Woog's World: Two Westport leaders leave legacies that made a big difference
Updated 7:21 am, Monday, January 19, 2015
It's not easy to lead an institution for a decade or more. It's harder still to do so when those institutions are always in the public eye. And it's almost impossible when that public eye is Westport -- a community known (fairly accurately) as a place where everyone is an expert on everything, particularly on how they can do your job better than you.
So it's remarkable that not one, but two leaders have not only survived, but thrived, at the helms of their institutions for so long. And it's our profound loss that, on July 1, both will retire.
Maxine Bleiweis is leaving as executive director of the Westport Library. John Dodig leaves as principal of Staples High School. Both leave us -- Westporters they have served so well -- with a feeling of gratitude, a sense that we're better off for having known them, and a not-unsubstantial fear of who will follow them.
Neither Bleiweis nor Dodig have big egos. They love the library and school, respectively (and admire each other's institutions, and the rest of the town too). They're stepping down while at the top of their games (though both are older than many people realize), and are happy to pass off the challenges and joys of leadership to someone else.
But both have made immense marks here. They have brought changes to places that are often slow to evolve (if not downright resistant to it). They have affected every part of their buildings, by learning about, understanding and engaging with every department. At the same time, they have resisted the urge to micromanage. They've hired the strongest people they could find, then encouraged them to use their own individual strengths for the betterment of all. They've urged the employees they inherited to try new ways of doing things. Empowering people to take risks is one of the most essential, underrated -- and scary -- parts of leadership.
Perhaps most important, both Bleiweis and Dodig have reshaped the environments of their institutions by focusing, first and foremost, on "end-users": the men and women, boys and girls who fill their buildings each day.
At the library, they're called "patrons." There are thousands (because, among her many accomplishments, Bleiweis has made Westport's one of the busiest in the state). They come for many reasons, from the traditional (borrow books, read magazines, find information) to the modern (attend a talk, go online, grab coffee) to the truly novel (build in the Makerspace, use a 3D printer, learn programming with robots).
Some people come because they are homeless. Some come because they have lost power in a storm. Many come because they understand that the library is now a true community gathering place. It buzzes with activity, hums with conversation. It is a place where all are welcome, where no questions are asked (except "Can I help you?"), where young and old and everyone in between feels at home. And no one ever says, "Sssshhhh!"
High schools, by contrast, are places of energy, stress and drama. The teenage years are notoriously difficult. Add in Westport's traditional high expectations in areas like academics, arts, athletics and extracurricular activities -- demands that are exponentially higher than in previous generations -- and you've got a ship that's tough to sail on even the calmest days.
Previous principals have foundered on a multitude of shoals. It took a special person -- a John Dodig -- to be able to synthesize the many and varied aspects of his job, understand the importance that Westport places on "education," but be able to articulate (to many different constituencies) that without a focus on students' emotional health and well-being, everything else is meaningless.
Dodig was not afraid to use the word "love." (It's no coincidence that a previous transformative principal, Jim Calkins, used the same word to hold Staples together during the tumultuous late 1960s.) Dodig used every implement in his toolbox -- his visibility to students during the day; his written communications with parents, his talks to groups like the Rotary -- to convey the message that every student is different, every student has unique needs and that for every student to succeed in the 21st century, they all must be able to learn in a warm, caring and loving environment.
Dodig managed to avoid being caught in the trap of thinking that a school is defined solely by test scores. Bleiweis managed to avoid being caught in the trap of thinking that a library is defined solely by the number of books being checked out.
As both "check out" of their respective buildings, they leave behind institutions far stronger than they found them. They also leave behind the most important legacy of all: Countless Westporters who say, "We love you. We will really miss you. How can we ever thank -- or replace -- you?"