From the Relief Society Magazine, July 1960 –
In Memory of Miss Ollie
by Pauline L. Jensen
No one ever knew the reasons why Miss Ollie and her parents chose to settle in our small Midwestern town. It was, indeed, a far cry from the Massachusetts coastal village where Miss Ollie’s father had plied his trade as a sea captain. The town seethed with curiosity, and the most popular belief, and one that endured through the years, was that Miss Ollie had been disappointed in love, and that her parents had taken her as far from the scene of sorrow as was possible. Born and bred in the tradition of New England, Miss Ollie kept her counsel, and if she cherished any grief, it stayed within the confines of her heart.
There certainly was nothing to indicate a grieving maiden about Miss Ollie. With her small, erect figure, and dark, sparkling eyes framed in heavy lashes, she was the embodiment of beauty as portrayed by the artists in the years just preceding the twentieth century. Her blue-black hair was pulled severely back from the oval face and fashioned in a bun at the nape of her neck. This only served to accent her patrician features and emphasize the luminous quality in her eyes.
It was just before the turn of the century that Miss Ollie and her parents settled down in the neat white house on Elm Street. The town, a river port, was rough and well supplied with taverns, but short on culture. The thing Miss Ollie missed the most was a library. With the help of a small group of friends, and backed by several of the civic organizations, she set up a small “book exchange,” open to the public, tending it herself, and receiving no remuneration in a financial way.
The popularity of the “lending” library brought home to the city fathers the need of something better. An outgrown, abandoned two-room schoolhouse was commandeered, and it was there that Miss Ollie began her career, which was to last for over forty years.
Right from the start, Miss Ollie knew her patrons’ likes and dislikes in the book world. She also guessed, and accurately so, the possibilities that lay within each person. In confidence she heard their woes, their joys, their fears, and dreams. Miss Ollie listened well.
“We got some new kittens, Miss Ollie,” a child would say. Miss Ollie’s eyes would brighten. “Then you want this book. It’s about a cat, Miss Muffett, and it tells how she teaches manners to her babies.” A happy child would trudge off clutching tightly the book that would increase her knowledge of the animal world.
“Ma is sick, and wonders would you pick out some books for her to read?” a lad would question. Miss Ollie knew the kind of books Ma liked – light love stories. She would choose a few, and then pick up one of the classics. Casually, she would say: “I wonder if your mother would like this one? It’s one of my favorites. I read it over and over and never tire of it.”
Miss Ollie knew the message would be repeated word for word. Like as not Ma, herself, would return the books, and would shyly say, “I liked that book. It was real nice. Have you another something like it?” Miss Ollie had, and got it for her promptly.
Sometimes it was a pre-teen child, bored with the limited number of books available in that bracket. Miss Ollie would hold aloft of book of Dickens, and look, thoughtful. “Now here is one, but I’m afraid it’s much too hard for you.”
Curiosity would bring the child closer. Then Miss Ollie would nod her head and state, “No, I don’t think it is too hard! You’re a bright child, and I think you’d understand it! Anyway, it’s fun to look words up in the dictionary.” A beaming child would clasp the book to her. Indeed she would read it. If Miss Ollie thought she could understand it, then she could!
A shame-faced boy would face Miss Ollie across the dark oak desk. “Pa says I can’t take out any more books. Says it’s just a waste of time.” Miss Ollie sat in silence for a moment. She knew Pa’s guarded secret. He could barely write his name, and could read only a dozen words or so.
“Why don’t I send some books to your father?” she said, gathering up a few. “It might be that he would get so interested in them that he’d understand how much reading means to you.”
Pa, himself, returned the books and took out more. Until his death, Pa never missed a week of getting books at the library. He would walk down Main Street, the books conspicuously displayed, as he stopped and chatted with friends. Miss Ollie not only listened well, but kept other people’s secrets.
For all her kindliness, Miss Ollie was not one to be imposed upon or treated disrespectfully. The roughest and the toughest high school boys quailed before the look she gave them when they had infringed upon a library law. And the culprit who defaced a book was brought swiftly to justice. “Books,” Miss Ollie said, “are to be loved and cherished. They give so much and ask only gentle treatment in return.” Miss Ollie’s saddened eyes upon the torn or marked book were harder for the guilty one to bear than a fine or hard scolding.
The rich, the poor, the lettered and unlettered, the young and old, all made their way to Miss Ollie’s haven. “Miss Ollie, I’d like to be a teacher, but I have no money,” a high school student told her. “There’ll be a way!” Miss Ollie’s voice was confident. There was a way. On graduation, the student found a scholarship and part-time job awaiting her.
Miss Ollie carefully scrutinized the bandage a teen-age boy had applied to his dog’s swollen leg.
“I cleaned the wound out real well, and now the swelling’s down a lot.”
Miss Ollie nodded. “You did a good job. You’d make a fine doctor!”
“That’s what I’d like to be, Miss Ollie. But I don’t know – maybe I’m not smart enough. Besides, it costs a lot of money.”
“You’re smart enough, and somehow you will find the money.” And thus the seeds were sown, which came to fruit some fifteen years later.
“Miss Ollie, do you have a book of poems?” a chubby, pig-tailed little girl inquired. Miss Ollie smiled with pleasure, and piled the books into the waiting arms. Could she have had any inkling that throughout her life this child would love poetry, and writing would become her vocation?
The years sped so quickly that at times it seemed unbelievable to Miss Ollie that she was now serving second and third generations. But, modestly, she was far too busy to think in terms of time. Retirement had no meaning to her. The townspeople would no more think of retiring Miss Ollie than of burning down the new, enlarged library.
Then, suddenly, Miss Ollie’s forty-sixth anniversary as town librarian was there. It was a gala occasion, and all day people made their way through the library doors to pay homage to a gracious lady, seated regally in a big chair that engulfed her small figure. All day the gifts, the telegrams, the visitors poured in. From far and near they greeted her, recalling to her mind the years that seemed but days ago.
When it was all over, Miss Ollie got down from her chair. “Please,” she said to friends who lingered to take her home, “just leave me alone here for a while. I want to think of all that today has brought, and live again some of those memories that have been reviewed by today’s events.”
And that was where they found her a few hours later, when they called back to get her. She was seated in the swivel chair behind the desk, with her hands folded. Miss Ollie had left her heart where it belonged – in the small town library, where her wise and kindly influence had helped to shape, for better, the lives of many people.