Ocracoke Birthdays!

Sundae Horn

Remembering each other's special day, then and now.

One of the things I love most about living on Ocracoke is seeing the birth announcements and birthdays on the Community Store chalkboard. It’s such a sweet gesture of smalltown friendliness, and it works! My family has always gotten birthday wishes from the most random of people – all because of the chalkboard. Every year on their birthdays, I march my kids down to the store and get their pictures taken under their names. 

Of course, Facebook offers gentle birthday reminders, but only for your “friends.” The great thing about the Community Store chalkboard is that it’s public, and all the world (or at least our small corner of it that matters) can see.

Sadly, since the Community Store closed in February, no one has been keeping up with the Birthdays. I suppose anyone could. All it takes is a piece of chalk and a Birthday Book.

The beloved Community Store chalkboard
The beloved Community Store chalkboard

If you’re relatively new to these parts, here’s the scoop on the Birthday Book:

It’s yet another unique joy of island living. This is a town that loves a holiday, and what better one than the one that celebrates you and only you and a few other people listed on your date in the Birthday Book?

Merle Davis produced the first Ocracoke Birthday Book, which was published in 1976 by the Methodist Church. She brought the idea to the island from another congregation she’d known, and thought Ocracoke was the perfect place to start the tradition. With help from Alice Rondthaler and Myrtle Doolittle, Merle compiled the birthdays list – mostly by visiting people in person.

The original
The original

“We talked to everybody we could find,” she said. “It wasn’t that hard then to visit or talk to everyone on the island.”

Merle remembers the process as being “delightfully fun” and “a good thing to do” and her successors, Betty-Sue Garrish and Julie Howard agree.

They updated the Birthday Book in 1984, and Betty-Sue’s husband, Craig, remembers that as the year she got “hundreds” of phone calls.

“When the first book came out, people loved it,” Betty-Sue said. “People remembered to say Happy Birthday to each other, and that’s when the Community Store started putting birthdays on the chalkboard."

The second Birthday Book sported a yellow cover and hand-lettering by Betty-Sue.

“Julie and I would go down the roads, thinking about who lives here, who lives there, to make sure we had everybody,” she said. “Ocracoke wasn’t so big then and you could do that.”

Julie remembers that the Methodist minister at the time, Guy Soule, passed out dollar bills to the congregation, asking that they make them work in the community and bring back the results. Julie and Betty-Sue used their investment to embark on an updated Birthday Book.

“It’s hard to keep it current, but we thought maybe we could do it,” said Julie.

Betty-Sue said they kept track of the changes over the years. “We’d pencil the names in when kids were born and, sadly, we crossed them out when people passed away.”

2nd edition with Betty-Sue's balloons
2nd edition with Betty-Sue's balloons

Merle has kept her original Birthday Book as mementos of Ocracoke over the decades. 

“I still love to look at it,” said Merle. “It’s a pleasant reminder of who used to be here, of so many people who’ve moved or died.” 

Longtime Ocracoke resident Linda Scarborough also owns a copy of all three edition of the Birthday Book, and she was willing to let me borrow them all. The older editions were filled with names I’d never heard and many more that I’ve heard only in stories.

The only Birthday Book I’m in is the most recent from 1998. That time around, Kay Riddick’s computer class got involved. Former Ocracoke school student Louise Burley Salerno recalls that she used the old book for a template, with new additions supplied from the village. (Maryann Zbel collected birthdays at the library.) By then the population of Ocracoke had changed so much that it was difficult to reach everyone.

Then there’s the problem of whom to leave in and whom to leave out. Besides the obvious (the deceased get deleted; the babies get added), there’s a lot of gray area. Some people want their relatives in the book, even if the kin in question don’t actually live here. And what about part-time residents, property owners, and summer employees? It can be as complicated as disaster re-entry permits.

1998 edition
1998 edition

Betty-Sue and her family moved to Georgia in the early 1990’s. When she got a copy of the ’98 edition, their names were gone.

“It was one of my saddest moments,” she said. “I thought, ‘We’re not in the new Birthday Book! We really have moved.’”

A few years ago, the Ocracoke Friends of the Library had good intentions of producing a new edition, but after completing a feasibility study, they determined it was un-doable. The Friends hoped to fund the project with Ocracoke School kids doing the legwork, but the word from the school was: too many new people, too diverse, too transient – Ocracoke is no longer the cohesive unit it once was. 

My daughter Caroline was born on September 6, 1998 and just got in under the deadline for the last edition. At thirteen and a half, she’s the youngest person in the Birthday Book. Think of all the babies born since then, all the Ocracoke youngens in 7th grade and under! It boggles the mind.

Here’s another crazy fact: there are no Mexicans in the ’98 edition. According to the 2010 census, 181 Ocracoke residents identify as Hispanic.  In 2000, the census counted only 15 Hispanic residents.  A new Birthday Book would need to add Feliz Cumpleanos wishes.

My ’98 copy is marked up with lots of new births, and I’ve also had the sad task of crossing out some of the island’s dearly departed. Although I still mark Lawton Howard and Fowler O’Neal’s birthdays (October 10 and 21, respectively), I know that a new Birthday Book would leave them behind. (I would then find them in the “Book of the Dead,” but that’s another article for another day.)

It’s a statistical probability that you know someone who shares your birthday. (Weird, but true: If you know 57 people, there’s a 99% chance one them shares your special day.) With the Birthday Book, that mystery is solved. Sort of, provided that you actually know the Ocracokers listed with you. Who are my fellow July 20ths? The original book lists Lisa Rimmer and Curtis Scott Lutz. The yellow balloons book deletes Lisa and adds Wendi Deleon. The last book has me, Curtis Scott, and Carolyn Wynn. Who is this Curtis Scott Lutz who made it into all three books? And what happened to Lisa and Wendi? Please let me know. And if you’re keeping track, please allow Carolyn and me to welcome Susan Norvell to share our day.

It’s a brave new world and print is dead. Welcome to the new wave of information gathering, the electronic Birthday Book, right here, right now. 

The Ocracoke Current would like to present our Birthday Calendar, which you can find, and add your birthday to, here. You can also look for the birthday cake on the “Calendar” page, or in the drop down menu under “Our Community.” (So many ways to find it!)

We want the Birthday Calendar to be the 21st century version of the Ocracoke Birthday Book, carrying on its same wonderful community spirit. By allowing you, our readers, to add to the Birthdays, we hope to keep pace with the population.

Please join in the celebration, check out the Birthday Calendar, and spread the love! 

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