"Good morning, Town of Hilton Head Island, Nan speaking."
Nan Johnson's quiet, almost therapeutic telephone greeting has rolled like the tides and moons and waves of change that have swept over Hilton Head over the past 34 years.
That voice has always been there, always dependable — until Tuesday, her last day on the job.
Johnson retires as the town's longest-serving employee, the 14th person hired, just months after the town incorporated following years of contentious debate. She's working on her ninth mayor and third town hall location.
But through all the upheaval, there's always been Nan speaking. People call irate, and they call confused. But they always got a response in the tone of one of Johnson's heroes, Norman Vincent Peale.
Imagine having about 200 interactions every day with the public as the town hall receptionist, and then "information specialist."
She was hired on the spot in April 1984 by an overworked town clerk who was being pulled in a dozen directions as a new town government lurched to life in the rented John Gettys Smith office building at the corner of U.S. 278 and Folly Field Road.
Johnson remembers her first call. It was l-o-n-g d-i-s-t-a-n-c-e.
"Did that blue house down the street sell yet," a man from North Carolina wanted to know.
"I don't know, sir," was the first response of Johnson's third career, one that would end up having her honored as a Hilton Head ambassador.
Sometimes her job was like a game of charades.
Johnson had to put words in a caller's mouth as they stammered through the discovery of what the caller wanted.
"I'm a detective," Johnson said. "I have to interrogate them. Many people who call say they don't know who they want."
She tries to put them in the right place, even when it's the county government or a state agency. And it's not good enough to get the right agency or office, she wants to get them to the right person. She once told the press she doesn't like to leave callers "in orbit."
What a Mayberry-like oddity in this era of people being eaten alive with connections, with no communication.
She said about half her calls are referred to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. People want to make hotel reservations, or know where they can eat.
They may ask how to get to "Gullah Gullah Island" or "am I at the beach?"
One wanted to know, "How do I change my name?"
"I had to look that one up," Johnson said.
She said she never makes recommendations when asked where to stay or eat. She spouts off the Chamber's telephone number by heart.
She's surprised at how little people know about local government. They tend to think it's all the same and there should be no need to go to the county seat for anything.
She has theories on why so many Hilton Head Islanders are cock-sure of themselves and dogmatic. It has to do with retirement, time on their hands, and experiences elsewhere, she said.
She has listened to many a suggestion on how things ought to be done around here, but says she never succumbed to the temptation to ask, "Why did you come here?"
Her motto has been to try to put herself in the caller's shoes. And about irate callers, she said, "I never duplicate them."
Co-workers have been taking Johnson to Charlie's L'Etoile Verte for lunch this week.
And on Tuesday afternoon, her last day at work, she was to be presented a crystal bowl that long-time town employees typically get when they retire. "They used to call it the 'Crystal Tombstone,'" she said.
No one else has seen the town hall move up from the John Gettys Smith building to a place in Northridge with shared office space with a Huddle House. No one else sat in today's "new" town hall, in a converted real estate office, with a front desk shaped like the bow of a ship.
No one else at town hall came to Hilton Head as a teenager to enjoy a day at the beach from the family farm in Bulloch County, Ga. Johnson, the youngest of eight children, went to Georgia Southern Teachers College and taught school for a number of years before working for a decade with the American Red Cross serving military families.
Her late husband was a career Marine who fought in Korea and Vietnam, and didn't come home the same. She softly says he didn't die in war, but died as a result of it.
She lives a quiet life in rural Jasper County, piddling in the yard and reading inspirational books. That's just the way she likes life, even though she's been commuting 80 miles round-trip every day all these years.
She said, "I wear everybody's hat. I've been full-time everyone else. I need some 'me' time."
So, goodbye, Nan. This is Hilton Head Island. We'll keep the light on for you in the blue house down the street.