Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Volunteer's hard work has sequel after sequel


Cliff Radel's Cincinnati

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Connie Watson puts a face and a name to Cincinnati's hearty volunteer spirit.

Today marks the 30th year in a row the elfin 81-year-old Covedale woman with a zest for life will spend the day working on Fountain Square, on her feet, for free.

It's for a good cause - the Friends of the Public Library's annual used book sale. And for a good reason: She's paying back an old debt she owes to two nurses who helped save her life.

Watson would have worked the sale when it began Monday. But she had another volunteering job.

She cooks for the Cheviot-Westwood Kiwanis' weekly meeting. Been doing that for 18 years. On Monday and Tuesday, she and her team of volunteer cooks were busy fixing her specialties, city chicken and twice-baked potatoes.

[IMAGE] Connie Watson, 81, of Covedale, has been volunteering at the Friends of the Public Library Used Book Sale at Fountain Square for the past 30 of its 31 years.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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Her kitchen chores finished, Watson turned her attention to Fountain Square.

Hundreds of volunteers have staffed the Friends' used book sale during its 31 years. But, Watson has served the longest.

"I missed the first sale," she admitted, her green eyes twinkling.

"My daughter, who is also named Connie, read about that one in the paper. She said that's something we need to volunteer for."

They did. And Connie Watson's been back every year since.

That's 30 years in good times and bad.

When her first husband, Marvin Renshaw, retired as Western Hills High School's principal, she drafted him to help at the sale. When she lost him in 1988, she went to the square alone. When she married Virgil Watson three years ago, she went to the square with a new partner.

"She signed me up right away. She's the master volunteer," Virgil said.

"If you're with me," Connie said, "you have to work this book sale."

Over the years, she's been baked by the sun and drenched by the rain. There's always one gully-whomper of a downpour during the five-day sale, which ends Friday.

"Sometimes the tents leak," she said.

IF YOU GO
What: 31st Annual Friends of the Public Library Used Book Sale on Fountain Square.
When: Continues 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today and Thursday; 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday.
Where: Fountain Square.
Information: 369-6035 or go to Web site.
Miscellaneous: 75,000 used items (books, CDs, LPs, cassettes, videos, etc.) separated by categories (i.e., mysteries, classical recordings) are on sale under tents, rain or shine.
Friday is bag day: Purchase a Library shopping bag for $5 and fill it with as many items as you can.
LIBRARY SALE
The 31st Annual Friends of the Public Library Used Book Sale on Fountain Square raises money for items the cash-strapped Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County can't buy.
Besides rare books, the Friends' sale pays for programs, from readings to concerts, at the main downtown library and the system's 41 branches.
Since the Friends' founding in 1957, the non-profit group has raised more than $4 million, according to executive director Anne Keller.
The 2002 Fountain Square used-book sale raised $44,774. From that total, Keller noted, "$7,600 has gone, since April, to pay a lobbyist to help fight for the library's budget in the state legislature."
Rain can be a good thing, she added.

"People stay under the tents and buy more books."

So does she.

"I try to restrict myself to 10 books," she said. "But I always wind up buying at least a dozen."

Watson's 30 sales on the square have produced instances when she's felt like a well-thumbed paperback.

Eager bookworms have stepped over her, pushed her aside and even grabbed books from her hands before she has had a chance to put them on the tables under the tents.

"I'm only 4-103/4," she said. "Maybe they don't see me."

But they do hear her. Get out of line and she will declare in her firm, former grade-school teacher's voice: "Excuse me!"

This lets the customers know who's in charge. And, they start peppering Watson with questions. Where are the mysteries? Cookbooks? CDs?

"This sale is so much fun," she said. "You get to meet so many nice people.

"I've run into old neighbors - from when I lived in Mount Washington - that I haven't seen in 20, 30 years.

"Besides, it's a marvelous chance to do some good for the community by raising money for an institution, the Public Library."

Paying back a debt

In addition to 30 years of fun, reunions and community service, the book sale has provided Watson the opportunity to pay back a debt she incurred 74 years ago.

On May 7, 1929, she was run over by a bus outside a school in Norwood. She was 7.

For months, her condition was touch and go. Doctors labored to save her life. Then they worked to save her legs so she could walk again. Success came on both counts. But, the recovery process was long and painful.

Watson remembers two dedicated nurses working 12-hour shifts to help her regain her health.

"They were so wonderful. I have never forgotten their kindness," she said. "I always wanted to be the kind of person they were to me."

At first, she studied to be a nurse, then a teacher. Had to pay off that debt of gratitude. Then she got married and became a mom to two girls.

Still, she always wanted to do more, to say thanks, to give back. So she settled on volunteering.

Watson likes being a hands-on volunteer. Don't stick her on a committee. Or make her attend meetings.

Put her in a kitchen. Or place her under a tent on Fountain Square at a used book sale.

"I only go," she said, "where I can be of some service."

Cliff Radel, a Cincinnati native, writes about the people, places and traditions defining his hometown. E-mail cradel@enquirer.com.




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