Arlene Gottardo was already working part-time as a librarian when she was inspired to make the job a full-time career.
Now, after 26 years, she has retired and is ready to take on more of life’s adventures.
Gottardo, of Mt. Greenwood, retired from the Chicago Public Library system on Nov. 30.
She spent the final six years of her career at the Beverly branch, most recently serving as children’s librarian, first assistant.
She began as a library page at the Mt. Greenwood branch in October 1993, and by just browsing books, she found all the motivation she needed to return to college and earn the education required to work full time in a library.
“Shelving the books, I just started reading them,” Gottardo said. “I was particularly inspired by Abraham Lincoln. I was always impressed with his life story. He didn’t have a formal education; but he decided that he wanted something, and he went after it. I thought, well, if Abraham Lincoln can do that, I think I could go back to school—even though I was 38—I think I could give it another try, only this time, I’m going to give it everything I have.”
Gottardo was raising a family, but she earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art from St. Xavier University (SXU) over seven years, then a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She also said a supervisor at the Mt. Greenwood branch convinced her to go back to college, as he witnessed Gottardo helping adult students with their college studies.
Gottardo walked or rode her bike to SXU every school day, and she drove to U. of I. every Friday.
After just one college class that she took secretly to avoid any family disruption, she said, she “was hooked.” She didn’t mind being an older student, and she joined student clubs at U. of I.
Earning college degrees helped Gottardo enjoy a career at libraries all over the city and learn about people’s various backgrounds.
Gottardo grew up in the Burnside neighborhood, which had no library, but while living locally and serving as a Girl Scout leader, she frequented the Mt. Greenwood branch to research craft projects.
She grew to know the branch librarian, Margaret Crema, and was offered the page position.
She later worked at Chicago Public Library branches in Brainerd, Jeffery Manor, Pullman, Little Village and the former Beverly location.
She returned to the current Beverly location, 1962 W. 95th St., in 2013 after an opening became available. Her goal was always to work close to home, and after a year of helping at the branch, she was offered the position.
She’s led a variety of local programs. Several children have hosted puppet shows under her guidance, showing off their creativity and comedy skills with puppets that Gottardo purchased. She also convinced a library supervisor to buy a puppet stage.
Local students Darius Jordan, Sheldon Parson-Moore, Logan Killelea and Amaya Hall produced shows.
Sometimes, Gottardo would play a character, but the children were always the stars.
“I would laugh so hard,” Gottardo said. “Some of the kids we had were really good. And, it was amazing that they came up with the scripts themselves. … Some of the kids just really took off with it and ran with it.”
Gottardo put on the shows only at the Beverly branch, she said. She loves the magic of puppetry.
“I love kids, and I love to make them excited. I love to fascinate kids with things that I know are magical,” she said. “When I started working with puppets—just having a puppet, just pulling them out for a storytime—I would get their attention right away. They just loved it. They thought they were real. And that is, I think, the magic of puppetry because very young children do think they’re real.”
Gottardo also hosted “sew ’n’ tell” activities for children and an American Girl tea party with prizes and crafts. She chaperoned children on field trips, hosted a fairytale costume ball and organized a “Nutcracker” ball at Christmas time.
That production went slightly off script, she said, but everyone still had fun.
“I played classical music, and they had to dance with a rubber rat,” Gottardo said, “because I couldn’t find [toy] mice. In ‘The Nutcracker,’ there’s a mouse king. Well, a Halloween black plastic rat did just fine. They put a necktie or a bowtie on him.”
Gottardo worked under Beverly Branch Manager Joyce Colander, who has enjoyed a career in the Chicago Public Library system spanning over 50 years.
Colander made life easy, Gottardo said, because she wasn’t a micromanager.
“She’s one of the best bosses anyone could have because, once she knows that you are capable, she will not be over your shoulder all the time,” Gottardo said. “If somebody’s not watching me all the time, they’re going to get my best work, and they’re going to get 120 percent because I’m able to have that freedom of creativity. I had fun here.”
Colander said Gottardo “did everything” and was “one in a million.”
Colander said Gottardo was the only children’s librarian she knew who visited schools during the annual themed summer-reading program and dressed up in keeping with the theme.
She also volunteered to represent the library at the 95th Street Farmers Market on two Sundays a month.
“She worked extra hours,” Colander said. “She did beautiful displays and wonderful programs. Everybody loved her. She was just great.”
She said that everyone Gottardo met wanted to hug her “because she was so nice.” When Colander had to take time off for health reasons, she knew that Gottardo would keep the library running smoothly.
“She was my right arm,” Colander said. “She was always there.”
Gottardo said her former husband, Herman Badillo, was supportive of her career, and they raised two children, Eddy and Mandy. Gottardo is now married to Ray Gottardo.
She said she plans to continue helping out at the library, and she wants to take her puppet shows to perform at hospitals.
She also wants to delve back into hobbies such as gardening, cooking, sewing, quilting, drawing and painting. She plans to participate in local arts events.
Gottardo enjoyed her career, but she and her family are now focused on the issues facing them in the future.
Regardless, she is looking forward to enjoying more free time.
“I’m 66, and I don’t want to work forever,” Gottardo said. “I don’t think we should have to work forever. I want to try some new things. My daughter’s a flight attendant. I would like to see more of the world.”