Around the Island

Island profile: Denise DiPaolo, fresh air for the Library

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Shelter Island Library Director Denise DiPaolo at her ‘empty nest’ in Sag Harbor, where she raised her three children.
Shelter Island Library Director Denise DiPaolo at her ‘empty nest’ in Sag Harbor, where she raised her three children.

Denise DiPaolo has so much positive energy a stranger might guess she’s got a passion for espresso. It’s yoga to which she’s addicted, in fact. Family and her job rank right up there, too.

Hired to be director of the Shelter Island Public Library six years ago this month, she has overseen a transformation that reflects her bright spirit.

“It was more like a museum than a library,” she said of the old days. One hot day, “I told them to open the windows,” she said. The staff refused. “They had been told they were not allowed to open the windows.”

At her insistence, “We opened the windows and we celebrated.”

“It’s just that it wasn’t very progressive here and they were satisfied with the conventional rules — but that won’t get people to come into the library,” Denise said. “My mantra is everybody leaves with something. If they don’t leave with a book, they leave with a smile.”

Her first year on the job, the library board proposed a bond issue to fund an expansion. “It failed miserably,” Denise said. “At that time, people were saying, ‘You must be so disappointed; you must be so ashamed this didn’t work out.’ My attitude was let’s look at this crisis as an opportunity.”

The board came up with a plan for renovations that would yield more space but could be funded privately, with grants and donations.

“It wasn’t easy to fundraise,” Denise said. “But you do develop this relationship with your community … As long as you’re not giving a sales pitch and it comes from the heart, people hear you. And what’s happened? More and more people have rediscovered the library.”

She has no intention of moving on any time soon. “I love my job. I love my job,” she repeated. “I love getting up in the morning, taking my yoga class, taking the ferry to work and being on Shelter Island. I wish my desk was in the middle of the library so I could spend more time with people.”

Shelter Island is only her second library job in a career that didn’t begin until 2003, when she went to work at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. For much of her life, Denise was busy raising children — first her two much younger siblings after their mother died when Denise was 22; and then her own three kids.

Born 49 years ago in Jamaica, Queens during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, she is the middle child of five whose father owned a transmission shop in Huntington and whose mother was “the quintessential homemaker,” Denise said. She grew up in Commack and later Smithtown.

When her parents’ fifth child came along, Denise was a senior in high school. By then, her mother had learned about a new trend called “natural childbirth.” Her father looked at his wife and said, “No way. It’s not happening. I’m not doing it. I’ll be waiting to hand out cigars like I’m accustomed to doing,” Denise said. “So while my friends were out gallivanting and doing what seniors in high school do, I was going to Lamaze class with my mother.”

Denise is not only her brother Michael’s sister but his godmother. A postman now, Michael is living with their retired father in Smithtown, and fighting late-stage melanoma. “For the last year, I take him to Sloan Kettering, I take him to his doctor appointments. I make sure he goes for all his RMIs, his PET scans. When we’re changing chemos, Dennis is helping me out doing the research on the side effects.”

That’s Dennis Fabiszak, her significant other and the director of the East Hampton Public Library, whom she met soon after taking the reins on the Island. They live together in the house near Sag Harbor Cove that Denise bought in 1999.

Her mom died soon after Denise graduated from SUNY Albany. “My brother was five years old. My father had not known any other women in his life. They met when they were 14, 15 years old. His head was spinning. I graduated and suddenly became a mother … You know when it’s your time to do certain things for your family.”

It was around that time, living with her father in Smithtown, “before I knew Dennis — if I’d known Dennis I wouldn’t have done it — I went on a blind date and married the man,” Denise said. Just like her mother, she had three children all within 18 months of each other.

Pregnant with her first child, Denise somehow managed to go back to school at C.W. Post. “My husband was a school administrator, one of eight kids who all were school teachers and I felt like I was the only one in the whole house who didn’t have a master’s degree.” In a few years, she earned hers as well as state certification as a public librarian.

With her third child on the way by then, she couldn’t tackle a regular job so she started a business custom painting knickknacks, novelties and furniture — piggy banks, step stools, lampshades and other things to decorate children’s rooms.

The marriage “went sour” and a settlement allowed Denise to take the kids no more than 55 miles away.

“So my glamorous story of how I ended up in Sag Harbor is that I spun the map.”

There was another draw besides the map, a public TV show that focused on “lifestyles, fitness and food.”

Denise knew the host, who hired her to help put segments together. When the show moved production to the East End, Denise stayed on as a producer. “Then 9/11 happened and all sponsorship just stopped,” killing the show.

“Here I am, out here with three children and I don’t have a job. But I had my master’s. So I went to cold calling. I never worked a day in my life in a library. But I went and told them at the library in Southampton … I told them I was eager and enthusiastic” and ready to go to work.

Looking back on their 2003 meeting, Debra Engelhardt, the director at Rogers Memorial, told Denise, “The way you introduced yourself, you made me feel like I couldn’t live my life without hiring you,” Denise said.

In 2007, when the Shelter Island Library began seeking candidates for its directorship, Debra told Denise to “go for it.”

Now Denise is more connected to Shelter Island than she was to Sag Harbor when she was raising her kids there “and knew everybody.” She’s on the boards of the Shelter Island Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce and a leader of Communities That Care.

Her children, Janet, Jimmy and Jake, all went to Sag Harbor schools. Two are in college. Janet graduated from Fairfield University in 2012, lives in Astoria and is a graduate student in math and science at Hunter.

“This is her journey,” Denise said. Denise’s journey is yoga, which she discovered when she would go to a Sag Harbor gym with her daughter for a body flow class. She’s now a regular at Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor.

“It’s just so satisfying for me,” Denise said. “I feel that if I miss a day, I’m missing something really important in my life. I have to be on my mat.”

That may be about the only time in the day that she slows down and breathes.