Rose Sullivan, a 98-year-old library manager retiring after around 40 years of service to the National Center for Appropriate Technology, played a crucial role in NCAT’s survival in the 1980s.
But you’d never know it to talk to her.
Sullivan, who turns 99 in July, is finally throwing in the towel. She plans to enjoy her “golden years” with her bridge game, her scripture class and her books.
"I haven't been sitting at home by myself in forever," she said.
Sullivan said she doesn’t know why she’s lived so long a life or why she’s been able to keep working one year and two months from her 100th birthday. But she said one reason might be that she loved her job so much.
“No one ever mentioned I had to retire,” she said Tuesday with a big smile across her face.
What Sullivan doesn’t say is that she played an important role in the life of NCAT.
NCAT is a nonprofit that helps low-income people with all kinds of things — weatherizing a house, training a farmer or monitoring energy use. Supported in the early days by Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield, the center was envisioned as a place that would develop technologies to alleviate poverty.
State Sen. Jon Sesso started working at NCAT as a technical writer a year before Sullivan arrived in 1978. Sesso said that when President Ronald Reagan took office, NCAT lost federal grant funding and the organization plunged into a dark hole, going from more than 100 employees to just a handful within a month.
“We were trying to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall,” Sesso said by phone from Helena Wednesday. “Rose and I were two of the eight left.”
NCAT had a lot of publications in those days, Sesso said, and it was Sullivan’s job to manage those publications in the organization’s library. Requests for the publications continued to roll in during the hard times and those sales sustained the much-reduced organization.
“Some days Rose and I were the only ones in the building keeping the organization afloat. It was a rough patch, but we came out of it,” Sesso said.
Sesso commented that Sullivan was already 58 when she took up her library job at NCAT.
“Perseverance,” was the one word he used to describe her. “She was a pretty talented person and she stuck with us. We were a pretty lonesome bunch (during the financial crisis)," he said.
Not only did she stick with NCAT, she kept the library humming, organized and helpful for almost 40 years, making sure employees saw necessary articles, keeping books organized and shelved properly and new books ordered and catalogued.
Sullivan says she did take a break for about five years to travel a few decades ago. But she says she came back to work on a part-time basis when she was in her late 70s.
She still remembers (and uses) the card catalogue, a now-archaic organizational system those under 45 years of age might find confusing. The card catalog predates the computer for finding books in a library.
Born in Red Lodge in 1920, Sullivan remembers an era that lacked television and even radio. She says her parents were “big readers” and she was too. It was, in some respects, the only thing to do.
Her favorite books as a child were “The Bobbsey Twins” series. She may need a calendar to help her keep track of her brood of seven, her 14 grandchildren and the 11 great-grandchildren, but she recalled with alacrity her favorite book as a kid.
She got scholarships to attend the University of Montana-Western in Dillon. There she met her husband, Neal. The pair both became teachers and came to Butte because Neal Sullivan was offered a job teaching seventh and eighth grade. Later he became a grade school principal, Sullivan said.
She taught as well, but after her kids came, she had to stop.
“They didn’t allow pregnant women in the classroom,” she said.
But, she went back to work at age 58 at NCAT because the human resources manager knew Sullivan and knew how much she loved to read.
Sullivan says she gets so much pleasure from reading, she will open a book and begin absorbing the words on the page without even noticing the book title, author or the book’s genre.
She read three books and started a fourth just last weekend. She particularly loves biographies, histories and novels.
She never missed a day at school. The only “C” grade she got was in sewing class but there were extenuating circumstances — a broken elbow that didn’t heal right.
It’s the only injury she’s ever received. She recently had to start relying on a walker, but she whips down the NCAT hallway faster than many a 20-year-old.
Her last day was Thursday. She said what she will miss the most are her fellow employees. The feeling was clearly mutual. One employee popped in with flowers in a vase. Others stopped by to check on her Tuesday while she talked to reporters.
"Everybody wants to be Rose when they grow up," said Debbie Rask, NCAT travel and publications coordinator.