Willington Board of Selectmen honors Esther Phelps
By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Willington - posted Wed., Jul. 10, 2013
At its July 1 meeting, the Willington Board of Selectmen issued a special proclamation to life-long Willington resident Esther Phelps, officially designating July 6, 2013, as “Esther Phelps Day.” That was the day on which Phelps celebrated her 100th birthday.
“I now have a proclamation from the [Willington] community, the state, and one from the president and his wife,” said Phelps. “I was really surprised to get a letter with a return address from the White House,” she said.
One would be hard-pressed to try to match the accomplishments Phelps has tallied up in her 100 years. Growing up, she attended Willington schools, graduated from Windham High, and earned a teaching degree from the Willimantic State Normal School, which became the Willimantic State Teachers College and is now Eastern Connecticut State University.
“I spent three summers at Yale trying to get another degree, but then Patti [the first of her three daughters] came along, and that was the end of that,” Phelps joked.
Phelps spent several years teaching elementary school-age children, first serving as both teacher and principal at the Tolland County Home in Vernon, now home to the Community Arts building. From there, she moved on to a teaching position in Sharon, Conn., then to a two-room school house in Mansfield, and finally back to Willington, where she taught for several years at the original Center School. Despite leaving teaching to raise her family, she volunteered another 11 years at the school, operating all the various office machines and copying equipment.
Phelps also worked for 10 years at the library that served the local community before the Willington Public Library was built, and then as library director for 12 years. “One year, when I was director, my name was on the ballot and I received more votes than even the first selectman,” she said.
“That’s because my mom and dad ran the market,” said her daughter, Patti Locke. “Everyone knew them.”
The family market was Phelps Market, which Esther helped her husband Floyd run for nine years as well. Today, it is home to the Track Nine Diner. “I always did the bookkeeping from home and I did anything else that was needed,” said Phelps. That included opening their doors to people in need during the 1935 and 1955 floods, allowing people to take what they needed and settle their bills later.
In between her work with the store and with family, she still found time serve as Willington chairwoman of the March of Dimes, a position she held for 15 years, chair the local Salvation Army for five years, teach Sunday School and direct Vacation Bible School for the Federated Church of Willington, lead two Girl Scout troops, and play the piano for Wednesday Worship Services at Lyon Manor for 14 years. She continues on as director emeritus of the Willington Scholarship Committee.
In those early days of fundraising for the March of Dimes, Locke explained that people were sent cards with actual slots to fill with a dollar’s worth of dimes. She said her mother would have her and her siblings sit at the dining room table and count the dimes. In this way, Phelps instilled a sense of community involvement and volunteerism in her own children.
Of all her volunteering roles, Phelps is particularly proud of her capacity as Willington chairwoman for a fundraiser for the new Johnson Memorial Hospital when it moved and expanded at its present Chestnut Hill location. “My husband was the first baby born at Johnson Memorial Hospital, and of the five towns the hospital serves, Willington raised the most money of all,” she said.
A resident of Woodlake at Tolland since 2010, Phelps noted that hers has been “a very happy life” with three daughters, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. “I think what I’m most proud of was in giving my three daughters a good home, and my work with young people. I was always working with young people,” Phelps said.