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Everyday Heroes: Retired Cedar Rapids school librarian still spreading love of reading

Everyday Hero Donna Koch is a retired teacher and librarian who was nominated for her lifelong love and promotion of literacy. Koch opened the first elementary school library in the Cedar Rapids Community School District four times and received the national Reading is Fundamental Volunteer of the Year award for Community Volunteer in 2010. (Meredith Hines-Dochterman)
Everyday Hero Donna Koch is a retired teacher and librarian who was nominated for her lifelong love and promotion of literacy. Koch opened the first elementary school library in the Cedar Rapids Community School District four times and received the national Reading is Fundamental Volunteer of the Year award for Community Volunteer in 2010. (Meredith Hines-Dochterman)
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Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series on Everyday Heroes in Eastern Iowa. They will be honored Nov. 1 at the Everyday Heroes Breakfast Awards Ceremony at the The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7225 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids. Tickets are available at hooplatix.com.

There’s a stack of books near Donna Koch’s favorite chair. One, a black leather-covered Agatha Christie tome, has a bookmark saving her place. The others she’ll get to. Eventually.

“I usually read two books at a time,” Koch says. “One that doesn’t move very fast and one I can read in a couple of days.”

If books were food, one novel would be the meat and the other dessert. It’s a fitting metaphor for someone who devours the written word.

Koch’s love of reading began at an early age. She didn’t have many books at her disposal — the children’s literature culture wasn’t what it is today — but her parents were readers. She went to bed listening to chapters from their books every night and has fond memories giggling over the Sunday funnies with her father.

Koch graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, then taught kindergarten and first-grade students for several years. She enjoyed teaching, but realized her favorite part of being in the classroom was sharing her love of reading with her students. So she went back to school during summer vacations and got her master’s degree in library science from the University of Iowa.

Koch opened the first school library in the Cedar Rapids Community School District at Coolidge Elementary School in 1967. She repeated this feat at Hiawatha, Eisenhower and Taylor elementary schools. Of the four, Taylor was the only brand-new building that had space for a library in its plans. The others were renovated areas in existing structures, with Koch doing whatever it took to make it work.

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“The first desk they gave me to use as the checkout space was so tall that I had to peer over it to see the students,” Koch says. “I can still picture one little boy standing on his tiptoes, trying to get his book on the counter and saying, ‘Mrs. Koch, may I rent this book?’”

Koch retired at 65, but was back a few months later as a substitute librarian while working part time at the Learning Ladder, a retail shop for educators in Marion. She also volunteered with Reading is Fundamental, a government program for early childhood literacy. Her worked was recognized on the national level in 2010, when she received the Reading is Fundamental Volunteer of the Year award for Community Volunteer.

“I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve tried to share my love for reading with others, to help them become lifetime readers, too,” Koch says.

The Learning Ladder has since closed. Koch took that as a sign to retire a second time, so she did at age 85 — but she hasn’t remained idle. In addition to reading as much as she can, Koch knits prayer shawls for seriously ill individuals and volunteers with Friends of the Library at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

“I’ve always tried to set a good example, but it means more now,” Koch says. “I want to be a mentor for older people, to show them that there’s still so much we can do, and also younger people so they won’t think aging is a bad thing.”

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