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The definition of generous

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Whether it was a class of two or nearly 200, there were plenty of people from Hays Optimist Club to help out on a longtime project Tuesday.

Eight members of the local civic group braved the brisk morning air, delivering more than 300 dictionaries to sixth-graders in Ellis County.

It's something Gary Wentling and his buddies have been doing since 1985, come rain, or shine or a chilly north wind.

"Oh, it's been colder than this," said Wentling, program chairman of the local club who has participated in the dictionary project all 28 years. "There's been snow before."

Maybe moving the fastest to get in out of the cold was Greg Swob, who delivered books to the two sixth-grade students at Hays Maranatha Christian School, located on a flat piece of open land about a mile north of Interstate 70 on Toulon Road.

Swob got involved with the Optimist Club immediately when he moved to Hays from Colby in 2006. And he said he was intrigued with the dictionary giveaway, which now has reached more than 10,400.

"I remember a set with a dictionary and a thesaurus that I got as a senior (in high school) before I went away to college," Swob said. "I used it a lot. ... I had never heard of this; I think it's a great idea."

He got no argument from Rita Spears, the Maranatha teacher. Even in the days of Google and Yahoo, Spears thinks there still is a need for a physical book to use in looking up the spelling or definition of a word.

"I think they need the skills to look up something in alphabetical order, and to find guide words and pronunciation," said Spears, a native of Palco in her seventh year at Maranatha after teaching at Seventh Day Adventist schools in five other states before returning to Kansas.

She pleasantly was surprised when she received a call last year from the Optimists.

"We were really excited they included us," Spears said.

Jada Waldschmidt, one of the two sixth-graders to get a dictionary of her own, said she was looking forward to it, although she didn't know what day it would happen. Her older sister, Vashti, now a seventh-grader, received a dictionary last year.

"Now, we can reach into our desks (if she needs a dictionary)," Jada said.

"Instead of having to go to the library," added Nathaniel Sanchez, Jada's classmate and the other Maranatha student to receive a dictionary.

It has become custom to give new sixth-grade teachers a dictionary, so Spears got one last year.

A total of 322 dictionaries were distributed at six different schools in the county Tuesday, including 196 at Hays Middle Schoool.

At Holy Family Elementary School in Hays, Rachel Wentling, in her first year as principal, received a new dictionary from Gary Wentling, who happens to be her father-in-law.

"I told him, 'You probably gave me my first dictionary in sixth-grade,' " said Rachel Wentling, who still has her dictionary from when she was a sixth-grader at Holy Family in 1988.

"It went to college with me," said Wentling, who still puts a lot of value on using that pocket dictionary. "I think there's still a lot of value in the hard copy dictionary.

"On the Internet, you can't always be sure of the (validity) of the meaning. Where with the Webster dictionary, that's very well-respected."

So, the Optimists said they will continue with the project until schools tell them otherwise.

After watching their sixth-grade schoolmates receive their prize, the rest of the student body at Maranatha -- four students in grades 2, 4, 5 and 7 -- also received a gift Tuesday.

Swob, who operates a honey bee farm just up the road a mile and a half north of Maranatha, handed Spears a jar of honey.

"It's not a very big jar," he said. "Harvest was down with the drought and the heat. But I thought it would be nice to have in their cafeteria."