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  • Rick Bergmann

Felicia Willis Retires After 42 Years with the Prince George’s Public Library System

Felicia Willis will be missed but not forgotten at the Beltsville Library. Her legacy will live on in all of those whom she has touched. We wish her well on her retirement.

Whether you have been a regular patron or an occasional visitor to the Beltsville Public Library over the last 4 decades, chances are you have met Felicia Willis. She was always there with a smile and a willingness to help answer your questions or to assist you with finding just the right book. She was a warm and welcoming presence to all of us who spent time there. Now, after 41 years with the system, she is retiring and gaining some much deserved me-time! According to Felicia, “When you’re passionate about your job, you stay where you like.”

Felicia started working for the library system in 1978 as a page. She actually got her start as a summer worker during high school. She took the job because it was close to where she lived, which allowed her to walk to work every day. In 1982 a position in building and maintenance opened up and she applied. But she wasn’t going to stay in that position for too long and soon enough she applied to be a circulation assistant. This truly began her upward momentum in the system. She got to meet people in the system, went to meetings and trainings, and before long she was on her way up. She is retiring from the system as a Circulation Supervisor 3, a position that was offered to her by Judy Cooper, and one she never saw herself doing. According to Mrs. Willis, “I never saw myself as a supervisor, I’m more of a doer than a dictator.” In time, she grew more comfortable supervising people in her new role.

According to Felica, “I liked what I did--shelving books, talking to people. I’ve always been a people person, so I enjoyed it.” After she got out of school, she applied for a permanent job and that was how it started. About every 2 years she moved up until she was at the top. She began working at the age of 14. Through her early years she met a lot of women who looked out for her. “You always need people to look out for you, it takes a village to raise kids,” Felicia said. And even though those women are no longer with her, they taught her a valuable lesson in life which helped her throughout her career.

As Felicia’s jobs shifted and changed, so did the library system. Paper library cards have become plastic library cards that you can hang on your keychains, paper receipts with pictures of the books you were checking out and a due date have given way to digital scans and email receipts and reminders. As the neighborhood has changed, activities such as story time have changed. There are several story times instead of just one they have different ones for different ages in both English and Spanish. STEM programs and Dance programs have been added to the list of events offered at the library as well. The great thing, she pointed out, is that all these events at the library are free. The demographics have changed as well. The neighborhood has gone from mainly African American and Caucasian families to a much more diverse community.

A big shift is the culture of reading, people don’t read as much as they once did. "Kids spend more time on their phones, which is why the library tries to offer programs to bring them in and encourage reading. According to Mrs. Willis, everything is moving towards downloading books and using Libby. Libby is a free app where you can enjoy eBooks, digital audiobooks, and magazines from your public library. This means that there aren’t as many physical books in the library as there once were. But don’t panic; if you still prefer physical books, the library will work with you to get a copy from other counties in MD or other states entirely.

Felicia is most proud of her moments as a teacher, a trainer, a leader, and a positive person who takes the initiative to do things that other people don’t do. She says that at times she has felt like “a doctor, lawyer, a social worker, a financial planner, because people always think I have it together.” When she began in the system, she learned a lot from two powerful supervisors, Carol Alcorn and Lottie Keys. They taught her to stay focused, know your job, and do the best that you can do in that position. She has used those words of wisdom in her years at the Beltsville Branch. She stayed at the Beltsville Branch for so long because “it’s a good place, a safe place.”

Over her four decades, she has always had a kind word and advice for the children who spent time at the library. There were kids whose parents were working and with no other place to go they would come to the library and read. Many would stay until the library closed. She has parents that come back to the library now and thank her for helping their children. When we posted on social media that Felicia was retiring and that we had planned this article, Kathleen Morris posted “Felicia knew all my kids’ names and what they liked to read.”

The kids at the library weren’t the only ones who benefited from Felicia’s time at Beltsville. She has been the volunteer coordinator, helping high school kids earn their service-learning hours. Additionally, she has taught classes that educate senior citizens about using Chromebooks, among many other things.

I couldn’t conduct an interview without asking the hardest question for a library employee: What books would you recommend? Felicia says she loves biographies, particularly Don’t Block the Blessings by Patti Labelle and books by Kiki Swinson. “Reading is fundamental, you learn things and it helps you out in your everyday life. People don’t realize that.” She is also pleased that she was able to meet several authors, including Patti Labelle, Terry McMillan, and Stedman Graham (Oprah Winfrey’s partner). She loves authors and meeting them was always exciting.

Now that she’s retired, Mrs. Willis wants to travel with her husband, see her grandchildren, and just do what she wants to do. She plans to continue to volunteer once a week to help senior citizens learn how to use a Chromebook. She says “I’m going to do what I want to do; I’m not going to be tied down to a job. I’m going to get up when I want to, go to sleep when I want to--I just want to do me.” Something we can all look forward to in retirement.

When asked about what advice she would give to people who want to work in the library, she said “it's an awesome place to work. It's a nice environment with great people who are so smart and so intelligent, and you can learn a lot from them. Come on down! There’s no other place better than here [the library] to work.” Felicia shared this quote from Henry Ford with me, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Felicia Willis’s legacy at the Beltsville Library.

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