Don’t make the mistake of thinking Dina Malgeri is a timid librarian.
The 83-year-old, who retired this month after 40 years as the Malden Public Library’s director, is just as adventurous today as she was 38 years ago, when she helped capture a man involved in the city’s largest art heist.
“When I travel . . . on a plane and I’m sitting beside someone, he or she will ask, ‘What do you do?’ I say I’m a librarian, and the eyes glaze over because they think I’m a little old lady stamping books,’’ Malgeri said. “I tell them that story and it gives them an entirely different . . . perception of what a librarian does.’’
That story starts on July 31, 1975, when a thief jumped a 4-foot-high gate in the library, entered the Ryder Art Gallery where a Winslow Homer oil painting — valued at $100,000 at the time — was hanging, and removed it from its frame. Over the next several weeks the library got “crazy phone calls’’ from people saying they wanted to be paid a ransom for the painting, according to Malgeri.
“They showed us a picture of the painting on a bed to show us it was still intact,’’ she said.
Four months later, Malgeri and three others met a man in Boston’s Government Center and paid the ransom in exchange for the small painting, which he was carrying in a shopping bag. State Police monitored the transaction and arrested the man shortly afterward. He ended up serving six months in jail, not for stealing the painting but for his role in delivering it, Malgeri said.
Former Malden mayor Richard Howard describes Malgeri as a fierce and knowledgeable advocate for library services in a city that needs them.
“She trained many mayors,’’ Howard said. “I served under tight budgets with tough decisions to make . . . and the library can often be looked at as an easy target for cost-cutting, but she was able to make the case’’ that it was an essential service.
She also helped lead the charge, along with library trustee Florence Burns, to build a $6 million addition to the library in 1996, followed by a $2 million restoration of the original 1885 building that was designed by renowned architect H.H. Richardson, who also built Trinity Church in Boston.
The stolen painting that Malgeri helped recover, “The Whittling Boy,’’
was sold at auction in 1992 for about $1 million; the proceeds from its sale, along with three other paintings, helped raise about $3 million for the library addition. The decision to sell the paintings was controversial and just one of the project’s financial obstacles, according to Howard, who worked as legal counsel for the fund-raising effort before his stint as mayor.
The art sale required state approval, he said, and the library also needed the city to float bonds, made more difficult by the library’s independent status. Malden does not own the library building, so it was equivalent to the city giving the library a loan.
“Dina was a person no one could say no to. She had a vision as to why the expansion was so important,’’ Howard said.
Besides upgrading library services that had become archaic in the century-old building, where most books were inaccessible to the public, the addition allowed the original building to be restored as a cultural center with art galleries, and a research center for local history and genealogy.
The library was a gift of Elisha and Mary Converse in honor of their 17-year-old son, Frank, who was killed in 1863 in the first fatality during a bank robbery in the United States. The family also left an endowment to purchase and preserve art.
But when Malgeri started work at the library in 1972, many of the building’s beautiful interior details were gone. “I saw things that had to be done and I wanted to do them. . . I had to stay and I had to accomplish that before I could retire,’’ she said.
John Tramondozzi, president of the library trustees, said Malgeri raised funds and secured grants for the restoration almost single-handedly.
“Dina was definitely the main force,’’ he said.
The bulk of the work was done between 1998 and 2010. Carpeting and linoleum were removed so the floors could be restored; statues that had been stored in the cellar since World War II to keep them safe in case of air raids were cleaned and moved back upstairs; the original chandeliers and sconces were replicated; walls were painted to their original colors; and two columns were crafted to hold up a sagging balcony.
Although the old building is open just a few nights a week, Malgeri hopes it will again serve as the library’s front entrance, when more staff is added.
Before coming to Malden, Malgeri worked as a court clerk; earned a master’s degree in night school; and worked for the state library system to improve or establish libraries in prisons, hospitals, and reform schools. She also worked as a civilian employee of the Army, overseeing libraries in Germany from 1967 to 1970.
But when she interviewed for the job in Malden, she knew was going to stay.
“This library is nearly 130 years old and there have only been five directors, so it really has a hold on you. It’s hard to explain. It’s sort of a magic quality,’’ Malgeri said. “When I walked in here in 1972, I said, ‘This is it.’ ’’
In retirement, Malgeri intends to seek new adventures, although maybe not as dangerous as delivering ransom money, she said. She hopes to learn how to play the clarinet, take courses at Harvard Extension School, and travel to Russia.
Her wish for the new director, who has yet to be chosen?
“I hope the new director will love this library as much as I do.’’