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Her traveling days ended for good at the River Falls Public Library

Library Circulation Coordinator Mary Greatens, 67, is retiring from a job she’s had much of her adult life and still loves. (River Falls Journal photo by Phil Pfuehler)

It took a while for Mary Greatens to settle on a job. Once she did, at the River Falls Public Library, the rest was history -- almost 30 years’ worth of history.

Greatens will retire at the end of May as the library’s circulation coordinator. She was hired as an aide by then library director Helen Schmidt in September 1984.

Before that Greatens earned a degree in elementary education at Marian, then an all-women Catholic college in Fond du Lac founded by the Congregation of Sisters of Saint Agnes.

Greatens said the nuns kept strict rules -- in your dorm by six, lights out by ten.

“You sure got your studying done. We were all in the same boat. Some of the girls would sneak out for a show or for a beer. Not me of course -- never,” she said laughing.

Greatens first worked as a teacher, including on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin.

But she and her husband Joe moved where his work in construction sales took him -- places like Green Bay, Eau Claire, Bloomington and Farmington, Minn.

Greatens became a stay-at-home mom for her son, Denis, now a Realtor in Hudson. Around 1980 the young family arrived in River Falls.

Greatens then got a job locally at Hardee’s restaurant, saying, “I waited at the counter and was the fry lady, too -- did whatever was needed. I even wore a hat.”

She also did factory work in Hudson for G.S. Electric. Finally, an ad in the River Falls Journal for a library aide caught her eye.

“I applied because it seemed like a step up from fast-food and factory labor,” she said. “It was also something that was in the field of education.”

Once hired, Greatens never left -- through she did leave the building that housed the old library in the 100 block of East Elm Street (now the police station).

While the old library was cramped, Greatens said its smallness had charm.

“There was an intimacy to it that I liked,” she said. “You couldn’t miss seeing everyone who came in. You got to know them and their habits well.

“On the other hand, the old library was so very small. In the children’s aisles you could barely bend over to reach down for a book.”

When Greatens started, library patrons signed their name on a card for each book checked out. At the end of each day, scores of checked-out cards were spread over a library table, sorted by subject, alphabetized and then filed.

Later book card signatures were replaced by librarians stamping them. Today many patrons simply take materials to one of two self-checkout computers. Greatens said kids especially like doing that.

In the good old library days, Greatens remembers:

  • That she used glue for her fake fingernails. Unfortunately, those nails would often pop off as she moved throughout the library. Greatens said she was embarrassed, but patrons and coworkers “would constantly be returning them to me.”
  • Magazines were stored right behind the Municipal Court. “When court was in session, you had to tiptoe through the courtroom to pull the magazines…a bit disruptive for court proceedings.”
  • Seeking donations from merchants to be used as snack prizes -- prizes that adult librarians were unable to resist -- for the summer reading program. “The big candy bars, a real treat, that were donated had to be replaced…the temptation was too much. I imagine the store owners wondered how we could possibly go through all the candy bars they donated…So where was the scale for those librarians?’ 

Greatens says you can’t beat a job that surrounds you with books.

“It’s distracting,” she said. “I see what comes in, all the new books and authors, and there’s so much that I want to take home with me. My list keeps growing.”

Greatens’ husband has been retired for five years. She says it’s time to join him.

“I’ve really enjoyed doing what I do and didn’t want to give that up, but now I think I’m ready,” Greatens said. “That first week off, I’m just going to take that second cup of coffee out on the deck, sit back and watch the birds.”

For the complete story, please see the May 22 print edition of the River Falls Journal.