Former librarian bequeathes $475,000 for county library system

A former employee of the Baltimore County Public Library, who died in 2006, has left nearly half a million dollars to the foundation that supports to the 17-branch library system.

"It is the largest one-time gift in the history of the Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library," said foundation president Jeffrey Smith.

The gift of $475,000 came from the estate of former librarian Margaret "Peggy" Peterson, whose 23 years with BCPL had made her a familiar face at the Reisterstown, Catonsville and Pikesville branches, and at the BCPL administrative offices in Towson.

"We are grateful to Ms. Peterson for her generosity and for her careful planning," Smith said.

Founded in 1991, the foundation provides funding for projects that encourage children and young adults to cultivate a lifelong enthusiasm for reading and learning, and acts as an advocate for BCPL to ensure that library services continue in the future.

The donation came just as the foundation was planning a $1 million endowment campaign to fund children's literacy efforts throughout the system, according to Heidi Gillis, foundation executive director.

"We were looking at ways to raise the money when news about the gift came," Gillis said. "It was a very welcome surprise. That's for sure. We're very excited."

The gift puts the foundation well on its way to raising the $1 million for the endowment fund, she said.

The interest the fund generates will be used to pay for "early childhood literacy projects," though Gillis declined to talk specifics. Future projects could be different from the projects that are now on the table, she said. "We want to keep it vague so we can remain flexible."

Peggy Peterson, who was 80 when she died, also bequeathed $475,000 to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"She was very excited about leaving money for the two organizations that had meant so much to her during her entire life," said Lynn Wheeler, a close friend and former BCPL assistant director who now heads the Carroll County library system.

Peterson was "a wonderful woman and a librarian admired by both colleagues and customers for her accessibility, intelligence, energy and marvelous sense of humor," Wheeler said. "She was an inspiration and informal mentor to many staff members."

Who was Peggy Peterson?

Who could have guessed that little Margaret Schwartz, reading on the front stoop of her home in West Baltimore would make such a difference herself?

"She loved to read and libraries were her second home," Wheeler said. "She spent many happy hours in the central library and community branches of the Enoch Pratt."

Later, after she grew up and moved to Pikesville, the county library became "the great blessing in her life," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said Peterson found a job in circulation — and a career — at BCPL's Reisterstown branch when she was nearly 40. After a son had grown and left the house, she and her first husband divorced and she struck out on her own.

In the process, "she found her tribe," or calling, Wheeler said.

"She was on her way to becoming a very, very good librarian with an excellent knowledge of books and great skill at connecting readers with books they would like," she said.

In 1965, she became a member of the first class of the Library Associate Training Program in Maryland. It was established to meet the demand for highly trained public librarians in the rapidly growing Baltimore area public library systems.

Over the next 15 years, she worked in the Catonsville and Pikesville branches.

"Everybody loved Peggy," Wheeler said. "She had a terrific sense of humor and a huge laugh. She became an informal mentor. She was unassuming and didn't aspire to management, but she loved the craft of librarianship and she became a huge resource for people."

Along the way she married again and moved to Catonsville. It was a happy marriage that lasted more than 30 years, Wheeler said. "Pete Peterson was the love of her life."

Former co-worker Jim DeArmey, who now works in BCPL administration, remembers her from their years at the Catonsville branch. He noted her "delightful sense of humor" as well.

However, she also "was passionate about reading, incisively intelligent — but quiet about it — and she was approachable and warm," he said. "She helped create the atmosphere and the camaraderie that made it an interesting place to work."

In 1981, she left the Catonsville branch and moved into administration in Towson, where she used her talent to select books for the entire BCPL system. She and her husband bought a house and settled in Wiltondale.

She retired in 1986. They led a good life.

Wheeler said neither Peggy nor her husband came from money, but he enjoyed the challenge of investing and both were good money managers.

Nevertheless, Wheeler said she was shocked by the amount of money Peggy was talking as about when she asked Wheeler to assume power of attorney and made arrangements with a lawyer for its distribution following her death.

Peggy's husband died in July 2006. Peggy fell that September, ended up in assisted living at Roland Park Place and died three months later at Union Memorial Hospital.

"Peggy considered her career as a librarian with Baltimore County a life changing experience," Wheeler said.

She gave her money to the Baltimore County Public Library and the Enoch Pratt because, "they brought great joy and meaning to her life," and they help people connect, "to the books and information that would make a difference in their lives."

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