“I can’t believe I lived this long to begin with,” Mabel librarian Donna Johnson laughed. Johnson celebrated her 90th birthday on April 8 and has no plans to retire from her job as library director at the Mabel Public Library anytime soon. “Everybody asks when I think I’ll retire. I tell them when it isn’t fun anymore.”
Johnson began working at the Mabel library 24 years ago, in August 1994. “It doesn’t seem like that long,” she commented. Before that, she worked in the Mabel-Canton elementary and high school libraries. “It was just a delight,” said Johnson. She loved working with and getting to know the local kids. In June 1994, she retired from the school at the age of 66 years old, with no plans to continue working. The next month, she and her husband were visiting Johnson’s sister in California when she received a call asking if she would be interesting in working as the library director at the Mabel Public Library. “I looked over at my husband and asked him how he would feel about me being over there four hours a day for five days a week, and he said, ‘If that interests you, go ahead,’” Johnson shared. “So I said I’d be happy to, and I’ve been here ever since.”
There are a lot of things that Johnson loves about her job as the library director. “I look forward to coming over every morning,” Johnson said. “I like when I go to the stacks and can find a book exactly where it’s supposed to be. I like the kids back and forth and the older people. They come in and tell me all about the books they read, and I just feel good about it.” Johnson also likes the fact that the Mabel library doesn’t charge fines for overdue books. Instead, she has a donation jug sitting on the check-out desk. “If they’re (the patrons) feeling like they’re owing us something because of having something overdue, they just drop something in my jug,” she explained. That money goes to purchase replacement books and other incidentals for the library.
Johnson has some help holding down the fort at the library. Her daughter Penniann Ramirez works at the library on Saturdays, and Donnis Thompson comes in on Tuesdays. In addition to working as the library director, she enjoys attending games at Mabel-Canton and seeing some of the kids who come into the library playing sports.
While she was born in South Dakota, Johnson is a native of Mabel. Both of her parents were from the Spring Grove/Mabel area and moved back when she was a child. She and her husband built a house in Mabel when they were expecting their second of seven children, moving into their new home in July 1951. She still lives there today. “It wasn’t a very big house, but we just kept adding a little bit whenever we needed it,” she said.
When her husband became disabled, they remodeled one last time, making it handicapped accessible for him. Later, when he needed someone to care for him, she hired someone to do so and continued to work at the library. “It worked out really well for everybody,” she said, explaining that that decision helped to stave off caregiver fatigue. Johnson feels that her job at the library has kept her young and healthy. “Over the weekend, when I sit too much, my knees get stiff, so you know it’s been helpful to be moving,” she said, adding that while the vast majority of people around her age are using mobility devices such as canes or walkers and taking pills each day, she doesn’t have to do any of that.
Johnson’s birthday and the fact that she is still working at the library has received quite a bit of attention. The City of Mabel hosted an open house at the library on April 13, which was well attended. Media from
across the country has reported on and shared her accomplishment. Johnson even received a congratulatory letter from Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, celebrating her 90th birthday and a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives recognizing her accomplishment in continuing to work after her 90th birthday. Both letters are currently on display at the Mabel library as well as other memorabilia from her special day.