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Volunteer closes book on 49 years at school library

When Annette Olney first began volunteering in the library at Manchester Memorial Elementary School, Dwight D. Eisenhower was still in office and Mickey Mantle was playing center field for the Yankees.

Now, after teaching three generations of children the joys of literature, the reading and library tutor is retiring, ending a 49-year stint that has made her a fixture at the school.

''She is the matriarch for the school, the grandmother type," said kindergarten teacher Wendy Manninen.

What are Olney's thoughts about her impressive tenure at the school?

''Well, I'm alive," said Olney with a grin. ''I am old -- I better face up to it. Some [former students] are grandparents now."

The 85-year-old Manchester resident has spent much of her life surrounded by children's books and their authors, thanks to her husband's work with a Boston publishing house.

At school, her uniform was a skirt, a white-collared blouse, and a string of pearls. Olney's former students say they remember her as a prim, proper, and spirited woman who had an appetite for the written word.

''If you ask anyone in town about Mrs. Olney, they'll have memories," said Jennifer Schlegel, a fifth-grade teacher at the school.

Kathleen Bruce, administrative assistant to the selectmen's office in Manchester, said she remembers Olney as the woman with a friendly face whom she met as a timid kindergartner 41 years ago.

''She had such a welcoming smile. She used to read to us, so when you were in the library, it felt like home," Bruce said.

For the Bruces, reading in the library with Mrs. Olney has been a family tradition. Bruce's son, now a middle school student, also spent kindergarten through sixth grade with the volunteer.

Librarian Helen Garrett said Olney has been her saving grace for almost a decade. When Garrett arrived more than seven years ago as the new head librarian, the library was in the process of moving to a new room, and every book needed to be organized.

''I walked in and said 'Thank God for Annette,' " said Garrett. ''She knew all the answers to all of my questions. I was very dependent on her. She helped organize all the volunteers. She was the library."

Olney had more knowledge than most about children's books. As the wife of Austin Olney, the former head of children's authors at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co. in Boston, Olney became close friends with children's authors such as the late Virginia Lee Burton, author and illustrator of ''Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel." Olney said she remembers square dances in Burton's Gloucester barn.

''They were all just regular people," said Olney.

But one of Olney's most special friendships was with Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey, illustrator and author of the Curious George series. Although both are deceased, the Reys left a piece of their work on a wall in Olney's home. Painted on the wall of her daughter's childhood bedroom is a 5-foot by 5-foot mural created by the Reys. In the painting, Curious George rides a dinosaur skeleton in a scene from the book ''Curious George and the Dinosaur."

''It's private. It's for family only," said Olney.

Olney formally kicked off her retirement with a party last week. But will the matriarch be bored without her weekly volunteering stint? She doesn't think so. Besides caring for her two great-grandsons, she'll have time to devote to her favorite hobby, listening to her police scanner.

''It's been so much fun for me to have it," she said. ''It's just amazing what you hear."

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