As ever, Needham’s Dennett goes boldly

Needham Adult Reference Program Specialist Gay Ellen Dennett stands in front of "Winter" by artist Ruth Sanderson. She is holding a wooden sculpture by Johnna Klukas - the little astronaut is a cast-iron casting by Texas artist Vincent Villafranca.

By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

Ah, that sense of wonder.

Space: The final frontier.

The first episode of the original “Star Trek” TV series aired in 1966.

But it wasn’t until the summer of 1968 when, at the age of 9, Gay Ellen Dennett got to stay up late to watch “The Tholian Web,” the ninth episode of the third season of the original American science fiction television series.

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

The Needham native found herself where few women back then had gone before — into the world, and a love, of science fiction.

Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

She saw only that one episode when she was a child, but she loved it.

Since then, she’s watched all of the various iterations of “Star Trek” multiple times, including the television series, movies, animated series and novels.

“And I’m still buying them,” she said.

Beyond TV, the galaxy and the stars always intrigued her. H.A. Rey’s book, “Stars,” for stargazing children, was a favorite of hers growing up.

“I was enthralled and kept reading it,” Dennett recalled. “I often would go out looking at the night sky and stare at the stars, trying to figure it all out. Science fiction filled that hole.”

Dennett, 58, has been a familiar face at the Needham Free Public Library since she was 15. She’s served in many capacities, including Assistant Children’s Librarian and currently as the Adult Reference Program Specialist.

Laurie Perkins, the Children’s Librarian when Dennett was growing up, sparked her curiosity in the genre of science fiction.

Perkins gave her just about every book on the subject.

First came Joan Clarke’s “The Happy Planet.” But once Perkins gave her Robert Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars,” nothing roused her interest more.

Dennett has continued to pass on the wonder of science fiction to future generations of readers — like Daniel Seiden, who was in kindergarten when he watched his first “Star Trek” episode.

“I’ve always loved adventure and technology, so science fiction seemed like a natural genre to gravitate towards,” said Seiden, who grew up in Needham and now calls California his home.

Dennett was Seiden’s babysitter, and that’s when the little boy discovered she was a big Trekkie.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “Knowing she would go to ‘Star Trek’ conventions was exciting to learn. It piqued my interest beyond just watching it, and I started reading books and watching episodes over and over.”

Three years ago, Seiden returned to his hometown and took his son, Luka, now 12, to meet Dennett at the library.

“Luka is a big fan of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr. Who,’ and was excited to meet another adult who was as into ‘Star Trek’ as he was,” Seiden said. “He was young and shy, but Gay managed to get him to open up a little about what he was interested in — and he could not stop talking about it on the way back to the house.”

Dennett’s mellow persona and kindred spirit has made it easy for young Seiden to relate back in the day.
 
“Gay taught me to be tolerant of people’s interests,” he recalls.
 
And though too young at the time to appreciate and comprehend that tolerance, looking back on his life experiences he better understands that not everything will be of interest to everyone.
 
“One person’s waste of time is another person’s passion,” he said. “Gay was true to her interests, which at the time were not mainstream.”

Dennett grew up in Needham just down the street from the old Owen’s Poultry Farm on Central Avenue.

She attended Needham High School and graduated with the class of 1976. Younger brother Michael graduated three years later. Their father, George A. Dennett, taught physical education at the school, and both were in his class.

Her father, known back then as “Mr. D,” was J.V. basketball coach and faculty manager of athletics.

He also was the creator and initiator of the Needham High School Distinguished Career Award, established in 1990, which brings alumni back to speak with the junior class each year about their life experiences. It gives students an idea of what they can look forward to and things to strive for, as they get ready for college.

When Dennett’s father died three years ago, the high school renamed the Distinguished Career Award in his name.

Her mother, Patricia H. Dennett, was president of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and a longstanding member of the Needham Garden Club. She, too, worked at the Needham library in the Technical Services/Catalogue Department as its processor.

After graduating from high school, Dennett worked part-time as a library page while attending Framingham State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1981.

From there, she enrolled in a master’s program in library science and information studies at the University of Rhode Island at night, working full-time at the library during the day. After getting her master’s degree, Dennett was prepared to go on to other career paths. But her mother took ill and Dennett was needed at home.

The library lost funding, leaving it with limited staff, but Dennett was one of the few who remained.

In 1989, the World Science Fiction convention was held in Boston, and Dennett was part of the convention committee. She was invited to join the chairman for dinner the last night of the convention. The guest of honor was famed American science fiction writer Andre Norton, who attended the dinner.

“I didn’t even know Andre Norton was a woman,” Dennett said. “All I knew was she was my favorite author growing up. It was fascinating,” she recalled, especially learning that she and Norton had a lot in common, including that they were both children’s librarians at one point.

Then, at the Millennium Philcon, the 59th World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, PA (2001), Dennett was asked the night before the Hugo Awards Ceremony — at 1:30 in the morning — to be the designated acceptor for Best Novel nominee, author J.K. Rowling. Rowling was up for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (against George R. R. Martin's "A Storm of Swords," among other nominated works).

“It was not until ten minutes before the category was announced that I realized they had asked me to do so because it was going to win the Hugo Award,” Dennett said. “I literally had just a few minutes to come up with an acceptance speech. When it was announced as the winner, this is what I said: ‘It was very appropriate that a Children's Librarian was asked to accept this award, and on behalf of J.K. Rowling, I wished to thank the voters for this honor.’”

As an aside, Dennett ended up arranging to get a British fan to deliver the award to her British publisher for Rowling to receive.

“We know she got it,” Dennett said, “because she took out a full-page ad in Locus, the magazine of science fiction, in the October 2001 issue as a thank you to fandom.”

On a local level, Dennett has been president of the New England Science Fiction Association 11 times. She has chaired its annual conferences twice and expects to do so again next year. Former members of the MIT Science Fiction Society founded the association in 1968.

Among the plethora of fond memories Dennett has of helping young readers, one stands out in her mind:

The youngster came in expecting to read Isaac Asimov’s series of “The Adventures of Lucky Starr.” The library didn’t own all of the series but Dennett did, so she lent her books to the boy so he could finish reading them.

More than 50 years have passed since that 9-year-old was awakened to the thrills of space and time.

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Dennett speaks softly, her childhood innocence and sense of wonder still apparent.

Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications. For comments and suggestions, she can be reached at lindasfaces@gmail.com.

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