STAMFORD – Longtime Ferguson Library president and community patron Ernie DiMattia died in hospice at Stamford Hospital Thursday. He was 74.
The cause of death was cancer, according to a library representative.
DiMattia led the library for 38 years, seeing it through tremendous change over decades, including a digital revolution, expansion, modernization, and financial woes.
His friends and coworkers remembered him Friday as a dedicated public servant and passionate advocate of reading and education.
“Ernie was a beacon and an advocate for the public library system,” said Michael Cacace, chair of the library’s board of trustees. “But his contributions to Stamford and the larger community went well beyond the library.”
DiMattia joined the Ferguson Library in 1976 and led the system into the digital age, said Alice Knapp, the library’s director of user services. Libraries in the 1990s viewed the internet as a digital version of card catalogs that would allow better cataloging of collections and improve inter-library book exchanges, but DiMattia immediately also saw the importance of providing digital access to information to the public, she said.
“One of the first public library websites in Connecticut was the Ferguson Library’s website,” Knapp said. “He saw that making that connection to content, and making it easier for the public to access it, is what the internet was all about.”
Today, the library’s dozens of computer terminals are always in use. His support of public access to information extended also to the city’s three branches and traveling bookmobile, Cacace said. DiMattia strove to make the library and its services available to residents of all ages and backgrounds, he said.
“He was totally committed to making sure that there was a free flow of information to every segment of the community, in particular those who might otherwise have difficulty getting that information,” Cacace said. “That’s the very heart of a public library system.”
DiMattia also loved to see children using the library, Knapp said.
“He was a passionate believer in early childhood learning,” she said. “We’d often find him in the children’s room attending baby story time because he just got such a charge out of youth.”
In addition to the changes brought about by the internet, DiMattia led the library through a major expansion and modernization that was complicated by a financial crisis. He responded in part by creating the Friends of the Ferguson, a nonprofit that supports the library, and was instrumental in opening a Starbucks at the main branch. He strategically located Friends of the Ferguson’s popular used bookstore next to the coffee joint, resulting in a major revenue spike, Knapp said.
“The income from the used bookshop grew tremendously to the point where it now underwrites all of our programming,” Knapp said. “He was a visionary when it came to technology, but he was also a visionary and ahead of his time when it came to being an entrepreneur in the not-for-profit sector.”
At times DiMattia endured withering criticism for the library system’s dependence on taxpayer funds. The library saw an 11 percent budget reduction under former Mayor Michael Pavia in 2010.
“The fundraising issue is a real public policy question, as to whether a public library should be required to depend on fundraising, given that its services are most needed at times of economic distress, when fundraising is most difficult,” said Stamford’s Director of Legal Affairs, Kathy Emmett, who was chair of the Ferguson Library’s board at the time.
DiMattia responded to the budget crisis by increasing private fundraising efforts and, along with his fellow library administrators, taking a pay cut to preserve services, Emmett said.
“He really stepped up, and the entire library staff went with him to make it work,” she said. “There were certainly times where he was personally subjected to criticism and disrespect based on his fervent advocacy for the library. He kept on going, no matter how much adversity he encountered along the way.”
Sandy Goldstein, director of the Downtown Special Services District, said DiMattia was dedicated not only to the library but to the entire Stamford community. A resident of North Stamford, he sat on nonprofit boards across the city — including the Stamford Center for the Arts and Police Foundation — and was always quick to offer help to friends in need, she said.
“It’s very hard for me to talk about Ernie without crying right now,” Goldstein said Friday. “Whenever I was sick or having a bad day at work, he’d show up with a book he had picked out to make me feel better. Books nurture people, and he nurtured people through the gift of books.”
Mayor David Martin praised DiMattia’s “extraordinary passion,” in a statement released by his office Friday.
“He was a man who also loved the arts and worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone in our city might be given an opportunity to enjoy them,” the statement said. “Stamford’s libraries will always stand as a reminder of the legacy of a truly great man who cared for every person who entered their doors.”
DiMattia’s wake is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Leo P. Gallagher & Son Funeral Home, 2900 Summer St. The funeral will be held 11 a.m. Monday at Holy Spirit Church on Scofieldtown Road.