HARKERS ISLAND — As the school year draws to a close, Harkers Island Elementary School head custodian Minnetta Nelson laid down her broom Friday to retire after 20 years of service.

Affectionately known as the “school mom,” those who’ve worked with her, along with students, said the school halls won’t be the same without her.

“She’s probably been the leading influence in our school culture,” principal Al Roberson said Wednesday. “We have a very tightknit group of staff, and she is the glue that has held them together.”

Students were quick to say they’ll miss her hugs.

First-grade student Lillian Selby said, “She’s always sweet, so it’s kind of sad. I give her hugs every morning.”

Ms. Nelson is among an estimated 35 employees retiring at the end of the 2018-19 school year. Although the official last day of school is Thursday, the beloved custodian said she retired a few days early so she can return in six months to volunteer for the Core Sound Decoy Festival, which is held at the school the first weekend in December.

“There’s some sort of rule that doesn’t allow an employee who retires to volunteer or work for six months in the school system,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t want to take a chance on not being able to volunteer for the festival.”

That’s typical of Ms. Nelson, whose love for her school, students, staff and community is quickly apparent to those who spend time with her.

Harkers Island first-grade teacher Jill Lindstrom said, “I’ve been a teacher and parent a long time, and I can say I’ve never seen a person who loves her school, loves her staff and loves her students like Ms. Minnetta does. Everything Ms. Minnetta does comes from love, and that includes feeding us. She makes the best homemade meals.”

Mr. Roberson agreed her home cooking, especially desserts, will be missed at school outings. He added that he’ll miss her for another reason, as well.

The principal, who transferred to the school last July, said he was quick to go to her for advice on school-related matters.

“She knows everything about everything,” he said. “I always tried to take her advice and that is one reason my transition here was so smooth. She just has this incredible amount of love for the kids, and she loves the staff as much as her own family.”

Born and raised on Harkers Island, the 54-year-old grandmother admitted it was a tough decision to leave her island school, but there is one thing she loves more.

“I have a grandbaby I want to help tend to,” she said. “Plus, the summer work (at the school) is hard and I have back problems so it’s getting harder.”

Ms. Nelson has taken pride in her work, considering it an important part of a child’s education.

“If they come into a clean classroom, they might work better than if they have a dirty classroom full of clutter and paper,” she said.

As well as cleaning, Ms. Nelson was quick to jump in if other duties needed to be done.

“This is a small school, so you have to do everything,” she said. “I’ll help a teacher or the kids if they need help.”

More important than the physical labor, however, has been her listening ear and gentle love.

“Because I’ve grown up here, I already know most of the kids when they start here and had some of their parents, too,” she said. “I love all of the kids because you get to know them all.”

Prior to working as a custodian, Ms. Nelson started her career at the school as the cafeteria manager, which explains her reputation as a great cook.

After nine years as cafeteria manager, Ms. Nelson said she grew tired of the paperwork involved with the position, and when a custodial job came open at her school, she jumped on the opportunity. She was promoted to head custodian two years ago when the former head custodian retired.

Ms. Nelson said she’s enjoyed her time at the school, but knew it was the right time to retire. She added that her replacement, Beaufort Elementary School custodian Erika Pierce, will do a good job.

While that may be, students and staff said Ms. Nelson will still be missed.

“I’m so thankful I got to know her,” Ms. Lindstrom said. “We all love her with all of our hearts. I’m not sure how the school will run without her.”

Second-grade student Davis Bass, too, said he’ll miss the custodian, but was happy Ms. Nelson gets to spend more time with her family.

“She always works hard everyday and looks out for us. I think she needs some time off away from us kids,” Davis said. “She’ll probably start a whole new chapter.”

Ms. Nelson’s family includes her husband Jimmy, employed by Harkers Island Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, a son, Dusten and his wife Ashley, and one grandson, Lee, who will be 2 years old in September.

Ms. Nelson said while she looks forward to her time away from the school, “When the time is up I’ll be back to volunteer. I have such a wonderful school and staff.”

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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