Like many Americans born in the Great Depression, Shirley Olson (B.A. ‘53), a second-generation American, found herself at a young age moving across country to California. An Illinois native, Shirley recalls the day in 1939 when her parents decided to move the family to the Golden State. Work was scarce in Illinois, and her father had found a job in California, helping to build the Prado Dam in Corona. “My mother said, ‘get in the car,’” Shirley recalls, “and off we went.”
Shirley remembers the long drive on Route 66 and later the family’s relocation to Imperial Beach, where, after the dam had been completed, her father found a second construction job driving cranes inland in San Diego. While living in Imperial Beach, Shirley spent her summers at the horse stables that dotted the Silver Strand and were used annually by race horse owners.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the horses were replaced by troops who came to stay in the stables at Imperial Beach. Machine guns were set up along the Silver Strand to prepare for a Japanese invasion.
The family ended up moving to San Pedro in the mid 1940s, where Shirley attended San Pedro High School. “Life at San Pedro High prepared me well for UCLA,” Shirley says. “In addition to the coursework, I learned all of the latest dances with my friends. By the time I got to Westwood, I had occasional encounters with movie stars like Shirley Temple and others.” By the time Shirley graduated from San Pedro in 1948, she had taken several college-prep courses that made her eligible for admission to UCLA.
“My mother encouraged me to attend college, and UCLA was the obvious choice,” Shirley recalls. “Tuition only cost about $50 per quarter then, but I needed a job to cover living expenses, so I worked in the library.”
In addition to the 25 cents per hour she earned at what is now Powell Library, Shirley was required to cook food at Winslow Arms, the four-building complex just off of UCLA’s campus, where she lived during her four years as a student. Winslow Arms was situated just next door to the home of Nancy Davis, who was then dating and would later marry Ronald Reagan. “Ronald was such a heart throb,” Shirley chuckles.
“We girls would get together and write him love letters – ‘Ronnie, dear, we know you’re here, Love, the girls of Winslow Arms.’”
In addition to attending dances and other social gatherings, Shirley remembers seeing movies at the Westwood Village theater for 50 cents.
In December 1953, Shirley graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in education. She got her first job at a school on Warner Avenue but realized she wouldn’t last long at a school where children of famous movie stars like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra were allowed to act however they wished. Shirley’s principal overlooked their bad behavior, so she didn’t receive any help or support disciplining students. “They were really difficult children to manage,” Shirley recalls. “It was a tough job, and I really struggled.”
After six months, Shirley quit and returned to the library at UCLA to work in Special Collections under Wilbur Smith. The collection had a large endowment and Dr. Powell went all over the world to buy rare books, Shirley remembers.
“Wilbur was a wonderful person who worked hard to engage the community in expanding the university’s collections. When I was working there, people like Ray Bradbury and other artists and movie stars often came to the library to use the special collections for research. It was a famous library, even then.”
With the Second World War over and veterans and their families moving to California for schooling and for job opportunities, Shirley remembers there being bungalows erected on campus to accommodate the influx of students.
“It was a vibrant and active time for the university and its employees,” Shirley says. “I felt very privileged to be able to learn about libraries and special collections while working for such a wonderful institution.”
Having developed a passion for libraries at UCLA, Shirley moved to Minnesota in 1956 to enroll in the University of Minnesota’s library school. “I would have loved to continue at UCLA, but they did not have a library school in those days, and Minnesota’s program was strong.” Shirley quickly got a job as a teacher’s assistant while in graduate school and picked up a special education minor in educational psychology. She also began working for the Minneapolis Public Libraries as a book mobile librarian, bringing books to students in schools around the Twin Cities; work which she continued for a year after graduating from the University of Minnesota’s Library School in 1958. In 1960, Shirley returned to the University of Minnesota as an administrative assistant to the Library School’s Director.
Two years later, Shirley moved to Tokyo, where she served as a librarian for the U.S. Air Force. From 1962-63 she was stationed at the library on the U.S. Air Force Base in downtown Tokyo. When the base moved out of downtown Tokyo in 1963 to the Fuchu Air Station to make way for the 1964 Olympics, Shirley moved to Fuchu to continue working for the library there.
Shirley held her position at the U.S. Air Force base until the Vietnam War broke out, when she decided to return home. “As a Quaker, I did not support the war and could not justify staying to serve the U.S. Air Force in a cause I adamantly opposed,” Shirley explains. “The war had a terrible effect on our society and of course on the people of Vietnam.”
Returning briefly to California, Shirley was soon hired as Librarian of Burnsville High School in Minnesota and moved back to the Twin Cities area in 1967. She stayed for two years before moving back to California for good in 1969 to begin a job as a science and special collections librarian at Whittier College. There, Shirley supervised the hiring of college students to work in the library and assisted with inter-library loans until being hired by the Metropolitan Coop Library System in California along with a colleague, James Van Hoven, to work to develop an integration program called Project LISTDD (Libraries in Service to Developmentally Disabled).
Project LISTDD was designed to bring children and adults with learning and developmental disabilities into libraries. Having earned a minor in special education and libraries while completing her Masters at the University of Minnesota, Shirley served as the librarian while Van Hoven served as the social worker. Together as a team, Shirley and Van Hoven taught special courses in high schools across California, bringing library materials and films into classrooms and working with teachers to integrate source materials into curricula. Shirley credits her graduate work at the University of Minnesota in educational psychology as being critical training for her work with special needs youth.
After three years, Project LISTDD ended. As the project had been housed at the Pomona Public Library, Shirley was kept on and hired to work in special collections and at the reference desk. Shirley spent the rest of her career at the Pomona Public Library, where she oversaw all exhibits until she retired in 1992.
Looking back, Shirley says that even though she enjoyed working with children, librarianship was a much better career path than teaching was for her. She remembers her time at UCLA fondly, as the place where her passion for libraries and library service began. She remains in touch with many of the friends she developed there. Now retired, she enjoys traveling and supporting the work of the Quaker American Friends Service Committee.
Says Shirley of her life’s adventures and experiences, “Life is a journey. I live it day to day.”