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Remarkable Women: Legacy of public service remembered

March 27, 2011

As we continue our Women’s History Month celebration of extraordinary women who left indelible marks on our local history, we focus today on a trio of women who defined public service.
I was fortunate enough to know the first, Cora Lamoureux, longtime town clerk of West Greenwich, and wish I had known the others. Ruth Arnold and Susan Carpenter, the first two librarians of the Willett Free Library, in Saunderstown, logged a combined 90 years at the circulation desk. Astonishing.
WEST GREENWICH – I first met When Cora Lamoureux in 1982 when I worked for another newspaper and was interviewing venerable town clerks. I liked her right away because, at five feet tall, I towered over Cora.
She was elfin, fluffy and she twinkled behind thick glasses. She was endowed with a grandmotherly air of boundless patience that extended, early in her career, to receiving people with town business in her home where she was glad to help.
Cora was 86 and knew enough about West Greenwich to fill a dozen history books. She retired two years after we met and it was an occasion with all the fanfare befitting a local institution.
In fact, Cora was so well-known for her encyclopedic knowledge of the town that when she died, the presiding minister at her funeral, the Rev. Henry Bell, lamented, "West Greenwich has lost a whole wealth of information" most of it not stored anywhere but in Cora's memory.
She had served her beloved town for nearly 50 years, starting as a member of the War Rationing Board, then becoming, in succession, welfare director, auditor, treasurer and part-time clerical assistant. She was elected town clerk in 1956, a post she held for nearly 30 years.
It’s not often you hear of public employees who are cherished, but Cora Lamoureux was all that and more.
“She was one of a kind,” Shirley Baton, the former tax collector, once told me, adding that long after Cora’s death, people would gather in town hall to share memories: Remember when Cora did this and Cora did that?
After her children were grown and gone, said Baton, the town hall was Cora’s whole life.
Cora got involved in town government after her husband died, leaving her with two sons whom she supported by running her mother’s restaurant then became a secretary, taking part-time clerical jobs for the town on the side.
West Greenwich began growing significantly, requiring a full-time town clerk to keep things running smoothly. "They told me I had to take the job because nobody else was qualified," she told me. "I had experience doing deeds and title searches.”
Cora found housework greatly overrated and she wasn’t the sort to sit around gossiping with the neighbors so she devoted her life to work. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I retired,” she said.
She stayed on as clerk – near to the age of 90 – and especially enjoyed helping visitors from all over the country research family history through old documents and photographs.
It could be said that Cora Lamoureux’s public life began and ended on historic notes. While her long tenure in West Greenwich will go down in the record books, she got her start as a participant in major events much earlier.
As a young woman, she marched in Boston in support of suffrage.

NORTH KINGSTOWN – My fondest childhood memories are of Saturday mornings when my dad would drop me off at the library while he ran around town paying bills.
The library – since replaced by a handsome, modern structure – was in the basement of the police station and seemed to be illuminated by a single 15-watt bulb in the ceiling. This did not matter because the shining beacons of the place were two elderly librarians who guided my reading choices and set me on the path to a lifelong love of books.
Each week, I returned five books and took out five more. For most of my formative years I was certain I would grow up to become a librarian. (This fantasy was fulfilled by my best friend who has spent her entire career as librarian at the high school in the town where we grew up.)
This brings me to the Willett Free Library, in Saunderstown, which also had a modest beginning and, amazingly two librarians – the first and second – who, between them served a total of nine decades.
The library was started in 1885 by more than three dozens interested locals who were determined to bring the arts and literature to their community. The founders held a series of the same sorts of fundraisers popular today, including performances and dinners.
The following spring, money in hand, they opened the library in the home of Ruth Arnold. She became the first librarian at Willett, serving 39 years, until 1925.
In July 1904, thanks largely to a gift of land from Laura and Mary Carpenter, a freestanding library was built at its present site on Ferry Road.
Irving C. Sheldon, a longtime Saunderstown resident and active member of the Willett Free Library, knew the Arnold family well and calls the Arnolds’ son Doug “the finest man I ever knew.”
He was also a neighbor of Susan Carpenter, who succeeded Ruth Arnold as librarian, taking over in 1925 and serving more than a half-century until she retired in 1976.
“She was a good old girl,” he recalled. “Her house was 100 yards or less from mine and I would see her walking home from the library. It was a decent walk.”
It is easy to imagine generations of children savoring the library’s warm hominess and choosing their books under the supervision of these two magnificently dedicated women.

Martha Smith can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net

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