Helen B. Williams has dedicated her life to serving the community in Amherst County, Va., and in the process, she’s earned the distinction of being the longest serving employee at Virginia Tech, an institution with more than 7,000 employees across the country.
Born and raised in Amherst County, a county of about 32,000 people just north of Lynchburg, Va., Williams was born in 1939 to Raymond Williams, a chef at Sweet Briar College and his wife, Mary.
After graduating from the former Central High School in 1957, making 75 cents an hour, she began working as a general typist in the Amherst County Virginia Cooperative Extension office. Back then the office was housed in two separate facilities – an office for blacks on Main Street and an office for whites in the courthouse building. She’s moved six times since then and says their office now, in the basement of a small white cinderblock building beside the town courthouse, is the best yet.
Although her title and salary have changed a few times in the 55 years since then, one thing has remained the same – her commitment to the only community she has ever called home.
“Miss Helen,” as the 73-year-old is affectionately known to others, has a slight southern drawl and a grandmotherly warmth that her customers love.
“So many people in our community know Helen and trust her. She lives our land grant mission of service to our community every day,” said her supervisor, Kevin C. Irvin, a senior Extension agent and the unit coordinator for the Amherst Extension office.
It’s not uncommon for individuals to call, or walk in, and, surprised to see Williams behind her desk, say, “You’re still here Miss Helen?,” with a smile and a hug.
“I believe I live the 4-H motto, ‘always make the best better’,” said Williams.
Those who visit the Amherst County Extension Office learn quickly about what’s important to Williams – the children in her community and service to others.
Visitors to the office also learn quickly that Williams is proud of her Hokie heritage. If she doesn’t have the opportunity to tell you how great Virginia Tech is and how much she enjoys watching the football games on television the maroon and orange clothing she wears and the knick-knacks that adorn her work space give it away. “Win or lose, they’re my team,” she says.
On most days her responsibilities as the unit’s administrative assistant includes providing clerical support for all of five of her colleagues. Some days that means lots of paperwork. Other days that means helping facilitate the county’s youth programs, including the Amherst County Apple Harvest Festival and the 4-H Haunted Trail each October, as well as the Potpourri for Providers Early Childhood Educators Conference.
In August, Williams rode a horse for the first time at the Central VA Agriculture Appreciation Day. That, she says, was among the most memorable work experiences.
“Boy, have we come a long way,” said Williams. “The computer is a fantastic machine. But, I believe it has invented more work for us,” she said laughing. They are much better, she says, than the old ditto machines they used to use that often left purple ink all over her hands and clothes.
When asked why she’s stayed so long, Williams is quick to say that it’s the people who have kept her working in Extension. The people in the community she’s able to help, the people she works with in her office, and the people at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus she calls for help from time-to-time.
“It all comes down to really fantastic people who are a joy to work with,” said Williams, who is often the subject of well-intentioned pranks in her office. She recalls one such practical joke in which her supervisor strategically placed one of the more than 300 Beanie Babies in her collection under the office paper cutter, with its hands tied behind back. He used a pirate Beanie Baby with an eye patch, as the executioner, placing his hands on the paper cutter to “execute” the Beanie Bear.
Then there was the time Williams arrived at work to find a bunch of Beanie Babies all over her newly painted desk, with small paint brushes in their hands, so she would see their handiwork when she returned from vacation (the office staff had actually painted the desk as a surprise for Helen).
And, who can forget the nickname her colleagues gave her when the office staff hatched baby ducklings in an incubator last summer? Williams, who only lives about a mile from the office, came in on weekends to add water to the incubator and make sure the temperature was right. And, so came the name, “Grandma Duck.”
“It’s just so much fun to work here,” she said, sitting back in her desk chair with a smile and chuckle.
Although she never married and doesn’t have any children (she just never met the right person, she says), Williams has a passion for helping the children in her community. The third oldest of six children and always mature beyond her years, Williams, spent much of her childhood helping her mom around the house.
“It was a joy to help momma when she came home,” said Williams.
For more than 55 years, she has taught Sunday School classes at her church, Mount Olive Baptist Church, to hundreds of children, including her current pastor and his children, who are now adults.
She also serves on the church’s bulletin board committee, usher board, and budget committee as well as a group, called Sisters United, that helps teenage girls learn the importance of “what’s right in life.” She also spends time visiting with residents of a local nursing home, Fairmount Crossing Health and Rehabilitation Center.
She spends her free time watching old westerns and Virginia Tech sports, listening to gospel music, likes to read, and loves to shop. She does not; however, like to cook.
Williams does not plan to retire anytime soon. Her work keeps her healthy and happy and allows her to fulfill her purpose in life – to serve others. When she does retire though, she hopes to volunteer to work with children in some capacity.
For more information on this topic, contact Employee Communications Manager Laura Neff-Henderson at 540-231-7643.
The Extraordinary Employee series highlights the achievements of Virginia Tech employees who go above and beyond, making a difference in the lives of others on campus and in the community.
Virginia Cooperative Extension helps lead the engagement mission of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University — the commonwealth’s land-grant universities. By building local relationships and collaborative partnerships, Extension helps people put scientific knowledge to work through learning experiences that improve economic, environmental, and social well-being.
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