Exercising body and mind

After becoming an athlete later in life, librarian Karen Neely won’t slow down
Sunday, December 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:53 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Her mother’s illness convinced Karen Neely that she needed to do something about her own health. Four years later, the 56-year-old librarian is getting ready for her first triathlon.

“I became an athlete at the age of 52,” she says.

Neely, who has worked at the Daniel Boone Regional Library for 35 years, is tall and lithe, understated and elegant. She talks quietly about her job, her hobbies and the changes in her life.

“I don’t really run,” she told her trainer, whom she describes as patient.

She has spunk. Once overweight and out of shape, she now refuses to stop. She hasn’t even let a knee she injured, while training in a half marathon, get in her way. Instead, she got creative.

“I thought, I’ll do upper body stuff,” she says. And, she learned to swim.

“She’s as physically fit as anyone I know, regardless of age,” says Neely’s friend Nancy Belcher.

Belcher credits Neely with friendship, inspiration and on-the-job training when Belcher worked at the library.

Neely began working for the library’s Bookmobile the day before she turned 21.

“(I’d) stop in little towns, stop in schools, stop in churches, cornfields,” she says. “I got to know just about everybody. They would come in and talk about what they were planning for the fields. It was like a little country store, the little social center.”

She says she fell in love with the job. To work her way up, she earned a graduate degree in library science. She researches the community and writes grants for future library projects.

“I like that we’re open to looking at the new trends,” she says. “The basic thing is to just be open, to incorporate how people use information or how they access information.”

Neely also makes sure she’s involved with the community. She says her connections with it — at work or in her free time — keep her going.

When one of her friends was diagnosed with breast cancer, Neely sought out a way to help. She joined the Knitwits, a group that meets every week to knit hats for people going through chemotherapy.

“There’s nothing false about Karen,” Belcher says. “Caring, dedicated, loyal and willing to help.”

Neely says she’s excited about becoming next year’s president of the Mid-Missouri Assistance League, which collects money for charitable works. She rattles off facts about how much the league has donated, who it’s helped and why it’s important.

For a moment, Neely grows quiet. She says that she’s been married for 32 years and has no children.

“As parents, you’re able to give through PTA and those organizations,” she says. “The Assistance League kind of filled that bill for me.”

And Neely has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I’m constantly looking at things in the future,” she says. “I’ve always been trying new things; I’ve always been open to changes.”

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