In the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a recovery center at Riverhead Free Library to assist victims.
During the commotion, library employees later recalled, a part-time librarian named Emily Whitney, then in her late 80s, presented FEMA workers with homemade stuffed bears.
“I’d like these bears to be given to children who you might come across who are the victims of disaster,” she told them, according to Liz Stokes, the library’s head of circulation.
“That’s the kind of person she is,” Ms. Stokes said. “She is irreplaceable. What a class act.”
Last week, Ms. Whitney, now 92, retired after 28 years at the library. That news marks the end of a career that employees say changed the Court Street institution for the better in countless ways: Ms. Whitney jump-started the library’s adult literacy and career information programs, welcomed guests and served as the library’s “eagle-eyed” proofreader.
“[She] set the bar very high, where no one else can reach,” Ms. Stokes said.
Ms. Whitney was born in Brooklyn in 1924 and married her first husband in Valley Stream. The couple moved to Riverhead, where her husband was an accountant for a small firm on Griffing Avenue, and had two children. Ms. Whitney worked at St. David’s Episcopal Day School on Roanoke Avenue but later left Riverhead after her husband died.
But she wasn’t gone for long. Ms. Whitney remarried and moved back to the area in 1975, settling into the cozy Aquebogue ranch she still calls home. Soon after moving back, she was hired by the Riverhead School District as a clerk in the high school’s guidance department.
For more than a decade, Ms. Whitney helped students with college applications and disciplinary problems. She eventually retired but in 1988 went to work part time at the library to help support her family after her second husband was killed in a car accident.
“It was just enough to fill in my hours and keep me busy,” she said in an interview this week.
Library director Kerrie McMullen-Smith said Ms. Whitney did more than enough with the few hours she dedicated each week. Besides all the work she did for the library’s adult literacy and career programs and updating its display cases, it was Ms. Whitney’s attitude that made her so beloved, Ms. McMullen-Smith said.
“She had a smile for everyone who walked in the door,” she said. “She really was an integral part of our team here.”
Over the years, Ms. Whitney said, these interactions kept her going at the library’s welcome desk.
“That’s why I stayed there so long,” she said. “I enjoyed the association with people.”
A devout Christian, Ms. Whitney said her faith has also given her strength to endure her struggles as a single, twice-widowed mother. And she is grateful to still be active and involved at her age.
“I believe I’ve been very blessed with good health,” the grandmother of four said.
In her downtime, Ms. Whitney enjoys a beloved hobby: sewing. Years ago, a friend asked her to make a stuffed bear as a present. Ms. Whitney, always willing to help others, immediately got to work and soon fell in love with the stuffed animals she created. She began handing them out to friends and acquaintances.
Her house is decorated with the stuffed bears, each featuring moveable joints, tiny smiles and a homemade tag declaring “Made with Tender Loving Care by Emily Whitney.”
These were the bears Ms. Whitney handed to FEMA representatives in 2012.
“She has a great heart,” Ms. McMullen-Smith said. “She’s a great woman, she really is, and I’m sad to see her go.”
On her final day at the library last Thursday, Ms. Whitney was greeted with a cake, a satin scarf and flowers from her co-workers. As her shift ended, Ms. Whitney — whom doctors have advised should no longer drive — headed toward the library’s exit.
But instead of a friend’s car waiting outside the facility, library staff had gathered at the front entrance to usher Ms. Whitney into a black stretch limo for her last ride home from work.
“Of course I was shocked!” she exclaimed in an interview. The flowers she was given were still on a table at her home a week later.
Ms. Whitney said she has no plans to settle into retired life. She’s already working on a new project with her church, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue, to fill shoeboxes with presents and her famous stuffed bears, then donate them to children whose parents can’t afford Christmas presents.
She also hopes to convince her doctor to let her drive again, since she has no interest in staying home all day.
“That’s the way I am,” she said, laughing. “I try to help people.”