Family style farewell

Published 5:58 pm Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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WINTON – Shelia V. Eley says she is blessed to have the love and support of family.

Judging by the size of the crowd gathered Thursday (March 16) in the lobby area of the second floor of the Hertford County Courthouse, Eley has a very large family.

Assisted by District Court Judge Vershenia Johnson (standing), Shelia Eley reacts to one of the special gifts she received at her retirement party. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Family, friends and co-workers were present to give Eley the proper send-off as the Trial Court Coordinator for over 30 years retires at the end of this month.

At the outset of her remarks, Eley was quick to point out the foundation on which she built her life and eventual professional career as she thanked her family, beginning with the work ethic learned from her grandparents and parents.

The Hertford County native called the names of family members and friends attending the event, some coming from as far away as California and Georgia.

In the workplace was another foundation. She acknowledged her work family as well.

“I’ve had nine judges as my support beams; five were Chief (Judges),” Eley noted. “I have learned something from each of them and they encouraged me. All my co-workers have a special place in my heart. When I retire, ya’ll will keep things going. To my court family, you have filled me with love. We’ve laughed and cried together and loved each other flawlessly.

“I’ve had the time of my life and I owe it all to you. I hope I’ve shown you or told you how much I love each one of you. Thank you for 32 and one-half years of bliss,” Eley concluded.

District Court Judge Vershenia Johnson presided over the retirement celebration.

“I was the first female judge in this District, so I didn’t know how our personalities would mesh,” said Judge Johnson. “But Shelia was so accepting. She was willing to help. She did things without asking. I will miss her so much.

“Doing my job without her will be so hard, Judge Johnson continued. “Shelia has become synonymous with District 6B (Bertie, Hertford and Northampton) and now with the expanded District to include Halifax County. Thank all of you for coming out to celebrate Shelia and her work her in our District.

Eley launched her career over 30 years ago, initially serving as the legal assistant to then District Court Chief Judge Al Kwasikpui.

“One of the very best parts of my job was when Shelia agreed to work with me in 1991,” said Kwasikpui, now retired from the bench. “She earned her way up, first as a judicial assistant and then to the position of Trial Court Coordinator. Our entire District was blessed to have you working for them.”

Kwasikpui credited Eley for opening his eyes to onset of technology in the court system.

“I started out writing letters by hand and Shelia would type them on a typewriter,” Kwasikpui recalled. “She knew there was a better way to do things so she ordered me a dictaphone. Then we got our first laptop computer. I only knew two things about it, how to cut it on and how to turn it off. But Shelia showed me how to use it.”

Kwasikpui went on to praise Eley for her skill and work ethic.

“I pray to God that he continues to bless you and keep you,” Kwasikpui closed.

Current District Court Judges Thomas Newbern and Rob Lewis offered congratulatory remarks to the soon-to-be retiree.

“I congratulate you, Shelia, for your 30 years of service to the people of this District. She, not the Judges, has run our District Court for 30 years,” stated Judge Newbern.

He recalled a time earlier in his career when he was about to be named as the Chief District Court Judge.

“I made one phone call, I called Shelia. I wanted to make sure she was staying,” Newbern said. “Thank you for your friendship all these years.”

“What I’m so glad about is working with her and becoming her friend,” Judge Lewis stressed. “I am blessed because I got to know her. She will soon retire, but our friendship will last forever.”

Former District 6 Chief Court Judge Brenda Branch, who was elected last year as the Resident Superior Court Judge serving Halifax County, referenced Eley as a “friend and a confidant.”

“She has been a great administrator here in this District,” Branch noted. “She is all things. She is what you need her to be. We have enjoyed a great working relationship. She was the key part when our two Districts (6A and 6B) merged some years ago. She made the merger work and I’m so grateful for that. She is fiercely loyal to her work.”

Current Chief District Court Judge W. Turner Stephenson III said he loved working with Eley.

“Shelia and I have become such good friends. She has mentored me. I hate to see her go,” Judge Stephenson said. “I’m so glad that she can retire in good health and enjoy life. I love you…we all love you.”

Chief District Court Judge W. Turner Stephenson III presents Shelia Eley with her official state retirement certificate. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Former District Court Judge Tom Jones said Eley “saved me when I was first elected.”

“I was the new kid on the block and didn’t know what I was doing,” Jones recalled. “She did everything she could to help me. We’ve become very close friends. She is a remarkable person. I’m so happy for her as she gets to retire and enjoy life.”

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant encouraged Eley to reconsider her decision to retire.

“Every day for the past six weeks I’ve tried to convince Shelia to stay,” said Judge Grant. “I’ve begged her; I’ve made her promises, because this lady has truly been a blessing to all of us.

“People will tell you what you think you want to hear, but they won’t tell you what you really need to hear. It’s not that way with Shelia, she gives it to you straightforward. That’s why I respect her so much,” Judge Grant added. “I’m truly going to miss her.”

Grant also acknowledged Eley in another way, praising her for serving the Judicial District as the COVID Coordinator during the medical pandemic.

“She kept this District together, she facilitated everything, right down to the small details, and kept us going during the pandemic,” Judge Grant stated.

Magistrate Alfonzia Williams said he was nervous when he first tackled the job.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it, but it’s always been a blessing to have Shelia in my life,” Williams said. “She encouraged me and that gave me the strength to go on. She has been my backbone. She is my best friend. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Local Magistrate Doug Brinkley said whenever he received a call from one of the District Court judges who wanted to meet with him, he would always call Eley to get a grip on things.

“She always knew what was going on,” Brinkley recalled.

Brinkley referenced Eley as being like a sister to him.

“I’ve been with her when she wanted to buy a car. And when we spoke on the phone, I’d always tell her that I loved her and my wife understood where we were with that,” Brinkley added. “I still love you Shelia and I will miss you.”

Kim Schwartz, CEO of Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center, works with Eley in a much different way.

“She is on our board of directors,” Schwartz said. “She is a good steward of the healthcare in our community. She has done so much for our community. No matter who you are, she treats everyone the same.”

Court Counselor Tonya Askew said Eley has been a mentor and a friend.

“We’ve shared so much laughter together before I transitioned to Charlotte,” Askew stated, adding that she was looking forward to traveling with Eley in her retirement.

“We’ve had not only a great working relationship, but also an awesome friendship for more than 30 years. We have walked through cancer together and we put our faith in God and he has made us cancer free. Best wishes, my friend, in retirement,” said Iris Williams, an administrative official with the office of local District Attorney Kim Scott.

Eley received a surprise phone call from District Court Judge Teresa Freeman, who is in England.

“I’m so very happy for you as you reach retirement and wish you joy and happiness,” said Judge Freeman.

Judge Stephenson presented Eley with her official Certificate of Retirement from the State of North Carolina’s Judicial Branch.

The staff of the local Judicial District presented Eley with several gifts prior to the assembled crowd sharing time with the honoree who has served the local Judicial District with honor and pride for 30-plus years.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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