By Nancy Dashwood
HOWARD LAKE Some people might picture a small town librarian as a quiet, calm, cardiganed woman, of indeterminate age, known for a lot of “shushing.” That vision might be accurate in some places, but it doesn’t fit Howard Lake’s librarian.
Howard Lake’s main librarian since October 2006 has been Deb Cox-Johnson, and she’s more of a firecracker-type. She is not quiet, nor unopinionated. She is bold, brash, and unafraid of forthright conversation.
Cox-Johnson has decided to close the library chapter of her life this month, and see what else the world has in store for her.
Her winding path to the Howard Lake stacks
Cox-Johnson said she had a dream childhood in many ways. She lived in Mound, on a lake, with her parents and brother when she was very young.
For her, life was about swimming, boating, and having fun being a kid. As often happens, though, her parents’ divorce led to some big-time changes.
She found herself living in a Hopkins apartment, close to her mother’s LPN job, and a school with a swim team for her brother.
Cox-Johnson’s new teachers saw potential in the bright young lady, and without too much trouble, helped her receive a full scholarship to a private all-girls school in Minneapolis, called, at the time, Northrop Collegiate.
Cox-Johnson offers some credit for this success to her mother. “My mother always had books,” she said.
Some of her favorite memories of that era include spending quiet hours in the family room, where she, her mother, and her brother were together, but separately immersed in their individual books. “I just read,” she said, “that was my life.”
Cox-Johnson remembers her high school head mistress had a fondness for Vassar College, in New York state. By the time Cox-Johnson graduated from high school in 1971, she had earned a full scholarship to Vassar. (She noted that she earned acceptance at Wellesley College, too, but the scholarship wasn’t quite as good.)
Following graduation from Vassar, Cox-Johnson remembers crying as she drove away from the school. She said most of her college friends stayed in New York, but she yearned for the safety of the Midwest.
As a freshly-graduated English literature student from a highly-prestigious school, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself back in Minnesota. She thought, perhaps, she would like to be an interior designer.
One day, she just walked into Dayton’s and asked for a job. The staff sent her to Donaldson’s, where she landed in a buyer’s training program.
She did well, working her way up the corporate ladder for six years, traveling to New York City once a month, and taking trips to Italy to peruse hand-knit sweaters.
Eventually, she began to experience burnout. The only other step up would have included managing other people, which didn’t appeal to her. “It was time to leave,” she said.
A friend suggested she might enjoy a fresh start in mortgage banking.
Following her established pattern, she jumped right in to try it, and was soon selling commercial real estate. She climbed that career ladder, too, working as the sales assistant to the company president, and then as a leasing agent, next in marketing, and finally as a sales manager.
She became a loan processor, then a loan originator, an analyst/tech writer for the company’s first online banking system, finally working as a quality control underwriter.
In 1995, she met Anthony Johnson who was from a small town outside the metro about 50 miles away. The pair dated long distance until 1999, and were married in 2002. They settled on an old farm house near Howard Lake.
Surrounded by books
Cox-Johnson started nursing school, but wasn’t enjoying it. She applied for the Howard Lake librarian position on the final day possible. “I figured it was a bit of a retail/customer service job,” Cox-Johnson said.
She got the job, and quickly embraced it. “I love when people come in the library door,” Cox-Johnson said. “We are readers we have that in common. It is our education, our joy, our future,” she concluded.
These days, Cox-Johnson prefers to read historical or foreign mysteries. She also enjoys reading about the work of neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as non-traditional spiritual books.
Cox-Johnson indicated she used to personally purchase many books, but that changed once she worked at the library. “I had a card, I just hadn’t used it,” she said. “I’ll never not be a patron now. A library is a huge gift.”
The Howard Lake Library has a consistent group of very active advocates in a group called the Howard Lake Friends of the Library.
Cox-Johnson gives the people in the organization a lot of credit for keeping the library beautiful, up-to-date, and packed with reading options and activities.
“The Friends of the Library are hugely supportive of the summer reading program,” Cox-Johnson said. “Their hot-button issue is early literacy.”
The Friends sponsor story-time for toddlers, the summer reading program, and the I Love to Read event in February, along with a bevy of fundraisers.
Cox-Johnson said the Friends of the Library have, over time, purchased much of the library’s comfortable furnishings, cameras, three computers, a study desk, furniture and rugs for the children’s area, and special office supplies that make the library a little more appealing.
“They keep the library bright and inviting,” Cox-Johnson said. “They’re library people,” she said. “They’re creative they never have a shortage of ideas.”
An index of final thoughts
Cox-Johnson wanted people to understand that being a librarian may not be for everyone. “It’s a great job, as long as you don’t need to work full-time,” she said. “And you really have to like people.”
She also said it helps to be a voracious reader yourself. “You really have to like a tremendous variety (of books) to be a small-town librarian,” Cox-Johnson said. “I get to ask people about their favorite books. Librarians get to do that.”
She got a little sentimental thinking about some of her first summer-reading programs. Several of her first little readers are now in college.
“It makes me want to cry,” she admitted. “It’s lovely. I have loved being part of the community of readers and to plan for fun things, and to have a great staff.”
One thing she wishes more people understood is how different counties support their libraries differently.
Currently, she said, Hennepin County allots $49 annually per citizen to support its library system. Comparatively, the Great River Regional System, of which the Howard Lake Library is a branch, receives $17.50 annually per citizen to support its branches. “We do an amazing job with what we have,” Cox-Johnson said. “Talk to your county board about more funding,” she urged.
Cox-Johnson admits she is already experiencing “library withdrawal.” Retirement from the library will not be slowing her pace in any way, however.
She has a goal to explore and become certified in teaching English as a Second Language.
She looks forward to being able to say “yes” to more family events, like all-day volleyball tournaments, and having the energy to enjoy them.
She also is excited to spend more time with her dozen outdoor cats, for whom her husband has built a feline-sized three-room home.
“There’s a reception area, a living area, and a heated living area for really cold days,” Cox-Johnson said. She also enjoys parrots; at one time, having 11 birds in her care.
“You never run out of things to work on in an old farmhouse,” she said.
The Friends of the Howard Lake Library are not letting their librarian just slip off into the sunset. They will be hosting a reception in her honor Sunday, March 11 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Howard Lake Community Room, located above the library. Light refreshments will be served, and the Friends hope many library patrons, colleagues, and community members will attend to express their appreciation for Cox-Johnson’s years of dedicated service.
Cox-Johnson is honored, but doesn’t see what the ruckus is all about. “I’m looking forward to coffee and treats with the fabulous Friends,” she said.
“I don’t know if anyone else will show up. It’s very kind and thoughtful, and gives me a lump in my throat,” she said. “It was a gift just to be able to do this job.”