NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – Volunteerism comes in many shapes, forms and unselfish commitments, but 37 years has to be some kind of record.
Catherine Powers, affectionately known as “Mrs. P.” to many, passed away over the summer, but her many contributions to Memorial Library staff and patrons will be long remembered.
Her illustrious career as a library volunteer began in 1976, although one librarian said her efforts began a year or two earlier when she would come into the library to help return borrowed books to the shelves.
Powers’ volunteerism wasn’t limited to a few hours a day or a couple of days a week. Librarian Phyllis Conrad said “At her peak, she was here six days a week for two or three hours a day.”
That was a considerable effort in that she had a recently retired husband and a daughter, the youngest of three children, who would soon begin her senior year at New Providence High School.
According to a 1979 article published in the Independent Press, being tied down to an outside job held no appeal even when spare time began to develop.
Previously, for several years, Powers served as a secretary at General Motors in Clark.
For many of those years, her days began the same with attendance at early Mass at Our Lady of Peace Church, followed by a shopping trip to Acme in the Village Shopping Center and then making a beeline for the library. “She’d be here at 9 a.m.,” Conrad said.
Always outgoing with a wonderful sense of humor, Powers would enter the library announcing, “I saw my boyfriend at Acme,” referring to Conrad’s husband.
If anything “Mrs. P.” was well organized and charged with maintaining the donated paperback book racks. “She would put the copyright date on the top of the book and wouldn’t allow books on the shelf that were more than five years old,” Conrad said. Books were arranged by romance, westerns and general fiction.
Borrowers were on an honor system, noting the number of books they were taking on an attached clipboard, but, never required to enter their names. “Hopefully, the books came back to us,” Conrad said.
In 1992, tragedy struck with a fire that closed the library from August to the following April.
Conrad recalled that due to insurance requirements, all librarians had to go through the ashes and debris to come-up with book titles and ISBN numbers for reimbursement.
For three months, after the fire, librarians sat on the front lawn cataloging the necessary information on yellow legal pads.
“As we filled the sheets, someone would run across to Borough Hall where Mrs. P was located behind a typewriter compiling lists for the insurance company,” Conrad recalled.
But the saga of a venerable and valuable volunteer doesn’t begin and end at Memorial Library. For years, Powers was active at OLP serving in a variety of volunteer positions.
In a photograph that accompanied the 1979 Independent Press article, Powers is seated behind several stacks of books at a desk with a bookshelf in the background.
The photograph captures a woman with a hairdo appropriate to the times, large oval glasses and a broad smile that has captivated hundreds of library patrons over the years.
Through these years librarian Conrad and Powers developed a special relationship of mutual respect and a fondness for maple frosted donuts.
Mrs. Conrad recalled that after the loss of her mother, Powers found her in the library looking down and out. “She kissed me and let me cry on her shoulder, she was like another mother to me. A wonderful, wonderful woman,” Conrad said with a tear in each eye.
Powers and her husband moved to New Providence in 1952. In 2012, she moved to Basking Ridge to be closer to her children.
Almost certainly, Powers never set a goal of volunteer longevity, but rather, serving a community where she raised a family and took joy in serving the library and her church.
“She’ll be long remembered by the library and the community,” Library Director Colleen Byrne said.