Groton library volunteer gave to others even as she faced challenges

Jody Katz, with a student at Groton Public Library. (Photo courtesy Groton Public Library)
Jody Katz, with a student at Groton Public Library. (Photo courtesy Groton Public Library)

Groton — Every week for years, Jody Katz visited Fairview Odd Fellows Home of Connecticut and read aloud to residents who no longer could see the pages themselves.

It was one of her many weekly stops. She brought books and her guitar to Groton child care centers and sang and read to the children. She ran the homework help club at Groton Public Library, leading afternoon sessions for children needing extra assistance.

Over the last three years, Katz fought metastatic breast cancer, but said little or nothing about it to the people she helped. She preferred to shift the focus elsewhere. Katz, 67, died on Dec. 16, 2017.

On April 24, members of Katz's family and Groton Public Library staff and volunteers will gather at the Connecticut Library Association's Annual Conference in Danbury to accept the 2018 Edith B. Nettleton award for volunteer service on her behalf.

“She leaves the Groton Public Library Volunteer Program with an enormous hole, but with inspiration to continue to work enthusiastically, like she did day after day, for the library she loved,” librarian and Volunteer Coordinator Kimmerle Balentine wrote to the Connecticut Library Association.

The award is named for Edith B. Nettleton, the Guilford Town Librarian who worked from 1933 until 1978, then retired and returned as a volunteer, organizing the historical collection and serving an additional 35 years.

Katz was known as “Miss Jody” to the children who knew her, and began volunteering with the library’s Reach Out and Read Program, which sends volunteers to read aloud to nursing home residents who can’t see well or struggle with memory.

“Anytime that she came and visited with the residents she would give us a lengthy report on how the visit went,” said Nicole McDonough, director of therapeutic recreation at Fairview. “She was really dedicated to everything that she did in her life.”

Katz wanted to help children too, so she soon joined the Roving Reader program, which sends volunteers to preschools and day care centers to read and deliver books. Katz didn’t just read, but played guitar and entertained the children with puppets.

“When she’d read a bedtime story she’d come in wearing pajamas and bring a (stuffed) animal with her,” said Jane Levis, director of Toll Gate Christian Nursery School. “She just made things come to life.”

Next, Katz started running Groton Public Library’s Homework Help Club on Tuesday afternoons, seeking out the children she saw struggling most – those with limited English skills, said library volunteer coordinator Balentine.

Katz also baked for fundraisers, played guitar at library events, kept shelves in order, and advocated for library funding at budget hearings. At Fairview, Katz ran a monthly Jewish service for residents and brought a group of guitar players to perform sing-a-longs during the holidays.

Jamie Court, Katz's daughter, said her mother felt strongly about the value of the library and supporting it in any way she could.

"She was never one to sit back," Court said. "When she felt there was something she could do, she would just jump in and do it. That is just who she was."

Merrill Katz, Jody Katz’s husband of nearly 45 years, said his late wife would have been pleased to receive the award he and his daughter will accept on her behalf.

“She was a very lively person, very upbeat, very people-oriented," he said. "Very strong-minded about certain things. If she thought that something should be done a certain way, it was very difficult to change her mind on occasion.”

Jody Katz attended graduate school at Penn State University, where she sang in the choir and met Merrill Katz. The couple lived in Michigan for 24 years before moving to Groton about 2008, after Pfizer Inc. took over the pharmaceutical company where she worked.

After she retired, she wanted to keep busy, Merrill Katz said. But three years ago, Jody Katz also began fighting breast cancer. She had surgery in 2015, but another health condition limited her treatment options, he said.

“They had her on a drug which we knew would only be effective for about two years and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “We knew this was coming, but we were hoping that they would have some (other) treatment.”

Katz didn’t let on if she was struggling, but rather expressed joy in her volunteer work. In April 2016, the library interviewed her about reading to elderly residents at Fairview. Katz described reading while walking beside a woman who wanted to ride around in a wheelchair while listening.

“When we said our goodbyes, she gave me a hug,” Katz recalled in the article published in the library newsletter. “I told her I’d see her next week and she took my hand and said, ‘OK.’ It doesn’t get much better than that!”

Katz described her visits to day care centers also. “My heart melts when, at the end of our time together, a little girl looks at me with huge eyes and says, ‘Is it time for you to leave already?’” she said.

Katz continued volunteering until a month before she died.

During her interview in 2016, she offered advice to future volunteers at nursing homes: “Be flexible, smile, and look into their eyes," she said. "Be sincere when giving compliments and compliment often. Be willing to give hugs, too. And don’t take it personally if your resident sleeps through your reading!”

d.straszheim@theday.com

 

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