There's an old saying: "Manners will carry you farther than money."
With a warm smile and helping hand, Sharon Howell has lived by that principle for the past 29 years as a receptionist and switchboard operator for Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5.
Even when her day may not have started right at home, she has fielded calls from nice, mean and indifferent people. She maintains an unprecedented level of calm and professionalism while also managing a desk, where a numerous flow of other people come wanting answers to their questions.
While many would have lost their cool long ago, Howell is much like the Energizer Bunny. Handling the phone with a near-flawless dexterity is quietly coupled with a bright personality. It is her penchant for maintaining excellence in respectful and considerate social conduct that has earned her designation as the exemplification of courtesy for the month of December as part of Orangeburg County's Community of Character Initiative.
Howell said she was pleasingly shocked and surprised by the honor.
"My heart just fell right to the bottom of my stomach. Pleasing and being courteous to a person pays off just like now. I love my job. That's why I always be as prompt and courteous as possible to all the public. I grew up on it, and it's just been part of me all my life," said the 55-year-old, who is no stranger to answering telephone calls.
She began working in high school as a dispatcher with Orangeburg's Star Cab Company.
"I've been working a long time. Being courteous has always been a God-gifted thing. I have had people to call me just to say, "I just called to hear your voice because you make my day.' It's just the way I am. I could drag with it, but why? I could have bad days at home, but why bring it with me?" Howell said.
While she may not be able to answer everyone's concerns, she said she will not stop until she gets "a live voice" for them to speak to even if it's just her own. She makes particular note of calls from cranky parents on transportation issues regarding late buses, which may have had a double route, been in an accident or just broke down.
"I will go out of my way. I've dealt with mean people and I get a lot of disrespectful calls, but it's OK. I can deal with them. That's something that they can't take away from me. It's my treasure. I'm gonna do my job and what I can for them," said Howell, whose parents, the late James and Frances Bookard of Cameron, taught her and her six siblings the importance of courtesy and respect.
"They taught us to be kind coming up. It was kind of rough for them, but my mother taught us the meaning of love and always being appreciative of what we had and didn't have. That's where it started," she said.
She said having good, flexible co-workers also makes her job enjoyable. She considers them an extended family.
"We try to work as a team. I don't think you can ask for any better co-workers than I have right now. It is truly amazing, and I just feel blessed. It's not about money. I just love working with them. In my department, they'll work it out with whatever I need," she said.
She is the married to Tommy Howell and is the mother of two sons: Gregory, 25 and D'Andrae, 19. She said she tries to instill the trait of courtesy in her own boys.
"Even though they're young men now, I always try to teach them to always respect yourself as you want others to respect you. I teach them to try to do better for themselves and to respect their elders, too, because your days will definitely be shortened if you don't," said Howell, who is thankful to be recognized for what she loves to do.
"It just truly makes me feel so great. I feel so good just getting up. I thank the Lord I can get up. I try to get to my job on time. You have different little issues with health sometimes, but God is truly good," Howell said. "I just keep him first and everything is fine."