On Tuesday afternoon, July 31, a wave of island residents and longtime visitors stopped by the Hatteras Library to bid farewell to Branch Manager Helen Hudson, who is retiring after 15 years.
The open house to honor Helen was a tearful event for a number of folks who popped in to say goodbye to this well-revered researcher and fixture at the local village library.
And it was an especially tearful and moving tribute for Helen herself. “This just means so much to me – it really is like one big family,” she said.
“Hatteras is my home. I sleep in Frisco, but I live in Hatteras.”
Helen’s role as the head of the Hatteras Library got off to a bit of a stormy start. Just three months after she started her job in 2003, Helen found herself commuting to work in a boat due to September’s Hurricane Isabel, which cut a new inlet north of Hatteras, separating the village from the
rest of the world.
“I would get up early enough to be [at the library] on time, sleepily get out of bed, catch a boat, and open up the library,” she said. “We were a place where people could come to ask questions, and get help during the recovery.”
In the weeks that followed, the library became a hub of activity for Hatteras residents. As one of the few places with generator power and air conditioning, organizations like the Salvation Army and FEMA set up shop at the library after Isabel, and locals stopped in often to obtain information, use the computers and fax machines, or just feel normal for a little while.
“Helen was the person handing out tissues to people who were crying because of the overwhelming hardships,” said Jonathan Wark, East Albemarle Regional Library System Director. “She took a boat to work during Isabel, and it was quite an introduction to the job – but during that time, we kind of perfected our recovery process, and we made these services available after every storm.”
Indeed, the library’s role as a community resource center after a storm was repeated several times after Isabel, such as in the wake of 2011’s Irene and 2016’s Matthew.
But besides orchestrating recovery and information efforts after hurricanes, Helen spent the majority of her time serving as a Jack of All Trades for everyday library activity.
During her tenure, Helen welcomed 242,255 visitors through the library doors, placed 57,437 holds (or requests) for books, and tackled 18,510 reference questions.
And when it came to her job at the library, Helen said it was the reference question aspect of the position that she enjoyed the most.
“That’s my favorite part of the job – it’s like uncovering a mystery at the library,” she said. “People come in and ask a question about local history, or what books will have specific information for a term paper, and I’ll get to work. We always do our very best to get an answer, usually within 24 or 48 hours.”
Helen developed a reputation as an unparalleled researcher, too. In fact, during the open house, Helen was approached by a longtime island visitor who thanked her for her continual help over the years.
“Every summer I’ve come down, you’ve just been amazing,” the visitor said. “You’ve given me so many little tidbits, and each year you’ve really helped me, no matter what I was working on.”
It was a theme that was echoed by the dozens of folks who stopped by during the afternoon open house to say goodbye, and more importantly, to share their gratitude.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me and my family,” said one Hatteras local. “You are certainly a hard act to follow.”
Helen handled storm recovery, cataloging, reference queries, and a host of other tasks as the Branch Manager, but she also spent ample time working with kids through summer reading programs and everyday visits.
“We’re not one of these ‘Sssshhhh!’ libraries,” she said, “and turning a kid onto books, and getting them excited about reading – especially the littlest one – is the greatest feeling of all.”
Helen’s replacement, Michelle Lord, is taking the reins on Wednesday, but despite Helen’s retirement from her role, she is not going anywhere. A visitor to the island herself in the 1960s, and a full-time resident starting in the 1970s, Hatteras is simply Helen’s home.
And as evident by the many cards, flowers, gifts, and tearful goodbyes on that Tuesday afternoon, Helen’s love of the community shines through for both the folks she works with, and the residents who know her well.
“I can’t speak more highly of the staff. We just click so well together,” said Helen, “and I’ll still be coming here regularly – it’s my library too now – I just may sleep in a little.”
“I know when I walk in the village, it will be like I never left, because Hatteras is such an exceptional place,” she added, “and it’s the people – the whole community – who make it so exceptional.”