By Dan Shine
Why on earth would a librarian be vacationing on a tramp steamer??
Well, it’s like this:
Born in 1904, Ora Mason began work at the West Haven Public Library in 1924 as the children’s librarian; she directed the children’s reading program and was their storyteller. By 1936 she had been made the director of the libraries, a position she held for decades. Almost immediately she received a petition by the Colonial Park School PTA requesting a badly-needed library in the West Shore district. In turn, Ora Mason approached the Village Improvement Association with a proposal for funding to establish such a branch library. Funding was secured and the library opened in the basement of Colonial Park School. However, due to the damp conditions in that location, the library was soon moved to another location on Hawthorne Street “near the trolley tracks.” In 1942, the library moved again to a location in a house on Prospect Avenue, also next to the trolley tracks: and there it would remain for the next twenty-five years.
By 1967, Ora Mason was in the twilight of her career: The West Shore library that she had pioneered had grown from 275 books to over fourteen thousand. Thus, circumstances made it necessary to build a brand new, larger, more modern library to serve the needs of that district’s growing community. Once again funding was secured and the library was built on Benham Hill Road next to the firehouse. To Ora Mason’s surprise, the library would be named in her honor. And so it was that on December 10, 1967 Ora Mason gave the welcoming speech to those attending the opening of a library that was to be her own memorial.
In her retrospective words, “Library work has been my life.” Librarians share a common thread, and so it was for Ora Mason: they enjoy the “thrill of the hunt,” researching information for those who come to them for assistance. Digging, helping, finding: that is the essence of their work.
Ora Mason was very forward thinking, to the extent that she arranged for all five of her department heads to attend library science courses at Southern Connecticut State College at no cost to themselves. The department heads, the library program and the public benefitted greatly from her efforts. In her words, “That light which has been given to me I desire to pass on, undimmed to others.”
Ora Mason retired in 1971; she died in 1996. She will be remembered for her lifelong dedicated service to her community, for her love of children and her family.
But what about those tramp steamers? It’s a little-known fact that this was Ora Mason’s favorite mode of travel, useful for seeing the world “on the cheap.” It wasn’t glamorous, but small, “tramp” steamers had a certain mystique about them: they would transport the freight, the crew, and a few paying passengers to places rarely served by larger ships and hardly ever seen by the outside world.
It was amusing, and somewhat ironic for this writer to learn that when traveling, if Ora Mason was asked what she did for a living, she generally told people that she was a telephone operator, because to her that sounded more exciting than being a librarian.
Our thanks to Connie Sacco, Colleen Bailie, Joy Beringer, Angela Invernale, Debbie Beauvais, Valerie Vitali and Steve Hildrich for their assistance with this story.