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Richardson: good works in a small package

Phylinda Baldwin, just like everyone else, calls her “Sister.”

Baldwin — who calls herself a “jackie of all trades” — began working at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center 27 years ago. “And Sister was there when I started.”

Sister’s real name, for people who don’t know her, is Eleanor Guthrie Richardson. And she officially started working as an unpaid volunteer in the nursery way back in 1969, for reasons she says she can no longer remember.

Baldwin knew Sister before the car accident in 1976 that nearly claimed her life.

“A lesser person, a person with less willpower, wouldn’t have made it through what she had to go through,” Baldwin said. “The doctors gave her up, said she would pretty much be a vegetable.”

But Sister was in a comaso she wasn’t listening.

In 1991, 15 years after doctors gave up hope on her, Richardson returned to the nursery to resume the work she loved. And this spring, some of the people she had worked with over the years felt it important that others share in their appreciation of this determined woman. They nominated her for a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

In her nominating letter, Mary G. Jenne, the assistant director of the center’s child care program, said of her: “Sister cares for some of the youngest members of this University community. She has held, fed, changed, comforted, cajoled, nurtured, and above all, loved infants and young toddlers at Frank Porter Graham for over 20 years. Not only has she contributed to the development of the infants, she has also been an example to the teachers and assistant teachers who have worked with her. Before the research on brain development and critical periods, Sister’s careful attention to the infants in her care showed that she knew it mattered how attentively she held them, how often she talked to them, how well and how frequently she responded to them. Our nursery includes infants with special needs. Sister is often the adult who gives the extra care, the lap time, the loving attention that helps make a difference for a baby struggling to make its way in the world.”

She won the award in May.

“She, like Frank Graham, for whom the Child Care Center is named, lives her life selflessly,” the award citation said of her. “She exemplifies that ancient admonition, often neglected but not quite forgotten, that we `love one another.'”

With her overflowing heart of love and her devoted volunteer work, Eleanor Guthrie Richardson lends a little touch of glory” the award stated.

Glory or no glory, Baldwin recalled that Sister was a little perturbed at first about the whole thing. “She doesn’t like surprises and wants to know everything that is going on. She fussed at us for a while and told us, `You guys weren’t supposed to do that to me.’ ”

After she got the award, though, she changed her tune slightly.

“She told me after she got it, `This is really nice, but my real reward is in heaven.’ ”

As for the money that accompanied the recognition, she liked that, too, Baldwin said, but she made sure to give her 10 percent as a tithe to Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Carrboro.

Chapel Hill native

Eleanor Guthrie was born and raised in Chapel Hill. She and her fraternal twin sister, Edna, were the youngest of five children. It was Edna who came up with her nickname, “Sister,” that the teachers and parents at the nursery still call her today.

They were all born and raised in Chapel Hill, and Richardson graduated from Lincoln High School in 1959. Afterward, she went to work at the old Monogram Club on campus as a waitress. The job didn’t last long, not nearly as long as the relationship she developed with one of her fellow workers, James Richardson.

They have been married for going on 42 years now.

“He was a cook, and he does all the cooking now,” Richardson said. “He can cook anything.”

At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, she was tiny enough to inspire her husband’s relatives in New Jersey to come up with yet another nickname for her. “They call me Little Bit,” she said.

The couple had two daughters, Wylica and Duanna, in quick succession in 1962 and 1963. They would later adopt a third daughter, Denise, born in 1972.

James ended up getting a job as a nurse at UNC Hospitals, a job he kept until his retirement a few years back.

After they were married, Richardson went to work on the line at Triem Inc., a factory in Carrboro that makes small electric motors. “It was all right, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Richardson said. She quit after about a year.

She started volunteering at the nursery in 1969, about the time her oldest girls who heading off to school.

The factory job paid her a little bit of money, but holding down a real job didn’t carry the same satisfaction she could get just by holding a little baby in her arms.

And through the years, that satisfaction has never left her.

The accident

The only thing she knows about the accident is what James told her — and even what he told her about it is now a fading memory.

It happened in 1976, in an old brown Pontiac. At least she thinks it was a Pontiac. James’ grandfather had died and they were heading to the funeral in Louisburg when a truck crossed the centerline and plowed into them.

Everyone tells her she should have died. She stop breathing, but her husband did something — he still hasn’t explained exactly what — to revive her before the rescue squad arrived and took her to the Duke hospital.

She suffered brain damage and a broken neck. She remained in a coma for three months. Her first memory after the accident was lying in bed and being surrounded by the smiling faces of people from her church.

“They told me my sister Edna was there every day to see me, talking to me and going on.”

That was easy for her to believe, Richardson said, because it sounded like her sister.

James came to visit as much as he could. He went to work, came home and fixed supper for their three girls, then headed to the hospital to see her until the nurses kicked him out.

It took her weeks to curve her fingers around a pencil to learn to write again.

Learning to walk and talk again was just as hard. That took months.

And it took 15 years to get back to where she was — and the place she belonged — in the nursery.

“I think the Lord saved me because he wasn’t ready for me yet,” Richardson said.

She figured one of the reasons was maybe because He had work for her left to do down here.

“I just knew I had to come back to the center because I just love working here.”

A happy return

Baldwin remembers not being able to see Richardson in the hospital all those years ago. It was too painful seeing all the tubes and screws protruding from her head.

During physical therapy, she remembers how Richardson kept pushing herself. “If she fell down, she would let you pick her back up, but then she wanted you to step away so she could try again.”

Baldwin left the nursery for two years, but since she returned in 1994 she has picked Richardson up on her way to work and taken her home with her at the end of the day.

Sister arrives with Baldwin every morning but Friday at 7:15 a.m. She leaves with her every afternoon sometime after 4 p.m.

For Richardson, each step, each word still comes slowly. But that doesn’t stop her from getting where she wants to go — or speaking her mind.

Jenne said most people would have quit if they had gone through what Richardson did. “She can’t stand up and hold the babies anymore,” Jenne said. “When she walks across the room it is an act of will that she even gets there.”

But it doesn’t matter to her that she can’t cross the room the way she used to.

What matters is that she’s back.

She has two rocking chairs, one for each side of the nursery that is partitioned off into two classrooms during the day. Throughout the day, the babies are carried to her. Most days, Baldwin says, she eats her lunch in one of the chairs, too.

Baldwin said they tease each other unmercifully in the car and at work as good friends sometimes do. “Everybody on the job says she has to have the last word,” Baldwin said. “I’ll roll down the window to try to get in the last word and then when I’m driving up the street I’ll hear her say something.”

It’s the same thing in the morning, except in reverse. She’s the official greeter, the first one there to tell the parents coming in, “Good morning, how are you doing.”

Her body may be frail, Jenne said, but not her personality.

Jenne has seen that same “spunky humor,” she said. “She will poke fun at you, and if you poke fun at her back that is just fine.

“Sister is not a saint,” Jenne said. “She is just a good woman.”

And when it comes to caring for babies, she is really good. “She is persistent in trying to figure out what they need — and then doing it,” Jenne said.

All of it, Richardson explains, “is just in my nature.

“If I know a baby is sleepy, I’ll bounce him or shake him until he gets quiet. He can raise all the fuss he wants to, but I still do it because I know what’s best for him. I don’t give up.”

There are babies that stick in her memory, like the baby boy with Down syndrome who always had a smile on his lips. And the little girl who had some kind of syndrome that kept her from growing as fast as she should. That little baby stayed in the nursery for two years before Richardson had to tell her goodbye.

The college-educated folk sometimes refer to such children as babies with special needs. Not Richardson. In her eyes, each baby is special in its own way. And every baby needs everything she has to give.

A soothing voice.

A soft touch.

A kiss on the cheek.

A hug.

Richardson knows, of course, that important research is going on here, that these little babies she cradles on her knee and rocks to sleep are seen and treated as test subjects, too.

But to Richardson they are just little babies, and what is most important about them to her is that they need her as much as she needs them.

“I love babies,” she said. “For one thing, they are not able to talk back to you. I just love them. There is one baby down there now I just kiss all the time. I tell him, `I’m going to get all of your sugar.’ And he just looks at me and laughs. I hold them and feed them and talk to them and kiss on them as much as I can.”

Money isn’t everything, and for Richardson it’s not even the most important thing. And that is all that needs to be said to explain why she has chosen to watch over so many babies over so many years for no pay.

“All I get is a thank you,” Richardson said. “And that’s all I want.”

So when they cry, she comforts them.

When they get hungry, she feeds them.

When they want to play, she can still play a pretty mean game of peek-a-boo.

When they need their diapers changed, “I give them over to somebody else. Love only goes so far,” she said.

Originally published by University Gazette: Dec. 13,2002

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