Updated library at Mt. Laurel’s Parkway Elementary School commemorates former librarian

The family of Harriet Stearns, the school’s first librarian, donated $35,000 to improve Parkway’s library.

Author Steve Hochman reads from his book ‘The Curious Rise of Deztinee Snearts.’ A character in the book shares many traits with Harriet Stearns, Parkway Elementary School’s first librarian.

It’s been decades since Harriet Stearns first walked the halls of Parkway Elementary School, where district officials say she served as the school’s first librarian from 1970 through her retirement in 1989.

And while the Moorestown, later-turned-Medford, resident may have passed away in November 2014 at age 88, her memory and love of reading will continue to live on at Parkway for decades to come.

Officials with Mt. Laurel Schools and members of Stearns’ family were at Parkway this week for the official reveal of Parkway’s updated library, made possible by a $35,000 donation from Stearns’ family.

The donation allowed the district to enhance Parkway’s Library with new carpeting, furniture, paint, reading-themed murals along the walls, a 70-inch flat screen television and more.

Just some of Stearns’ family members at the event included her husband Whitney Stearns Sr., her son Whitney Stearns Jr., her daughter Betsy Hartman and her daughter Laura Elwell, along with the spouses of the three siblings.

Parkway Elementary School’s updated library, courtesy of a donation from the family of Harriet Stearns, Parkway’s first librarian.

Hartman, who coordinated the donation on behalf of the family, said her family wanted to commemorate her mother’s memory in a way to reflect who Stearns was as a person.

Hartman said the family also wanted to choose a project that would make a noticeable difference in the world.

“We came up with the idea of doing something at Parkway because this school really was important to her,” Hartman said. “She loved this school.”

Hartman said her mother loved Parkway so much so that Stearns only retired from serving as the school’s librarian because she couldn’t cope with advancing technologies.

“She could not deal with anything more complicated than a film projector,” Hartman recalled while laughing. “Trust me. She couldn’t. She hated it.”

Upon the reveal of the updated library, Hartman said she believed her mother would have loved the final result.

“She loved kids, she loved reading, and she loved to see people enjoy what they learned from books,” Hartman said.

A mural by Irina Orlova as part of Parkway Elementary School’s updated library, courtesy of a donation from the family of Harriet Stearns, Parkway’s first librarian.

Speaking at this week’s event, Superintendent George Rafferty said the district was appreciative that Stearns’ family chose to honor her by improving a piece of Mt. Laurel Schools.

“We are lovers of books, and she was a lover of books, and she instilled that love in many children I’m sure over the years. … I hope as you look around you see your mom in all these corners and murals and books and places around the room,” Rafferty said.

Former Parkway students and their families were also in attendance at this week’s event to listen to a reading by author Steve Hochman from his book “The Curious Rise of Deztinee Snearts.”

The book also ties into Stearns’ legacy at Parkway, as the genesis of the book began with Stearns’ family sponsoring Hochman to write the book and brainstorm with Parkway’s fourth-grade students to develop the book’s plot and characters.

According to Hochman, he began by speaking to Stearns’ family to learn more about Stearns’ personality, from which Hochman and students included many of Stearns’ strongest attributes in the fictional Mrs. Frank — a wise librarian who guides the book’s school-aged protagonist.

While the fictional librarian Mrs. Frank also has an aversion to technology similar to Stearns, Hochman said it inspires the book’s protagonist, Deztinee Snearts (with a last name also inspired by the name Stearns), to trust more of what she reads in books rather than through technology.

“The story becomes a search for truth as she grows,” Hochman said. “Everything started with Harriet’s character.”