Penny Wright never imagined this day would come.
For nearly three decades, the director of adult programs at the Rogers Memorial Library devoted her life to the Southampton community, piecing together a prolific range of classes, lectures, concerts and more that scintillated the mind, body and spirit, even in the darkest of days.
But recent events have snapped her own life into focus, Ms. Wright explained last week from her apartment in the village, where she has worked remotely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What she realized she was missing was time — time to cook, bake, walk and organize, visit with her friends and family, and simply relax.
And so, about a month ago, she decided to take advantage of a retirement incentive offered by the library — making the last day of her 26-year tenure Thursday, November 12.
“I thought, ‘I can’t possibly do that, I’m gonna keep working until I die,’” she said of retiring. “And then I thought, ‘Nope, I’m just doing it.’ I never thought I would do it, but I did it and now I’m completely thrilled. The closer the day comes, the happier I feel.
“It’s sort of a sad-happy event, because the more I think about it, the happier I’m getting,” she continued. “It will be such a huge change for me — I’ve been there for quite a long time and I will miss so many things about this job.”
Just four months after she joined the library’s staff in September 1994, Ms. Wright spearheaded the “Talking History” project that would become her legacy. The database of oral histories, as told through hundreds of discussions with village elders, preserves their memories of local and world events as they lived them, while reviving the tradition of oral storytelling itself.
“Those talking histories about Southampton, I think it’s so valuable. It’s sort of priceless,” longtime patron Maureen Flannigan said. “That’s one of my favorite things that she does.”
It was an everyday conversation that sparked the idea, Ms. Wright explained. She had bumped into her friend and neighbor, Nils Berglund, who told her about how farmers used to drive their cattle in a giant caravan to Montauk to winter — a fun fact she wouldn’t have known, had it not come from a man who avidly raised animals himself.
His story got her thinking.
“I always found people interesting,” Ms. Wright said, “but it was the conversation with Nils that made me think it would be valuable to have people share their stories of the old days.”
To date, and while the vast majority are no longer alive, more than 250 local residents have participated, including Mr. Berglund, speaking in groups on their experiences as pilots, nurses, teachers, sanitation workers, flight attendants, World War II and Vietnam veterans, firefighters and surfers through the ages, often divided by decade.
There were groups that reflected on the Hurricane of 1938, Black history and traditions, and living on the Shinnecock Indian territory. The oldest gentleman she interviewed, Cyrus Jagger, was 102 at the time, she said. His earliest memory was soldiers returning home from the Spanish-American War, and he could still recite poems he had learned at the Windmill Lane Elementary School.
“They were just terrific people and all had something so valuable to say, and all, every single one, I believe was glad in the end that they had had a chance to tell their own story,” she said. “It’s been going all these years, and is probably the thing that I have cared about more than anything else, even though it’s something that is not well known by the public at large.”
While a number of the discussions are available to view online, every program is fully transcribed and catalogued at the library. And in its 25-year history, there is still one conversation that remains the most special to Ms. Wright: “The Sewing Circle — Life in the 1950s.”
It contains memories of her own mother, the late Dorothy Ellis Wright.
“My mom, like quite a number of other women, she was a war bride,” Ms. Wright said. “She met my father during the war. He was a surgeon, she was working for the Red Cross. They met and served in the same hospital unit in England and in France, and they settled here after the war.”
She was not alone. There were several other war brides who landed in Southampton, too, and it wasn’t long before they became friends and started a sewing club. They darned socks and mended clothes, and epitomized 1950s life.
“When I was often trying to think of a sensible theme to get a group together for a talking history program, I landed on the idea of the sewing club,” Ms. Wright said. “My mother had already died, but I wanted some of her friends who were in the sewing club to participate.”
In some ways, the discussion is a snapshot of her early life. Born in 1948, Ms. Wright and her family moved to Water Mill when she was just 4 months old, then to South Main Street in Southampton Village when she was 1 year old. She grew up around music, with two pianos in the living room, often played by her mother. Her father, Dr. Kenneth Wright, transitioned from his days as a World War II surgeon to a doctor who made house calls.
After graduating from high school, Ms. Wright studied French literature at Skidmore College in upstate New York before moving to Massachusetts and then Maine, where she lived in a tiny house with no heat and no telephone, and an outhouse for a bathroom.
“It was a whole different life,” she said. “I really loved living there.”
She moved back to Southampton in 1976 and worked at the Parrish Art Museum as assistant curator and registrar for about six years before having children — Alex and Hope — and earning her master’s degree in education from Southampton College.
In September 1994, her present-day career began — but, at first, she worked in the children’s department, when the library lived on Jobs Lane.
“I loved that because my kids were little, so I got to take out so many books all the time,” she said. “They had a limit of 50 books per kid, so we always had 100 books out, and we read and read and read and read. That was a really good perk of working at the library because I could just have access to all these great books.”
It wasn’t long before Lyn Ashe, the library’s former director, who oversaw the move to Coopers Farm Road, asked Ms. Wright to branch out into programming, following a nationwide trend to expand accessibility to a larger pool of patrons, according to current director Elizabeth Burns.
“Public libraries were still in what I call the ‘hush-hush mode.’ There were story times and maybe a book discussion group for adults, but that was it,” Ms. Burns said. “In the mid-’90s, the trend really became programming, and Penny was hired to start doing that. And Rogers was actually, to my knowledge, one of the only libraries back then to hire somebody just to do programming. Since then, she developed a programming department that has become the envy of libraries across the county.”
Merging her personal interests with those of the community at large, Ms. Wright and her team tapped into the local talent to build a vibrant event calendar with an astonishing breadth of programming, from yoga and fitness classes to cooking demonstrations and concerts to author talks, ESL education and timely lectures.
“What she’s known for, other than being a kind, wonderful person, is this incredible knack to make the uncurious curious,” patron Kimberly Allan said. “Nobody really recognizes the amount of work that goes behind this. You really have to scan the community and she really knew the community. She’s like the Pied Piper of the library. She’s like a microcosm of the Library of Congress.”
Her work extends beyond the walls of Rogers Memorial, explained Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton History Museum. In 2006, he was new in town and didn’t know up from down, he recalled with a laugh. And, suddenly, there was Ms. Wright to the rescue, he said. She became his mentor.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do as the director of a museum in Southampton — I’ve never been here before!” he said. “I was like an alien that landed and Penny called me and said, ‘C’mon, let’s work together.’ It was immediate. She wanted to make a connection because she knew it would help me, and that’s the kind of person she is. She realized I was clueless and we started doing programs together right away.”
That partnership has only grown and expanded, Mr. Edmonds said, merging the museum and library audiences into one, and broadening the reach of the “Talking History” programming. It introduced Ms. Wright to locals she had never met — people she hasn’t seen since the pandemic reached the East End, she noted.
“Oh goodness, I’ll miss the patrons. I already miss the patrons, though I get to see them on Zoom,” Ms. Wright said. “We really made it a point to try to adapt to our new situation when it hit us, like it hit everyone like a ton of bricks in March. We started immediately converting in-person programming to Zoom programming, and thinking of Zoom programs that we hadn’t thought of doing in person.”
Over the last eight months, both the library and museum have hosted speakers from across the country, reaching out to guests who, normally, couldn’t have visited the East End at the drop of a hat.
“Penny and I, in the old days — you know, one year ago — would organize a lecture and hope we had 30, 40 people show up,” Mr. Edmonds said. “And now, it’s in the thousands. Penny helped us get it going.”
In recent weeks, Lacy Crawford discussed her memoir, “Notes on a Silencing,” from her home in California, and Elaine Sciolino called in from France to talk about her book, “The Seine: The River that Made Paris” — two discussions that drew a huge audience.
“Penny has a way of bringing the best out in the community,” patron Alice Flynn said. “She encouraged me to go on and get a master’s degree in library science when I was, like, 50. People would ask me about Southampton’s Rogers Memorial Library and I would send them our calendar, because they were trying to figure out how to bring in all these different things and do it in a way that was going to appeal to the community.
“She just had a way of doing that,” she continued. “I think we’re all gonna feel very sad when she’s gone. She’s just been wonderful and she deserves a break, for sure. It’s been a long time, but I hope they follow along in her path because it’s really been a big asset to our community.”
One of the most rewarding parts of Ms. Wright’s job was creating possibilities, she said. She has watched so many individuals over the years, whether they’re widows, widowers, or newcomers, visit the library to attend a program, knowing no one.
“There comes a point where, sooner or later, we’ll see them chatting with someone else — maybe if they’re playing bridge, or maybe at a Brown Bag Lunch, which we have people seated at round tables,” she said, adding, “I’ve really been picky about the size of tables, wanting them to be small enough so people could talk across the table.
“People start making friendships and seeing each other outside of the library, and meeting people that they would never meet if they hadn’t met at the library,” she continued. “That has been one of the nicest things about the job.”
As her schedule begins to open up, Ms. Wright has no doubt that she will find her way into her next chapter. But first, she is prioritizing organizing her apartment, baking bread and continuing her daily walks, while dreaming of the next iteration of the oral histories project.
“It’s certainly been a terrific job and I’ll have a lot of happy memories to think back on,” she said. “Programming has become a very important function of not just our library, but all libraries. People are reading books digitally, they’re not checking out DVDs the way they used to. Programs are really affording people the opportunity to step inside a library in many cases, so I hope and feel sure that that will continue beyond my time there.”
As published in the Southampton Press, with banner photo by Dana Shaw