Remembering beloved Town Hall employee Verna Campbell
The beating heart of Riverhead Town Hall fell silent last week.
Verna Campbell, one of the longest-serving and most colorful employees at Town Hall — who served seven supervisors across 37 years — was laid to rest Friday following a funeral at Community Baptist Church on Sound Avenue. She was 90 years old.
From the late 1970s until her retirement at the end of 2014, Ms. Campbell was the Town Hall switchboard operator, greeting everyone who called or entered the building from her perch at a desk just inside the front door.
“As people walked in, she was the first person they saw and she just greeted everyone so warmly,” said Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm, a close friend of Ms. Campbell. “She was the voice — because she was the switchboard operator — so she was the voice of Town Hall as well as the first introduction. If you came in often, you knew her well. And if it was your first time, she treated you like an old friend.”
Ms. Campbell’s daughter, Bonnie-Sue Luce, said the job was her mother’s “opportunity to be with the pubic and represent the town. She loved every aspect of it with her whole heart. It was so much what she wanted to be; she wanted to be seen and heard. She loved Riverhead and she very much loved being a part of Town Hall.”
Longtime Town Hall denizens loved her, too.
“She was there the longest and she was this smiling person and she was happy and she could sing and she loved her church — and everything about her was just positive,” said veteran Riverhead attorney Peter Danowski. “You don’t say that about many people.”
Ms. Wilhelm and several other local officials said that while Ms. Campbell treated everyone kindly, she had a special affection for Mr. Danowski, a former Riverhead town attorney.
“Oh my gosh, she loved Peter,” Ms. Wilhelm said. “They had known each other such a long time and Peter’s really a great guy and she’s just a joy so they just had that kind of chemistry. She adored him and he adored her. It was really sweet.”
Mr. Danowski was modest, but honest.
“I’m not sure it’s unique to me,” he said of Ms. Campbell’s affection. But then said without prompting, “I used to tell her when she’d give me a hug and kiss, ‘Verna, don’t you get your lipstick on my collar or I’m going to be in trouble when I get home.’ ”
Whenever Mr. Danowski ran into Ms. Campbell at her favorite lunch spot, Meetinghouse Deli on Main Road in Riverhead, he’d buy her lunch, according to deli employees and other friends of Ms. Campbell.
She ate the same meal every time, said Meetinghouse Deli manager Melissa Carragher.
“Turkey, with Muenster cheese and Russian dressing,” Ms. Carragher said.
“She was definitely one of kind,” she said. “One of those unforgettable characters. Everyone who works here knows exactly who she is.”
“She’s a legend,” added deli worker Tina Green.
One time, Ms. Campbell gave her town hall colleagues a scare when she was late to work one day about a decade ago.
“I ran to the supervisor’s office, because she was never late, she was always early,” said Ms. Wilhelm. “And I ran in and said ‘something’s wrong. Verna’s not here. And they had a police officer go to her house for a wellness check … and he woke her up.”
Ms. Luce credits her mother’s intense faith with a trip to New York City with her mother — Ms. Luce’s grandmother — to see Southern Baptist preacher Billy Graham. She and her mother met Billy Graham’s wife and the revival left a deep impression on young Verna.
Ms. Luce said her mother “loved the beach.
“She felt closed to God at the beach.”
Mr. Danowski said Ms. Campbell’s good cheer was infectious in town hall for decades.
“Her spirit boosted everybody’s spirits,” he said.