20-year library employee refuses to let his developmental disability hold him back
Family including from left, Laurie Jayne, Nancy Tolles, Randall Church, Bob Tolles, Larry Church, Michael Jayne, Mildred Tolles, Michael Church, Terry Tolles and Allen Church, celebrate with Billy Tolles, third from left, as he marks his twenty-year career at the Norwalk Public Library during an anniversary party for Tolles, who has a developmental disability, Friday, April 6, 2018, at the library in Norwalk, Conn.
Photo: Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media
NORWALK — On Billy Tolles’s 20th work anniversary at the Norwalk Public Library, a spread of cake, bagels, fruit and coffee awaited upstairs, and friends and family from as far as Pennsylvania gathered in the lobby.
But Tolles had work left to do — and so, he grinned and gave hugs all around, then walked out into the frigid slush to load large black bags of garbage into a library van. (A side effect of parking lot construction at the library is that it has temporarily lost access to its dumpster.)
The library’s director, Christine Bradley, laughed and shook her head. “He said, ‘I need to finish all my work by ten,’” the time the celebration was scheduled to begin, “as if it were a factory!” she exclaimed while Tolles wrapped up.
But Tolles takes his job seriously. He was born with a developmental delay that made learning a challenge, and his work is an act of determination.
Tolles’s twin brother, Bob Tolles, remembered when they were young and Billy Tolles wanted to work delivering copies of The Hour, as his two brothers had done before him.
“Nah, you can’t deliver papers; you can’t count change,” Bob Tolles remembered saying dismissively. “He proved me wrong. As he has done many times... He’s not afraid.”
In an age when an American’s median tenure with an employer is 4.6 years, according to federal statistics, Billy Tolles’s two decades at the library is all the more impressive. Others with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Norwalk have also showed uncommon steadiness at their jobs. According to Peter Saverine of STAR, Inc., which supports such individuals and where Billy Tolles has a job coach, the average tenure for their clients is nine-and-a-half years.
“It wasn’t easy, either,” said Terry Tolles, Billy Tolles’s oldest brother.
Every day at 5 a.m., Billy Tolles’s eyes flutter open and his day begins. His routine is so set that he doesn’t need an alarm clock. His body half asleep, he gets ready and goes outside to catch his bus by 6:30 a.m., enters the library through its red side door and clocks in — beep — shortly after 7 a.m., greeting everyone in the office as he hangs up his coat.
“Hello, Vivian,” he said brightly Friday morning.
“Hello, Billy,” she responded with a smile.
His job includes vacuuming and dusting, sweeping the stairs and emptying the wastebaskets. In between all this, he has become a part of the library community that multiple people said they could not imagine going without.
Accounts Clerk Dawn Kravarik, who has been at the library for 31 years, alerted the other library employees that Tolles’s 20th work anniversary was coming up and helped organize the celebration. She remembered the ways Billy Tolles had lightened the mood throughout the years, making up fond nicknames for his co-workers — for example, she was “the girl in 2R,” until she married a man with tattooed arms and became “tattoo’s wife.”
“He is a very amazing guy,” Kravarik said.
After Billy Tolles finished taking out the trash and hanging his coat back up, he was finally ready to head upstairs to the library auditorium, where his extended family awaited with library employees and members of the STAR community.
Many of those present had traveled into Norwalk as a surprise, including Bob Tolles.
Billy Tolles’s face lit up upon seeing his twin.
“That’s my brother!” he said, before enveloping Bob Tolles in a hug. They began jokingly comparing beards (all the Tolles brothers sport bushy, gray facial hair of varying lengths). “It’s getting thicker now,” Billy Tolles said, pulling on his own.
When the time came to give his speech, Billy Tolles waited until he had everyone’s attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today,” he began grandly, before dropping back down to a conversational register. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “Twenty years is a very long time. I tried to keep at it. And I’m very glad you came.”
Then, as people snapped pictures and helped themselves to cake, he walked around, cracking jokes and making everyone feel at home. His eyes crinkled by a warm smile, he explained how special it was to have a celebration like the one taking place.
“I have my old family here. And then I have family from the outside world,” he said.
The word “family” was used by others in attendance as well.
“You really get to that point where you become part of the family,” Saverine said in his speech about what 20 years means in the workplace.
And after Billy Tolles introduced his co-worker Laurie Iffland to his sister, Laurie Jayne, (“I’m the other Laurie,” Iffland greeted Jayne), Iffland agreed that “family” was an apt way to characterize his relationship with the library community.
“The feeling’s mutual,” she said.
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