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Joyce Higgins, 79; fostered children’s love of reading

Joyce Higgins led the children’s section of Belmont Public Library for 15 years.

Joyce Higgins led the children’s section of Belmont Public Library for 15 years.

If library patrons could describe the colors of a book’s cover but couldn’t remember its title, chances were Joyce Dunn Higgins would know exactly what they were seeking.

A popular children’s librarian at Belmont Public Library, she remembered books and the people who checked them out. Former colleagues recalled that she also was so practiced at pairing readers and books that patrons sought her guidance as they searched the library’s shelves.

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“Joyce was very well-loved in the Belmont community,” said Maureen Conners, director of Belmont Library.

Mrs. Higgins, who earlier in her career spent a year teaching in a South Carolina school that was on the leading edge of desegregation in that state, died April 13 in her Needham home of complications of breast cancer. She was 79.

“What I think I remember most about Joyce is that she was very proud of the collection she had developed at the Belmont library,” Conners said.

While other libraries were quick to get rid of older books whose popularity had waned, Mrs. Higgins held on to them, which helped give the children’s collection in Belmont more depth.

Conners said the collection became a model for students in the Simmons College master’s of library science program, who flocked to the children’s room as part of their studies.

Mrs. Higgins also made a point of getting to know the names and favorite books of everyone who walked through the door. If a young patron was dealing with divorce or death, she found books that offered guidance or solace.

“She had a wonderful way with children and a vast knowledge of literature,” said former colleague Judy Kennedy.

Mrs. Higgins learned to connect with readers through the books they read.

“She noticed the type of books you seemed to be liking and she would get a sense of you through your book interest and encourage you in that direction,” said her son, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins III, pastor of Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church in Newton.

Before beginning storytelling hours, she would lead a parade of youngsters, waving a wand or shaking maracas and “she wasn’t afraid to sing with the children,” Kennedy said.

Mrs. Higgins always took on the voices of the characters in the books as she read dialogue aloud, and “had such a good sense of what would appeal to the imaginations of children,” her son said.

Weather permitting, she took her storytelling on the road, reading books at parks around town and organizing events geared toward encouraging reading during the summer.

“She was so much a proponent of engaging the children at the appropriate developmental level,” her son said.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Higgins established a fondness for reading at an early age.

“She described herself as a bookworm, and her father was concerned that as a little girl, she read too much,” her son said. “He thought it would give her fevers.”

Joyce Marie Dunn was born in Pittsfield and moved with her family to Charlestown, N.H., after World War II.

She graduated from Regis College and was considering a career in teaching when she signed up for a year of service with the lay apostolate program through the Archdiocese of Boston. The program sent her to St. Anne School, an elementary school in Rock Hill, S.C.

Mrs. Higgins “had a gift for understanding children,” said her son, who added that “all of her work as an adult, as a teacher, reflect her own great empathy for the world of children and taking them seriously.”

St. Anne had just started to admit African-American students. On its website, the school says it was the first in the state to do so after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional policies that set up separate schools for white and black children.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross outside St. Anne, her family said.

“Day-to-day, there was a tranquility and slow pace to life, and then it would be these short breaks of the outside hostilities breaking in on them,” her son said.

“That experience in South Carolina made her much more aware of the issues of her day, of the times she was living through,” her son said.

When she returned to Boston, she went to work at the Harvard Business School library while taking classes at Simmons College.

Through friends, she met Charles Jeremiah Higgins Jr., who was known as Jerry. They married in 1960 and moved to Needham, where they raised their four children.

Mrs. Higgins’s husband died in 1979. She resumed her library science studies at Simmons College, graduating with a master’s degree in 1982. She went to work for the Braintree libraries before being hired as chief of children’s services at Belmont Public Library in 1987. She retired in 2003.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Kennedy said. “She just was so caring and dedicated to what she did.”

A service has been held for Mrs. Higgins, who in addition to her son leaves a daughter, Anne of Needham; two other sons, Jonathan of Toronto and Peter of Los Angeles; a brother, Joel Dunn of Amherst; and five grandchildren.

After Mrs. Higgins retired, a statue honoring her was installed outside the children’s room. The statue depicts a girl lying on the ground with her feet up, reading a book.

“That could have been her as a little girl,” her son said. “She just tried to make books fun and absorbing.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@globe.com.

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