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SEEING PROJECT TO THE FINISH; PROLIFIC MUSEUM VOLUNTEER RACES AGAINST BLINDING AILMENT.

Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

Most people put in their 25 or 30 years on the job, collect their gold watch and head for the nearest hammock.

Not Gretchen Sibley - even though she's 83 years old and legally blind.

From 1946 to 1976, the tiny teacher imbued thousands of children with a desire to learn science and encouraged hundreds to become science-loving volunteers working as head of the education and docent programs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Then she retired - for two days.

``I retired on Saturday and was back at work - as a volunteer - on Monday,'' Sibley said with a laugh.

And for the past 22 years, she has been cataloging the museum's archives and piecing together its history. For her 13,000 hours of donated service, she was named the county's Volunteer of the Year for 1996, an honor that shocked her.

``I was so surprised,'' Sibley said. ``I was expecting it to go to somebody who fed the poor or rescued wild dogs because what I'm doing doesn't tug at the heart.''

Ah, but it does.

``I volunteer on Tuesdays just so I can be around her,'' said volunteer Diane R. Stewart. ``She's an inspiration, just an extraordinary person.''

``Nothing stops her - she just plows on,'' said Isabel Rosenbaum, coordinator of the museum's volunteer program. ``She actually started the volunteer program and she's our mentor, universally revered and admired.''

The only thing that slows down the gray-haired educator is her continually fading eyesight, the result of macular degeneration - a callousing of the retina of both eyes - that gradually claims more and more of her sight and has nearly reduced her vision to a blur of color and movement.

But with high-tech help, she's still on the job, using a closed-circuit television that magnifies words 45 times so she can read them. The machine, which she paid for, cost about $3,000.

``Each change is a challenge, and I still enjoy what I'm doing,'' said Sibley. Now that she's retired, she's moved from her Los Angeles-area home to a Lake Forest senior care center, but she pays a chauffeur to drive her to the museum each Tuesday, where she uses a giant magnifying glass to sort photographs and the magnified TV to read and catalog historical documents.

She guides herself around the museum's basement file room with a folding cane and uses a smaller magnifying glass worn on a gold chain around her neck to check out details in larger items she comes across.

She'll work, she vows, as long as she can see with whatever aids are available.

``It'll be my eyes that'll force me to retire,'' she said. It should take another two years to complete the museum's history, and she hopes her eyesight will hold out that long.

Museum volunteers and administrators alike are rooting for her.

``She's been such a dynamo,'' said Robert J. Lavenberg, the museum's deputy director of research and collections. ``The history should be quite comprehensive. After all, she's lived through a major part of it.''

Teacher at heart

Sibley has spent the past 51 years at the museum. But that was never her aim.

Originally, she wanted to be a university professor - and was, lecturing in biology at Pepperdine University from 1954 to 1970. But she got sidetracked after earning a credential to teach science in junior high schools. That's when she decided she wanted to find out more about what it would take to make kids actually want to learn science.

So while pursuing graduate work at the University of Southern California, she also taught for three years at Garvey Junior High School in Los Angeles, where she established a lending service that allowed teachers to borrow rocks and other geological specimens, stuffed birds and animals from the Natural History Museum for classroom study.

She visited the museum so often, administrators got to know her. And when a half-hearted museum-sponsored attempt to work with students failed, museum officials asked her to design a better program.

Hired as the museum's first educational specialist in 1946, she was paid $150 a month.

She redesigned the schools program, developing a Saturday morning series of lectures, workshops and field trips for students hand-picked by area high school teachers for their potential to excel with extra exposure to the sciences.

During her 30-year tenure, more than 3,500 students went through the science program, many of the same kids returning semester after semester during their high school years.

``It's been a real joy,'' Sibley said. ``It was done on a really friendly basis, no hard discipline. The kids loved it. Many times, our students would go into college and they'd be way ahead of the other students. Some of them are very good scientists around the world.''

Eighty-five percent of the students who went through the museum program went on to college; many college graduates went into medicine, research, teaching or some other scientific field. Some even returned to the museum to work, like Charles Hogue, who was curator of entomology from 1962 to 1992; Greg Byrd, administrator of the sister Page Museum in the 1970s and '80s; and Jeff Seigel, ichthyology collections manager.

Siegel, who returned to the museum to work in 1980, was a student at Beverly Hills High School in 1968, when he spent most of his Saturdays being encouraged by Sibley between lectures and field trips.

``She seemed to take an avid interest in everything that everybody was doing,'' Siegel said. ``It was a great experience for me and helped solidify what I wanted to do. I don't know how many students' lives she enriched that way over the years. When they say it just takes one person to make a difference, Gretchen is the example.''

But Sibley wasn't through inspiring children to learn. In 1941, she also organized the museum's first science fair, open to students in all Los Angeles schools; it grew so successful that it was turned over to the school district 10 years later.

She also drummed up a corps of volunteers to help out at the museum.

``We had a bunch of Valley volunteers who wanted to come in and help, so I put them to work teaching children,'' she said. That was in 1961. Now, hundreds of Los Angeles-area volunteers lead school tours, aid visitors and help organize museum archives.

When not working in the museum, Sibley traveled to more than 30 countries and throughout the United States, photographing what she saw for several dozen educational films produced by four film companies. She wrote a book about the discoveries at the La Brea Tar Pits and wrote two dozen papers on subjects ranging from whales to ants, dinosaurs to museum history.

Coping with vision loss

Blindness began to creep up on her about three years ago.

``There was an eye test in the Reader's Digest. It said, `If you see wavy lines in this, see your doctor immediately,' '' Sibley said. ``I did. And it hit me right between the eyes.''

She was diagnosed with glaucoma and macular degeneration. But she feels that she's lucky the degeneration of her sight has been gradual because it's given her time to find a retirement home where she can cope with failing eyesight, wrap up her work at the museum and get used to the inevitable - total blindness.

Her dwindling eyesight has put an end to sewing, photography, drawing and painting - hobbies she enjoyed.

But she's had time to investigate high-tech help that aids her in her work. At home, she puts raised red dots - she can still see color - at the most-used settings on her TV, her microwave oven, her stove. Instead of painting, she's taking classes in sculpting.

For her research and archiving at the museum, she uses a TeleSensory closed-circuit television about the size of a small desktop computer. She slips a book or document under the TV's viewer and it appears - the letters as much as 45 times larger than the actual print - on a screen that she can easily read.

A home version of the same TV cost a bit more, but enlarges letters to 60 times their size. A modified photocopier with an artificial voice that reads the printed word and beeps to tell her to turn the page is also a big help when her eyes get tired.

And $8,000 bought a computer program that enlarges both the letters she sees on her computer screen and the copies her regular printer spits out.

She gets books on tape from the Library of Congress, concentrating on science and biography volumes.

``This is my life, trying to read,'' she said.

Despite the loss of her sight, she still shows up at the museum each Tuesday, putting together the history of the facility, which opened in 1913, and digging through boxes of stuff that people have tucked into stairwells, filing cabinets and storage rooms for the past 80-plus years.

She spends the rest of the time with friends at the Laguna Hills retirement center where she lived until recently. Still president of the Visually Impaired Club of Leisure World, she pushes and prods others with vision problems to get involved in their community and their world, not to retire into the darkness when new high-tech aids will help them live happier, more productive lives.

``Some of them are very anxious to learn things,'' Sibley said. ``But others need some encouragement, and we try to give it to them.''

To friends who ask her how she stays so upbeat despite her growing vision problems, ``I say, `I have Picasso vision.' I tell my friends, `You're lucky to have somebody who can't see your wrinkles.' ''

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) AN EYE FOR DETAIL

Impending blindness isn't keeping 83-year-old Gretchen Sibley from quest to record history

(2) Gretchen Sibley, who has macular degeneration, uses a closed-circuit television that magnifies images and words for her work chronicling the past at the county Museum of Natural History.

David Sprague/Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 23, 1997
Words:1671
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