Bob Pyle was the director of the Northeast Harbor Library from 1971 to 2011. He died of a heart attack at his home Dec. 25. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Local legend Bob Pyle remembered



MOUNT DESERT — Robert “Bob” Pyle, a larger-than-life character – in the best sense of the word – with a quick, quirky wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of local history who served as director of the Northeast Harbor Library for 40 years, died of a heart attack at his home here Dec. 25. He was 73.

A big man with a white beard and a pipe, he looked a lot like Santa Claus. Perhaps coincidentally, he loved Christmas, according to his wife, Miriam.

The Pyles were married for 45 years minus one day. Their only child, Louisa, is a pediatric geneticist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

As a high school student, Pyle volunteered at the Northeast Harbor Library, and he volunteered and trained in his campus library at Ricker College in Houlton. So, early in 1971, when his hometown library board was looking for an administrator, he applied and was hired.

The library building at the corner of Summit and Joy roads, which opened in 1951, was expanded six times on his watch before being replaced in 2008 by the large, modern facility that now serves the community and Mount Desert Elementary School.

Pyle recognized that the old building was literally falling apart and needed to go, but he faced criticism from those who thought it could be saved.

“I can now say that I don’t think anyone was more attached to the old place than I,” he said at the time of his retirement in 2011, recalling that he met his wife in the biography section and that their daughter learned to walk in the old reading room.

Elly Andrews, who has worked at the library since 2007 and was named director in 2015, said Pyle did a tremendous job of overseeing planning for the new library.

“It’s a huge building, but it’s totally full and just a wonderful community resource,” she said. “People walk in an their jaws just kind of drop; they love it.”

During his tenure at the library, the collection grew from about 18,000 items to nearly 50,000 books, documents, maps, photographs and recordings.

Bob Pyle and his wife Miriam at the Northeast Harbor library in 2011, when he retired. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

“If there is a legacy, I think it is the archives,” Pyle told the Islander a few years ago. “I worked with Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, a guy with two Pulitzer Prizes [for biographies of Christopher Columbus and John Paul Jones], who was a member of the library board and a volunteer. Building an archival collection was his major interest, and that’s what I picked up. I took that from around 2,000 items to around 12,000.”

Andrews said another of Pyle’s big contributions was building the library’s non-fiction collection.

When Pyle retired, Martha Dudman, chairman of the library’s board of trustees at the time and now a member of the Mount Desert board of selectmen, said that, to many people, he and the library were synonymous.

“The library has been his life for all these years, and he’s been the life of the library,” she said. “His legacy is enormous.”

Dudman said one of Pyle’s great strengths as library director was his knowledge of local history.

“The history Bob knows is not just names and dates and facts,” she said. “He knows all the little stories that really make up a small town, and he loves telling them. His stories are funny and kind, and they reflect his deep love for Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles, especially Islesford, where his family has deep roots.”

Miriam Pyle told the Islander last Thursday that her husband could never imagine living anywhere else.

“He so loved this town, its history and all the personalities that form it…and Northeast Harbor is a place of personalities,” she said with a chuckle.

A memorial service for Pyle will be held this Saturday, Jan. 5, at 11 a.m. at Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt, who knew Pyle for 55 years, will deliver the eulogy.

“I think the most important thing to remember about Bob is that he cherished the traditions of our community and did everything he could to see that they were passed on to the next generation and to new people who moved here,” Lunt said. “He would take them under his wing and try to instill in them that same love of community. It was extraordinary.”

Lunt said Pyle had the manners of “a gentleman of a different era and was somebody you would cherish seeing. He was what they call easy company.”

When Pyle was 17, his stepfather, Ernest Libby, was hired as Mount Desert’s town manager, and the family moved from Searsport to Northeast Harbor. Libby died of a heart attack two months later, but Pyle and his mother decided to stay.

Her father, William Otis Sawtelle, had built a summer house on Islesford, and Pyle spent summers there while growing up. Sawtelle, a physics professor-turned-historian, amassed a large historical collection and built a museum to house it. He later donated what is now the Islesford Historical Museum to Acadia National Park.

Following his retirement from the Northeast Harbor Library, Pyle volunteered as a docent at the Islesford museum during the summer months.

“He was out there several days a week, and didn’t he love it!” Miriam Pyle said. “People would look at the picture of his grandfather in the museum and then look at him because, with their white hair and beard, there was a really creepy generational resemblance.”

For decades, Pyle was a volunteer with the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service and the town’s fire department. His primary role for many years was directing traffic at fire and accident scenes.

“Bob always had such regard for the emergency services in this town,” Miriam Pyle said.

As a former reserve officer in the Mount Desert Police Department, Pyle said, “I carried the town’s badge for 25 years, nearly all of that time being primarily a librarian. I was the only librarian in Maine licensed to carry a concealed weapon and with arrest powers.”

ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

His life as a sometime cop began when he was still in college and took a summer job with the Mount Desert Police Department. His first traffic stop was memorable because the driver was the chief of police who was going the wrong way on Main Street, which had just been switched to one-way traffic for the summer.
Later that summer Pyle stopped New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for failing to stop at a crosswalk.

Asked what it was like to be married for 45 years to someone with so many varied interests and such an outsized personality, Miriam Pyle said, “It was fun. There was that irrepressible sense of humor, and there was always lots of music. He loved choral and classical music. It was a sensitive, appreciative life.”

At times though, that life could be a little chaotic, she said.

“He would be running to sing with the Acadia Choral Society or running to a fire to direct traffic, and he had dozens of things going at the library. So, it could seem like a whirlwind.”

In 1968, Pyle underwent what his wife described as “groundbreaking” heart surgery.

“I think surviving that made him someone who reveled in things; he got a kick out of them,” she said. “He had a wild appreciation for the absurd and for gallows humor.”

And he was a notorious and unrepentant punster.

Pyle claimed he inherited his off-beat sense of humor from his mother’s side of the family.

“My father was humor deprived and my mother was humor depraved,” he said.

And Pyle himself?

Most who knew him would no doubt agree with his wife’s assessment: “He was an authentic character.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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