BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Dennis M. Walcott, CEO and president of Queens Library, was born in Queens, raised in Queens and intends to be laid to rest in Queens, having already purchased his gravesite at Maple Grove Cemetery, which is where both his parents and maternal grandparents currently rest.
Walcott’s parents were born and raised in Harlem, but moved to St. Albans where he was conceived. The senior Mr. Walcott was an exterminator in the New York City Housing Authority and Mrs. Walcott was a social worker for the Human Resources Administration. Both Mr. and Mrs. Walcott completed their final assignments in Queens, with Mr. Walcott at the South Jamaica Houses and Mrs. Walcott on Sutphin Boulevard off Jamaica Avenue.
Walcott received his education at P.S. 36 in St. Albans, I.S. 192 in Hollis and Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows.
“The period of time [1965-1969] when I was in high school was very tumultuous, given that the Vietnam War was going on, it was two years after Kennedy was assassinated, it was during the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, there were two teacher strikes and protests against the Vietnam War,” said Walcott.
Although history was being made in the worst way, Walcott said attending Francis Lewis High School was “a very rewarding” experience.
It was during high school that Walcott became interested in psychiatry, for which he credits his mother’s background in social work. However, given that he would have to attend medical school, Walcott decided to become a psychologist instead. His mind was made up when he attended the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he studied sociology.
During his college experience, Walcott didn’t formally join any clubs or organizations, but did participate in campus activities. Since Walcott wasn’t too busy in any organizations and the distance was short between the institution and home, he was able to take a trip back home easily when his father became ill.
Unfortunately, in between his junior and senior years of college, Walcott’s father died, followed by his mother’s death nine months later, just one month before Walcott graduated with his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
During spring break, Walcott went home, where he found his mother lying on the living room floor dead. In just five weeks, Walcott buried his mother; studied for final exams; addressed the issues and concerns of residents in his hall as a resident advisor; and graduated from college.
“It was tough but at the same time, in a very rigorous way, being an only child helped because my parents had raised me to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient,” said Walcott.
Walcott said it was because of the self-sufficiency his parents instilled in him that he was able to navigate through life without them, although it was very difficult.
Immediately after obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Walcott continued his education at the University of Bridgeport, where he earned a master’s degree in education.
Following his educational career at the University of Bridgeport, Walcott came back to the community to teach kindergarten in South Jamaica, which he quit to start an alternative big-brother program called Fredrick Douglass Brother to Brother, focusing on boys between the ages of five and 12. Quitting a job to start a business relates to the first job Walcott ever had. He was about eight years old when his friend’s father quit a job to open up a grocery store in the neighborhood. He had Walcott and three other fourth-graders handing out fliers to publicize the store.
“I admired him for being a black entrepreneur,” said Walcott. “Which is eventually what I did: quit a job to start my own business.”
During that time, Walcott was reunited with Denise St. Hill, his childhood friend since they were three years old. They had been apart for years. A year and a half after they had reunited, the two got married and decided to start a family. After their first daughter was born, Walcott and his wife said if the second child wasn’t a boy they would adopt a boy, which is what happened.
Given that Walcott obtained a second master’s degree in social work from Fordham University, he was able to do social work and adoption work, and also worked for the United Way of New York City.
It was that experience that contributed to Walcott’s interest in adoption. The adoption agency had a boy up for adoption who was in the system with his sister. The family refused to separate the two and instead adopted both, not only bringing in an additional girl but providing the family with the boy they wanted to carry the Walcott name. During the adoption process, Walcott’s biological children contributed and were welcoming to their new siblings.
Both Walcott and his wife, who were both the only child in their households, had a period of adjustment when the children would argue and, as Walcott put it, would “go back and forth.” However, something that Walcott’s parents instilled in him growing up that he enforced in his household to his children was “to respect people, to respect one another, to be respectful, to communicate with one another, to be respectful of their community and the issues of the community, to be knowledgeable and to pursue education.”
Another important aspect of Walcott’s life since he was a young boy was his membership in St. Alban the Martyr. Not only did his parents take him to the church, but he continued to go on his own and continues to play a very active role there today.
From running the New York Urban League and the Harlem Dowling Children’s Services to being deputy mayor and chancellor, along with the other projects he did in between, Walcott said the toughest was being in the social-work field during the mid-’80s, when crack use, homelessness, AIDS and border babies were at an all-time high; some 48,000 children were in foster care during that period of time.
“That, to me, was the toughest period because it was so connected to family and to the construction of family through all the issues that were happening in society,” said Walcott. “Families were destroyed, people died and the addiction of crack was the prime contributor to that.”
Another job that had a great impact on Walcott’s life was working for the New York Urban League, which helps disadvantaged New Yorkers find humanity in New York City: find ways to connect and help each other, and gain access to equal opportunity in employment, education, financial and technological literacy, and more.
What the NYUL stood for impacted Walcott so much that 22 years ago, he had the organization’s logo tattooed on his forearm with the words “To Be Equal.”
“It is something I believe in,” said Walcott. “Equality for all.”
The only place Walcott wants to see himself five to 10 years from now is alive.
“We only have one life to live, so live every day like it’s an important day,” said Walcott. “I don’t get down at all; I stay focused.”
Although Walcott no longer lives at the St. Albans home where he was raised, every morning at the peak of dawn, during his morning run, Walcott makes sure to run past his old house.
“That’s my grounding,” said Walcott. “That’s my reminder of where I grew up and of the values that were instilled in me from both my family and my neighborhood, and that I take very seriously. I always find a route back.”
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144 or email@example.com