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Donnelly recalls Littleton of yore


September 09, 2009
LITTLETON–When Beverly Donnelly thinks of Daisy Bronson and Mildred Lakeway, she doesn't mean the buildings that have had their names for decades, but the people they are named after.

She liked both women and said they were both good teachers.

A living history book, Donnelly, 83, has lived away from Littleton for many decades but still returns all the time in her anecdotes, and occasionally in person. The daughter of Van Gardner, Littleton's police chief from 1929 to 1947, she recounts people and events of a Littleton long gone like they took place yesterday.

The chief's only child, she speaks of him with awe as if he were still looking over her shoulder. Every time she told a story during a recent interview, she mentioned no names and said her father would not want anyone's name mentioned, even though she knew most if not all of the subjects have long since passed. Some stories she kept to herself because she knew her father would want it that way.

"My father would rise up out of the grave if I told some of the stories," Donnelly said.

After retiring, her father served eight terms a state representative and worked managing security at Moore Dam. One of his most well-known cases as police chief was catching the New York Strangler who had fled to the area. When Gardner retired he had 27 scrapbooks full of information. At his request, his wife burned it all when he died in 1978. He had no unsolved cases when he retired. Donnelly especially remembered his concern for the poor and less fortunate in town and how he would bring presents and gifts to them when he could.

Donnelly—then Gardner—was friends with many well-known Littleton personalities: Jack and Reg Colby, Ellie Gardner and graduated high school with Wilbur Willey in 1944.

Littleton has changed a lot since then, she said. While there are many nice shops on Main Street, there is much that doesn't look familiar. Not living here during the decades since she left meant she doesn't see the slow change that has occurred, she noted. She left the area when she was in her late 20s to move to Massachusetts, where she raised five sons.

Donnelly grew up on Pleasant Street across from Remich Park and remembers walking up Parker Mountain behind it quite often, as did her grandparents. They loved it so much that a rock her grandmother used to sit on there was carried off the mountain after she died to use as a gravestone at her grandmother's grave.

Donnelly used to work near Parker Mountain at the Chiswick Inn, which has since burned down and is the site where the Littleton Municipal swimming pool sits today.

Other Littleton promontories played a role in her life, including Manns Hill Road, which she used to toboggan down in the winter. She never dared tell her father about that and still remembers the ride down as a thrill.

Growing up she remembers a number of events that are now part of Littleton's history, including the premier of a Bette Davis movie at the Opera House. Her father even gave Davis a ticket, which Donnelly claims Davis didn't mind because "he was the handsomest police officer she ever saw."

Davis could also "swear like a truck driver," Donnelly said.

Donnelly said her father would have been so proud to see the police in a new police station. Even back in the 1930s and 1940s Van Gardner thought the place was run down and unsuited to be a police station, she said.

It was suited for the annual May Balls though, which she said were a big deal in town when she was growing up. The historic building was also the site of her father handling a bit of youthful fun. She said during a class reunion former students tried to sneak up into the bell tower to ring the bell and her father caught them and locked the door. He came back some time later and asked if they were ready to come down yet.

Donnelly laughed a lot recalling that story.

Most of all growing up Donnelly remembers the caring and honest example her father set in town—and asked her to set as his daughter. She still tries to set that example.

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