Turning the page: Howard County library director leaving after 16 years

For The Baltimore Sun

When Valerie Gross visited Howard County in 2001 to check out the place where she had the opportunity to lead the public library system, she called her husband at home in Indiana to say she could definitely see their family making the move.

"I told him Columbia was similar to Berkeley, where we have lived and still have ties, with lots of educated people concerned about the environment and about their community," she recalled. "I said I had a good feeling about working here."

Gross and her husband, classical guitarist Tri Nguyen, agreed to relocate for a three-year trial period, which was the length of the contract she had signed.

Sixteen years later, that tryout period is coming to an end. Gross will leave her position as president and CEO of the Howard County Library System on Aug. 1 to move back to the San Francisco Bay area where she and her husband have deep social and professional roots.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said Gross' leadership over the years "cemented [the library's] role as a strong educational partner" in the county.

"I am confident that the leadership team she put together and the highly qualified and experienced staff in our library branches will continue to make sure our library system continues to be the best in the nation," he said in an email.

Gross echoed his confidence in the library system's employees, calling her staff "an absolutely wonderful dream team."

An Indiana native, she concedes she is taking a leap of faith by moving back to West Coast, at least in terms of not yet having a full-time job lined up.

She will continue working on her second book, which will be titled "Civility Goes Viral," based on the Choose Civility campaign she initiated in the county.

A veteran of speaking engagements in more than 100 countries — thanks to webinars —she also has lined up quite a few lectures and conferences across the country that will permit her to focus on her philosophy of "Libraries = Education," which is the title of her first book.

Gross said she's also open to contributing to the mission of libraries in a professional capacity of some kind, acknowledging with a broad smile that she is "kind of driven."

Nguyen gently nudged Gross a few times over the years to consider moving back to the West Coast whenever milestones approached, such as when their son, David, graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 2008 or when HCLS was named Library of the Year in 2013.

"He said, 'Why not leave on a high note?'" she recalled. "But I was having too much fun."

When she marked her 15th anniversary with the library system in 2016, she realized the timing was finally right.

"I like to think of this an adventure," she said of the decision. "It's not as though we're going to an unfamiliar place. We have many friends and colleagues there and a home we never sold to move into."

On top of that, the couple will be able to see their son David more frequently: He is a tennis professional who lives in Los Angeles.

"I will be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to lead the Howard County Library System for 16 years," Gross said. "I'm not sure where this change will lead me, but hopefully it will be to something equally compelling and inspiring."

Richard Story, former head of the Howard County Economic Development Authority and current consultant to Howard Bank, has served as emcee at such library events as the annual spelling bee and the upcoming Battle of the Books for many years.

"Valerie is a visionary and we're going to miss her," Story said. "She did not accept the status quo, but came here with a checklist and checked each item off, one by one.

"She's the type of person [developer James] Rouse envisioned would come to his new city when he founded Columbia," he said. "We're better off because she was here."

The library system's board of trustees is working with library leadership and a national recruiter to launch a search for a new president and CEO, and hopes to have one in place by the fall, Gross said.

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