without those things, it wouldn't have happened. But I am very proud of what came of it all."

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