FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA

The Other Side of 50

‘Grandpa Walter’ shares his love of reading with children

By From page OSF6 | December 13, 2012

VACAVILLE — Brayden Sisson, 3, wanted a sticker. But he hadn’t quite warmed up to the white-haired man who had them.

So, he walked around “Grandpa Walter,” found some books, sat down and looked through the pictures. A few minutes later, the bravery surfaced and the toddler was standing before Walter Phelps, ready to say the magic word: “please.” Phelps gently put the sticker on the boy’s arm, per the youngster’s request.

Phelps, 90, started volunteering at the Vacaville libraries shortly after moving to the town 15 years ago. He’s at the Town Square Library each Wednesday morning. Phelps chooses a few books and finds his chair, or “headquarters,” as he likes to call it. There, he can see the toddlers and they can see him as they pass by on their way to or from storytime.

The former Episcopal priest and psychiatric social worker loves what he does.

“I needed something to do,” Phelps offered as a reason for volunteering, adding that his wife encouraged him.

Phelps has two children, a son and daughter. The daughter lives in France with her husband and two sons, “who speak better French than I do,” Phelps said.

While he read to his children, distance kept him from doing the same with his grandsons.

“I get to do grandpa here,” he said. “I couldn’t do it with my grandsons.”

He encourages the children to use common courtesy. If they’re too shy to say “please,” Phelps will make a deal.

“I’ll let you have a sticker on credit,” he said to one girl who was clinging tightly to her father.

Oliver Cramer and his friend Maddyn Wiltsey, both 3, knew to say please and thank you. Oliver spoke up, telling Phelps his younger sister, in a carrier, couldn’t talk enough to say the magic words.

“She can owe me a ‘please,’ ” Phelps said.

One young girl said, “yes, please.” Then, she told Phelps she wanted it placed on the sequin heart on her top. He explained that he didn’t want to ruin the heart and put it on another part of her shirt. She promptly removed it and put it on the sequin heart.

Phelps does get an occasional thank you.

“It takes a lot of coaxing to get ‘please,’ ” he said.

He prefers parents not push their children to interact with him.

“They have their moods,” he said of the children. “You have to respect that.”

Libraries have always been an important part of his life.

“I remember getting my first library card. I was thrilled,” he said. “I didn’t quite understand the rule that if you read a book in two days, you didn’t have to keep it for 14. I kept thinking you couldn’t turn it in earlier.”

His love of reading surfaced in elementary school when his teachers often asked him to read aloud. Phelps’ father often brought books home for him to read.

Phelps is often spotted in public. And he happily answers to the name “the sticker man.”

“He has such a warm presence and a wonderful voice,” said Kevin Tolley, youth services librarian at the Vacaville Town Square Branch. “He really shares his love of reading.”

Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.

Amy Maginnis-Honey

Amy Maginnis-Honey

Amy Maginnis-Honey joined the staff of the Daily Republic in 1980. She’ll tell you she was only 3 at the time. Over the past three decades she’s done a variety of jobs in the newsroom. Today, she covers arts and entertainment and writes for the Living and news pages.
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