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Canada Chicago native Bill Ptacek helped expand Calgary’s libraries

Bill Ptacek, seen here on Aug. 16, 2019, turned libraries from quiet places for reading into buzzing community hubs.

Todd Korol

In June, Bill Ptacek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library, received one of the city of Calgary’s highest honours: Citizen of the Year. At the ceremony, Mayor Naheed Nenshi declared, “I have a giant crush on Bill Ptacek. I love him so much!”

But Mr. Ptacek was not there. He was recovering from brain surgery a few kilometres away at the home where he, his wife, Margaret, and their eldest daughter Sara, 39, have lived since moving to Calgary in 2014.

The Chicago native has dedicated his 40-year career to public libraries in both U.S. and Canadian cities, modernizing, expanding and reshaping them into places where people can gather. In his five years here, Mr. Ptacek oversaw the opening of the New Central Library. He spearheaded a massive shift in the role of libraries in the city, eliminating fees and creating play areas for children. He turned libraries from quiet places for reading into buzzing community hubs.

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What he’s never said publicly is that for much of his time here, Mr. Ptacek has lived with terminal cancer.

He will formally retire this fall and is now on medical leave, and the Calgary Public Library will announce a new chief executive this week.

For Mr. Ptacek, living with cancer has become more difficult lately. Two tumours have set up residence in his brain, affecting his balance, energy and voice. Many days, but not all, it’s a little harder to move, to sleep, to eat. He underwent surgery for one of the brain tumours this spring, but surgeons could only remove part of it. The other has always been inaccessible.

Mr. Ptacek is 69 and Margaret, his wife, is 68. They’re both librarians who grew up in Chicago – he on the south side, she the north. They met working at the Chicago Public Library more than four decades ago. She recalls, “He walked in. He’s got on a three-piece plaid suit, a tannish colour.”

“Can you give some more detail?” he breaks in. This is how they talk, weaving into each other’s stories.

“I saw him and thought this is the man I should be with,” she continues. And then he opened his mouth and she changed her mind.

But a few months later, mutual friends set them up. They went on their first date just after Christmas, 1978. They were engaged in January, married in February and expecting their first child by March. They laid out ground rules for marriage: books would be permitted at the dinner table and no one could complain if the other kept a light on to read late at night.

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That year, Mr. Ptacek took a job at a library in Idaho Falls, Iowa, a town of fewer than 40,000 people. Sara was born there, and immediately, it was clear that something was wrong. She was diagnosed with an extremely rare condition, Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome.

People born with the syndrome have delayed physical and mental development, often along with severe epilepsy. Sara has all of this. As an infant, she would suffer more than 30 seizures in an hour.

Although Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome is sometimes an inherited condition, tests revealed Sara’s was not. The couple wanted more children, and had two more daughters.

Those first years were some of the hardest of their lives, they say. Hard in a different way than now. “I remember our conversation,” Mr. Ptacek says. “We’re going to deal with this and move forward with our lives or we’re going to let it ruin our lives. And we said let’s move forward.”

In 1988, they moved to Seattle where Mr. Ptacek spent the next 25 years revamping the King County Library. Under his stewardship, it became one of the first libraries in the United States to provide internet access and, in 2010, was the busiest library system in the country.

The move probably saved Mr. Ptacek’s life. In 1999, he was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). At the time, it was called incurable; it still is with conventional therapies. But Seattle was home to Oliver Press, a scientist-oncologist who was pioneering treatments for the condition. Mr. Ptacek was one of the first patients enrolled in an early clinical trial of radiotherapy and a stem cell transplant. “After a while, I was back to normal,” he says. He ran a marathon within a year and returned to cycling. In the next 20 years, he’d ride famed peaks in France and do an annual trip up Mount Rainier.

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In 2014, the Calgary Public Library came calling. Construction on the new library was already under way. The $245-million project would connect Calgary’s downtown with the emerging East Village neighbourhood. It gave more space to public programming than silent study areas. It was a library befitting a librarian with the philosophy that “a library is not a place. It’s a concept.”

During his time as CEO, Calgary opened six new library locations. Staff pulled out books in trade for more seating, cafés and oddities such rock concerts and a full-size fire truck for kids.

“Change agents are very often not calm and cool and collected," says Councillor Evan Woolley, "but that was Bill in my mind.”

In 2017, Mr. Ptacek returned home from a business trip with a flu he couldn’t shake. A chest X-ray revealed lung cancer, likely a consequence of the therapy he received 20 years prior. And a catch: The MCL came back, too. Two different cancers, two different spots.

In the year before the Central Library opened, Mr. Ptacek received chemotherapy and 45 rounds of radiation with an additional 12 rounds of radiation to his brain as a precautionary measure. Lung cancer often spreads to the brain. “I have never suffered like that,” he says.

Mr. Ptacek finished treatment a few months before the Central Library’s doors opened to the public. He showed up to every event related to the library, sometimes wearing a tuque as his hair thinned from treatment, says Avnish Mehta, board member for the Calgary Public Library.

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“His behaviours led you to believe that there was nothing going on. He continued to bring his level of energy, clarity and quality to every conversation,” Mr. Mehta says.

After the library opened in November, 2018, something felt off, Mr. Ptacek says. This spring, there was a new diagnosis: Cancer had wound its way to his brain. After his surgery in May, he’ll have regular scans but is not receiving any treatment.

One physician told him he has maybe a year, another told him maybe a few. Maybe, he said last week, it’s a few months. “Who knows?” he says.

The couple returned to the motto they developed after Sara was born. Keep moving forward. Says Margaret, “it can’t stop you. You can’t wallow in it."

Mr. Ptacek tires easily but is back to woodworking, adding to the 20 or so pieces of furniture he’s built for their home. He misses riding bikes and exercising – one of few topics where he expresses noticeable sorrow. He aims to read one book a day.

“Life isn’t worth living if you don’t have a good book going as far as I’m concerned.”

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They both say they are not afraid of what’s to come. They acknowledge the likely outcomes associated brain tumours – seizures, personality changes, strokes. Ms. Ptacek worries that he’ll suffer pain. He worries about what will happen with Sara if he isn’t there. It takes both of her parents to care for her.

He’ll live the rest of his life in Calgary. After his death, Ms. Ptacek and Sara will join the other daughters in Seattle.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to live. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Mr. Ptacek says. “I want to make sure that all the time I have left is as good a life as I possibly can have, that utilizes all the things I’ve learned over the years.”

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