By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – “You do something you love, and it’s really hard to give it up.”
Chuck Thomas, who has been the Director of the Newburgh Free Library for the past eight years, responded with these words when asked about his official retirement on December 31, 2020. A bitter sweet departure incited by some health concerns coupled with a desire to spend more time relaxing with family, the retirement not only marks a close to 25 year tenure with the Newburgh Free Library, but one that has spanned close to five decades in a field of work he has held nearly every position and is deeply rooted in his heart.
Reflecting back upon that lengthy and memory-laden career, Thomas smiles as he recalls his early days, back in the 1970’s, starting out as a Page at Middletown’s Thrall Library. Proudly rolling a cart around while placing books in their proper spot in the library as a teenager, Thomas got an early taste of what was to become his life’s passion.
“I worked my way up from the bottom of the library system,” Thomas related about those initial days spent in the inspiring setting, planting the seed for his love of reading and learning, particularly about history.
Merging those interests and majoring in archaeology in college, Thomas moved on to become a museum curator, eventually starting his own company in Cultural Resource Studies as well as doing some archaeological work in the Hudson Valley, honing his love affair with history on a local level.
“I was really involved with the history and pre-history of this area in the 1700s and earlier; it was truly incredible to learn about,” explained Thomas. “It was a real eye-opener to see the stuff here in the ground and all of the things related to pre-historic people.”
After meeting a Newburgh native, who he eventually married, and following the death of his wife Alice, Thomas laid down his roots in the uniquely special, history-laden City, while continuing his first position at the Newburgh Free Library. Writing grants as well as working with the Literacy Volunteers of America, Thomas would soon be housed in the Local History Department of the Library where his chief focus became grant writing. Researching such details as City Directories tracing back to 1858, Thomas began to develop an even deeper understanding of and appreciation for the people of this area.
“It was really fascinating to learn all about the people, their families and the jobs they did,” said Thomas. “It really made you feel the beauty of this area.”
Thomas continued to keenly develop his understanding of those precious Newburgh historical nuggets while at the library and gradually ascending the library ladder, taking on titles of Library Assistant and Librarian, where his responsibilities of gathering, collecting, organizing and disseminating information, bore a striking resemblance to his archaeological endeavors.
At the same time, he would make nightly trips to Albany, pursuing his Masters Degree in Library Science. When the position for Library Director surfaced in 2012, Thomas applied and landed the position he has been at ever since. A part of the library system for a huge chunk of his life, Thomas has deduced, people are its genuine pulse.
“It has been my main goal to really appreciate the community here in Newburgh; there are such a great variety of cultures from all over the world,” said Thomas. “It is such a dynamic community, and it has been so very important to understand what they want from their library, what we can do for them; we want to do all we can to make that happen.”
When Thomas recounts all of the special moments he has been involved with, helping with delivering what the community desires, he is filled with joy. He relates golden moments as Co-Chairperson of the 2004 Celebration of the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., an annual City of Newburgh event he cites as “a rainbow coalition, what any MLK celebration should be, involving everyone.” He mentions National Night Out and the difference it has made uniting the community. He tells about the super popular Family Reading Day, an event that “got so big, we had to actually cut it back.” Finally, he excitedly discusses the packed calendar of diverse art and music offerings staged both indoors and outdoors of the facility.
Although he is stepping down from his Director position at the Newburgh Library, Thomas will remain in close contact with the library lifeline of the community which he wants to continue to foster in any way he can. Intending to join “the absolutely amazing organization,” Friends of the Newburgh Library, Thomas wants to stay close to a place rich in traditional, integral history, keeping up connected to our pasts, but all the while a priceless resource to navigate our quickly evolving, dynamic futures.
“No one person can afford to buy all of the resources you need to stay informed, educated and entertained to stay up to date today the way a library can,” said Thomas. “The library also provides a real sense of community, a true community builder that is a genuine anchor and a real part of why our City of Newburgh is thriving so much today; we-along with the people who live here- are always thinking of ways we can help make it better.”