City officials, in an attempt to get celebrated author Dennis Lehane onto the Boston Public Library’s board of trustees, did a simple thing: They asked.
“I got the feeling they were circling me for a little bit, but I was mostly living out of state the last couple of years,” Lehane told the Reporter on Tuesday, after his first meeting of the trustees, where he was introduced to staffers and his fellow board members by Boston Public Library chief Amy Ryan. “And I let it be known when I met Amy that should the question ever be asked of me, I would do anything for the library.”
In the basement of the Hyde Park branch of the library system, board chairman Jeffrey Rudman reveled in Lehane’s celebrity, introducing him to trustees and staff as the man behind “Shutter Island,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Mystic River,” books Lehane wrote that eventually became acclaimed movies.
Lehane, a Dorchester native, grew up on Hinkley St., in a neighborhood that, at the time, was predominantly Irish and Polish. He spent time at St. Margaret’s as an altar boy and frequently visited the Uphams Corner branch.
“Libraries mean the world to me and in particular the Boston Public library system,” he said.
He and his wife Angie split their time between Brookline and Florida, but it’s “more Massachusetts now,” Lehane said. “We still have a place in Florida and it’s pretty hard to tell my wife I want to leave to come to 20 degrees.”
Lehane replaces James Carroll, who stepped down from the eight-member board in May. Mayor Thomas Menino tapped Lehane for the post in December.
Lehane comes on board as a weak economy continues to punish state and local budgets.
“We’ve been told that the [state] budget probably is going to be less than it was this year, but we are still comfortable that we can make a very good case” for level-funding the Boston Public Library, said state Rep. Byron Rushing, who also serves on the library’s board of trustees. “That has been the warning we’ve received.”
In 2010, the Lower Mills branch was one of four that library officials proposed putting on the chopping block, citing budget cuts and an attempt to modernize the library system by cutting back on the number of branches. The BPL trustees, led by Carroll, voted to approve the closures, but later reversed their decision after a torrent of neighborhood protests and threats of further funding cuts from Boston’s State House delegation.
Lehane said he didn’t closely follow the neighborhood turmoil over the proposed closures, which were eventually shelved seven months later, after lawmakers pledged an increase in funds. But from what he could tell, Lehane said, “You saw a lot of very good-intentioned people who didn’t want this to happen, who felt like their hands were tied, and then they just found another way, which is all you can ask.”
During the battle over the library closures, a City Council proposal briefly surfaced to allow library trustees to fundraise. That job is currently in the hands of the library’s foundation, and some councillors raised conflict-of-interest concerns. Mayor Menino said that he preferred to have the board stick to policy-making and the foundation focus on fundraising.
The council’s proposal eventually died, but the foundation has experienced a fundraising boom: In fiscal year 2012 the foundation has raised $1.2 million, up from $500,000 total raised in fiscal year 2011. That can largely be attributed to David McKay, a fundraiser who was hired away from the Berklee College of Music.
“If you ask me, right off the top of my head, sure, sure. But I want to make very clear that I’m not speaking from any position of knowledge,” Lehane said, when asked about trustee fundraising. “This is a man-on-the-street opinion. I’ve been on the board of trustees of a college and we weren’t prohibited from it. But if it were up to me, to use, say, my quote-unquote celebrity, to go barnstorming around the state to get funding for BPL, I would, in a heartbeat.”
Lehane, who before he became a trustee helped the foundation fundraise, added: “The bottom line, the reason I’m here is without libraries, I’m not here, I’m not a writer. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think there’s any gray area in that. I’m a writer because I became a reader, I’m a reader because of the Boston Public Library system."
At the beginning of the trustees’ meeting, Lehane cautioned his new colleagues, saying they may not see him at the next meeting in March, since the date of the meeting is also the due date of his second child.
“It’s a good chance I’ll be missing the next one,” Lehane told trustees.
“That’s what I call a good excuse,” Rudman, the chairman, responded.