Retiring director 'has been an amazing gift' to Wauconda Area Library
For more than 27 years, Tom Kern has led the staff of the Wauconda Area Library as its director.
He's overseen dramatic population and circulation growth. He's overseen a significant expansion of the library at 801 N. Main St. and subsequent renovation projects.
He's overseen the library's transition from a place to borrow books and do research to a thriving community center.
And now, after nearly three decades in Wauconda, he's preparing to retire, effective this September.
Library board member Jason Laureys said Kern will leave behind an enormous legacy.
"There's not one individual who has played a larger role in shaping our library over the last quarter of a century than Tom Kern," Laureys said. "It's my hope that he retires feeling proud and satisfied with all he's accomplished."
Kern said he feels fortunate to have been part of an organization that has helped so many people "in so many ways."
Leaving, he said, will not be easy.
"This library is a part of me," said Kern, 65, of Cary. "I have lived and breathed this library since the day I became director."
A lengthy career
When Kern arrived in April of 1992, the population of the Wauconda Area Library District -- consisting of parts or all of Wauconda, Island Lake, Lake Barrington, Port Barrington, Lakemoor and Volo -- was about 16,000, and annual library circulation was about 158,000.
Today, about 27,000 people live in the district, and annual circulation is about 518,000.
Kern previously had served as reference coordinator at the Skokie Public Library, as a business specialist at the Rolling Meadows Library and in technical services at the libraries at the University of Virginia and Northwestern University, among other jobs.
Three years into his tenure in Wauconda, Kern helped develop an expansion and renovation plan for the building. Voters eventually approved the $4.5 million project, and in 1997 the library grew from 9,500 square feet to 27,500 square feet.
In 1998, the library received a Distinguished Building Award from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
In 2005, the facility was named Library of the Year by the now-defunct North Suburban Library System.
But Kern doesn't brag about those prizes.
"Awards are always nice, but I am not one to dwell on my accomplishments," he said. "What really counts is the future, not the past."
As library usage grew through the years, more changes were needed. The library interior underwent a $2 million renovation in 2014, with the most significant improvement being the Kid City area in the lower level.
Unlike anything at other libraries, Kid City is loaded with books, computers, reading areas and a replica airplane equipped with a cockpit and fun slide.
"We worked with our architects to come up with a playground for the mind to attract more children to the library, and Kid City is that place," Kern said at the time.
Last year, a $1.6 million exterior renovation project gave the library new front stairs, a new ramp for people with disabilities, LED light fixtures and more.
"Not only is it easier for everyone to get to the library's entrance now ... but at night the lighting out front is spectacular," Kern said. "The library is literally a beacon that shines brightly for all who visit."
Maria Weisbruch, executive director of the Wauconda Area Chamber of Commerce, got to know Kern through a local volunteer project called the United Partnership for a Better Community.
She called Kern "a true leader."
"The milestones, advances and renovations that have been achieved under his direction are remarkable," Weisbruch said. "He has been an amazing gift to this community."
Wauconda Unit School District 118 Superintendent Daniel Coles praised Kern as well, calling him "an outstanding innovator and community leader."
Kern's last day of work will be Sept. 13, but he'll remain on the library payroll until early October thanks to accumulated vacation time.
An interim director likely will serve until a successor is hired.
Kern plans to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren in retirement. But he knows he'll miss the job, his employees and the people he served.
"This has been the job of a lifetime for someone like me, who loves libraries and everything they represent," Kern said.