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Beloved Greenport librarian leaves lasting impact upon retirement

Joe Cortale first retired more than 15 years ago.

After nearly three decades as a school librarian in the Rocky Point School District, he and his wife bought property in Southold with a plan to settle down there. 

It wasn’t until a neighbor showed him a Suffolk Times “help wanted” ad for a three-day-a-week librarian at Floyd Memorial Library that Mr. Cortale even entertained the idea of one day returning to work.

“I had no idea where Floyd Memorial Library was,” he said. “When I first read it, I though it was down William Floyd Parkway. So I called and it turned out to be in Greenport.”

His first retirement lasted two days.

Now, after 16 years in Greenport, the beloved children’s librarian is moving on again, ending a nearly 50-year career.

Mr. Cortale’s retirement will become official at the end of December, and the library is planning an open house in his honor on Saturday, Dec. 2, from 1-3 p.m. The librarian has certainly left his mark on the community.

This past Saturday, Mr. Cortale, 71, organized a live family theater program at Greenport High School, a tradition that goes back many years. The program was funded by the Weinig Foundation of Manhattan, which has worked with Mr. Cortale on a number of library programs.

Joe Cortale organizes a theater production on the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Each year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Mr. Cortale has organized a free show at the high school with professional actors. This year, the New York-based Theatreworks USA performed “A Christmas Carol.”

“It’s like family,” he said after the performance, the last he’ll be involved in. “It’s tough to leave. They treat me like I’m part of the family.”

Those who know him through the library are sad to see him go.

“He goes above and beyond for the kids all the time,” said Keri Prindle of Greenport, whose two children know Mr. Cortale from the library. “He’s always trying to find the newest thing, like a fun program to pull the kids in and get them exited about reading. We’re going to miss him.”

Fellow Greenport resident Anna Evenhouse agreed.

“He’s just an extraordinary contributor to the community,” she said.

Lisa Richland, who has been library director since 1989, recalls when Mr. Cortale started.

“After listening to me talking about how important it was for him to be doing outreach, he started something called 4EC, which is the East End Education Enrichment Coalition,” she said.

All of the libraries, schools and parent organizations on the North Fork, including those in Riverhead and on Shelter Island, are part of 4EC, Ms. Richland said. It’s a way of sharing the cost of programs among many libraries and schools, rather than have each one pay for separate programs.

“We have 11 organizations involved,” Mr. Cortale said. “What we do is we budget a certain amount, and we do programs together. So instead of Floyd Memorial paying for one program, we divide the cost of the program by 11. It allows you to do more programs, for bigger audiences.”

Another program Mr. Cortale has brought to the library is called Read a Recipe for Literacy, which is also funded by the Weinig Foundation. The after-school program for children in the Greenport and Oysterponds districts is taught by Julie Eyster, a teacher at Oysterponds. The kids have take trips to places like Columbia University as well as to local farms as part of the program.

“What we do is we try to promote literacy and encourage communication,” Mr. Cortale.

Mr. Cortale scans the children’s section in one of his final days at Floyd Memorial Library. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

The list of shared programs the library participates in include an annual Brady Rymer children’s concert and another where children’s librarians from Floyd Memorial and Southold Free libraries visit Head Start in Southold.

“We read stories, we do different things. We make the kids laugh and have a good time,” he said.

Through the library, Mr. Cortale has also taken kids out on Dave Berson’s solar-powered boat, Glory, where they learn about the bay, and has been involved in educational programs offered by the East End Maritime Museum.

Mr. Cortale also has organized a Black History program in February and a Cinco de Mayo Latino history program in May.

“Joe is so passionate about helping the kids and treating everybody like he would want his own grandchildren to be treated,” said Floyd Memorial’s teen librarian, Tracey Moloney. “The kids definitely are fans of him. When he goes into the school, you hear ‘Mr. Joe! Mr. Joe!’ It’s like he’s Santa Claus.”

Ms. Moloney’s father knew Mr. Cortale from Rocky Point and he suggested she do an internship with him when she was working on her master’s degree to become a librarian. She was living in Middle Island at the time and drove nearly 40 miles to Greenport to do the internship.

“He was a really good mentor,” she said. A few years later, when a position at Floyd Memorial opened up, she said, “I knew I wanted to work in this community.”

Sharon Harbin, a support professional from Greenport AHRC, brought a group of special needs adults to see the play at the high school Saturday. They know Mr. Cortale well.

“Joe is always helpful and kind and we’ll miss him,” Ms. Harbin said. “He’s a big part of the community. Everybody likes Joe.”

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