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After a 65-year career, retired Needham library director returns to volunteer

Ann MacFate retired on her 81st birthday as director of Needham Free Public Library following 65 years of service. MacFate holding is holding the framed copy of her original application to work at the library in the 1950s.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Ann MacFate’s love of reading has been evident as long as anyone can remember. Her favorite Christmas presents were books. As children, she and her younger sister, Jane, played library instead of house. And when their family moved from Roslindale to Needham when MacFate was 11 years old, the sisters promptly applied for library cards.

It’s no surprise, then, that MacFate went on to enjoy a long and successful career at the Needham Free Public Library – although her astonishing 65 years of service would be a head-turning achievement in anyone’s book.

At her retirement party on Nov. 2, which was also her 81st birthday, she was rightfully feted by family, friends, co-workers, and even politicians bearing proclamations. Having since given new library director Kim Hewitt time and space to make the position her own, MacFate returned in February as an equally dedicated library volunteer.

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Her former staff members welcomed MacFate back with open arms.

“I cannot say enough good things about Ann. She was a great boss, but she’s also a great person,” said assistant director Demetri Kyriakis. “If she ever suggested, ‘You might want to do it this way,’ it was not merely an opinion because she held every job in the building. And everyone respected her for it.”

“It was an honor to work with her,” added library technology specialist/archivist Danielle Tawa. “We were very lucky to have her leading us for so long.”

In 1956, Dorothy Brown was the director at the Needham Free Public Library who gave 16-year-old MacFate her first job dusting chairs and tables and generally keeping the library in order. While MacFate had been earning between 35 and 50 cents an hour babysitting, the part-time position paid 70 cents an hour.

“I thought I was in heaven,” said MacFate, recalling how, as soon as the dismissal bell rang, she would hurry down the high school hill and sprint across the street to the library building.

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“I’d get my apron and duster before my friends could see me, and by the time they got there, I was straightening up the book shelves,” she added. “To this day, I dislike dusting.”

Yet even as a teen, MacFate demonstrated uncommon dedication to whatever task was at hand. She was promoted to page and part-time clerk before Brown hired her as full-time junior clerk following her graduation from Needham High. MacFate then continued working at the library while earning her Bachelor of Arts in history from Northeastern University and her Master of Library and Information Science from Simmons College.

Under Brown’s successor, Vivian McIver, MacFate progressed to senior clerk, circulation supervisor, reference librarian, and reference supervisor. She worked as assistant director under director Elizabeth Rich before achieving the top post herself in 1992.

“Each time I moved to a different position in the library was a learning experience,” said MacFate, who oversaw technological advancements from the electric typewriter to the personal computer; from printed books to audio books and streaming services; from manual to digital checkout stations; and from card catalogs to computer records.

She also persevered through a major building addition in the 1960s, an elevator installation in the 1980s, and a two-year construction period culminating with the opening of a new library building in 2006.

“Some builders left their equipment in one place, but returned to find it someplace else, so they swore the new building was haunted,” MacFate said. “From then on, whenever something went wrong or I couldn’t find something, I’d blame the ghosts.”

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There were difficult times, too. In the early 1980s, a clogged drain caused a flood which left her standing ankle-deep in frigid water in the reference section.

“That was not a good day to work,” she said. “But like other things, that, too, passed.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, MacFate worked mostly alone inside the library for nearly two months. After other staff members returned on June 1, 2020, she managed the introduction of curbside service, which remained popular throughout its year-long operation.

While MacFate was adamant she “wasn’t about to desert my staff” during that uncertain time, she began considering retirement once many of the pandemic-related restrictions eased last summer. Even so, she said the transition was very emotional.

“You get to a certain point [during your career] and you get tired. But then overnight, you go from being in charge of a $2 million budget and a staff of 50 in a 47,500-square-foot building to waking up the next morning as just another citizen,” MacFate said. “When you go to the same place five days a week for 65 years, it’s hard to leave it all. But at least I know it’s in very good hands.”

The adjustment has been eased by MacFate’s longtime volunteer efforts with her church and the Exchange Club of Needham, and her legacy at the library. As a departing gift, the library staff and retirement party organizers established the Ann MacFate Fund for the Visually Impaired, which will be used to purchase large print books, technology, and other items.

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In addition, MacFate is now volunteering at a food pantry in West Roxbury while looking forward to opening day at Needham’s Rosemary Recreation Complex.

“There is a huge slide at the pool,” she said, “and I want to go down it.”

Meanwhile, Hewitt said she is grateful for MacFate’s continued contributions, both informally sharing her considerable historical knowledge as well as through her volunteer projects. While MacFate continues to sort plastic bags from book donations for patron reuse as when she was on staff, she also helps cull the book collection of unpopular titles and ensures that shelved books are properly ordered.

“You never know what someone is feeling when they’re transitioning out of a job they’ve held so long, but Ann has gone above and beyond to build a relationship with me rather than just answer questions,” Hewitt said. “The prospect of filling her shoes is a little daunting, but she is so kind and supportive, and she has let me know she’s rooting for me. She’s someone to admire, for sure.”

The feeling is mutual, as MacFate expresses her respect for Hewitt, the other staff members, and her fellow volunteers.

“I’m grateful to be able to do some volunteer work,” said MacFate. “It feels wonderful to be back.”

Cindy Cantrell may be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.

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