It's fair to say that nearly every child in Durham knew Melissa Albin. As the head of children's services at the Durham Public Library, Albin dressed up like a cat on Halloween, read countless books at story hour and staged sleepovers for pet stuffed animals. She was so popular that she was even a featured guest at kids' birthday parties.
Albin died of cancer on Sept. 5 at age 42, mourned by children and their parents. Everyone in town recognized her; some called her the Queen of Durham.
Albin, born on Jan. 23, 1971, and grew up in Shelton, where her father, John Konecny, worked for the city of Bridgeport. On weekends, she would play school with her younger brothers and read to them constantly. As a teenager, she loved babysitting, and after graduating from St. Joseph's Roman Catholic High School, she attended Central Connecticut State University, where she studied psychology, thinking she wanted to be a social worker.
But a job she had at the North Haven Memorial Library led her to discover a passion for children's literature and working with kids.
She worked her way up in the library system, and earned a master's degree in library science at night from Southern Connecticut State University. In 2002, she began working in Durham, where she charmed its children.
She brought a wide smile and infectious enthusiasm to every children's program.
"Many moms said she really got their children reading," said Carol Herzig, a friend and colleague.
Albin knew every child's name, and when she spotted a child's interest in a certain subject, would put books aside for the next time the youngster came to the library. At the town's Memorial Day parade, she was the one on the library float waving to all the children. She would bring in speakers who showed bugs or turtles, or she would make a compost heap to demonstrate recycling.
She would think of craft projects or make different foods that related to the stories she read. She once spent a whole day dressed in pink, including a wig and face paint, when "Pinkalicious," a book by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann about a little girl who loved pink, was on the agenda.
A visit to a veterinarian's office in Middletown with her yellow lab Dixie segued into a happy chapter in her life.
Melissa had two children, Ethan and Olivia, from an early marriage that had ended in divorce, and the vet, Mark Albin, was also single and had two children the same age as hers. Shortly after seeing her in the office, Mark discovered her on an online dating site, and realized they had already met. "There was something about Melissa," he said.
"It took me three to four weeks to get up the courage to contact her on the site," Mark said, but he heard nothing in return. Finally, he wrote and told her they had already met. She figured out who he was, and emailed him. They dated for a while, and found that their children were compatible. They were married on a friend's farm in Durham on July 4, 2009. Friends referred to them as the Brady Bunch.
Melissa Albin's generosity was well known to her friends. Instead of taking the clothes her children outgrew to a Goodwill Store, she would sort them into little piles that she would deliver all over town to friends with children the same size. When she moved from one house in Durham to another, that process of disposing of castoffs was excruciating, but Albin refused the speedier way.
Albin was active in her church, where she sat on the aisle so she could greet children as they walked by. She was known for her birthday gifts: always books, chosen carefully to match the reader's interests.
Albin also loved shopping and was a skilled bargain hunter at Marshall's or TJ Maxx, two of her favorite stores. "She went into the store like a tornado," said Jody Benbow, a close friend. "Everything [she found] was on sale. Everything was a deal."
With a smile "like Julia Roberts," Benbow said, Albin loved bringing groups of friends together, and getting to know new people. She always remembered birthdays, and someone's sick mother, or recently deceased spouse.
"She made everything better," said Benbow. "She instantly made you feel as though she was your friend, and you were special. ... I felt lucky, like I won the friend lottery."
Although Albin could procrastinate, she was highly organized, and was always prepared — for a birthday party, an event at the library, a party.
After 10 years at the Durham library, Albin left and began volunteering at the Brewster Elementary School in Durham. She was diagnosed with cancer in October 2012.
Besides her husband, she is survived by her mother, Patricia Kopecny; her children, Ethan Bates and Olivia Bates' her stepchildren, Zach and Zoe Albin; and her three brothers, Douglas, Michael and Kevin Konecny.
For some people, the Durham library is not the same.
"The library has lost some of its spunk," said Herzig. "It doesn't have that zip. She would get the whole place hopping."