ST. PETERSBURG — Few things rattle Essie Hills over at the Science Center of Pinellas County, where she has worked joyfully for the last 42 years. A child with ants in his pants? She knows how to deal with an energetic child. For that matter, she knows how to deal with red ant bites, bee stings and poison ivy.
A pompous bureaucrat? The good Lord gave Essie Hills the gift of tact. She is not afraid of snakes either. She will handle an alligator, if she must, provided its jaws are sensibly taped shut.
But unemployment? Unemployment is scary. Essie — that's what everyone calls her — was understandably alarmed when she learned her Science Center, established in 1959, was going to close. That's what happens at non-profits during recessions. Donations wither, grants are harder to come by and next thing you know, somebody is talking about closing.
Now the institution's board says closing is unlikely. Essie, the office manager who knows everyone and, some say, knows everything, remains in business. If a child is afraid of bugs or snakes or furry animals with claws, Essie will talk to that child. If the child falls down or burns her finger using a soldering iron, Essie will bandage that child's knee or finger.
Essie is a nurturer. When her husband was sick and dying, she was there for him. When her two boys needed her strength to grow up well, she gave it to them. She has managed to help keep the Science Center running too.
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Every year, about 30,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade learn everything from anthropology to zoology during field trips to the Science Center. Another 1,300 kids attend summer camp. The Astronomy Club conducts regular star watches on the campus. The Audubon Society holds meetings in a classroom.
They all have to work with Essie. She sets the schedules; she talks with teachers, comforts parents, scolds the unruly child, but only if necessary and always kindly.
Because she walks briskly and talks fast, Essie seems younger than her 59 years. She has smooth skin the color of bittersweet chocolate, huge brown eyes and wavy hair in which she usually hides a pencil.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Essie wasn't born with a pencil in her hair. That came later, after she grew up in segregated St. Petersburg and graduated from Gibbs High and met her future husband, Vic. They married when she was 17.
A few weeks later she showed up at the Science Center and got a job pushing, appropriately, a pencil. Eventually her organization skills earned a promotion to office manager.
Her husband was declared disabled at age 27 because of a bad heart. Essie's labor at the Science Center paid the bills. Every morning she took the bus from their home near Lake Maggiore to her job, did her work, rode the bus home, raised her kids and attended to her husband.
Vic received a heart transplant in 1987. He lived long enough to see his sons finish college. Julian is an assignment editor at CNN in Atlanta; James teaches at Joseph Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor.
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Essie knows so many teachers. She first learned their names when they were children visiting the Science Center on field trips. Now they show up with their own classes. Rob Ferguson, who teaches fifth-grade at Safety Harbor Elementary, likes to introduce her to his students as "my mom.'' The young white man and the older black woman enjoy seeing the confused looks on the faces of the children.
In 2004, Essie's four-decade marriage to Vic ended with his death. She misses him every day. At least she has her family, her sons and granddaughters, and the Science Center.
At the moment she is planning another summer camp for the children. They have much to learn about rocks and fish and snakes and computers. It's not her job — there are education specialists who teach the sciences — but she won't mind if a child asks her about butterflies. They are her favorites, especially the blue morpho.
"Nature's perfection,'' she says.
And if a child acts up, Essie will speak her mind.
"Young man,'' she will say. "I want to talk to you.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.