When people call the county's Information and Referral Office, they hear a warm, friendly voice.
"They ask me if I'm a recording or live," said Ann Ryder.
Make no mistake, Ryder is alive. And all-knowing.
"She is a pillar of information," said Bill Moss, who knows Ryder through the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, a nonprofit organization that provides networking opportunities for information and referral providers. "She is a very unique individual. I bet there are not many people in Howard County she doesn't know or that don't know her."
Ryder began working in Howard County in 1972. While working for the Office on Aging, she noticed that many calls to her office were from people seeking information about county programs and facilities. When the grant that paid her salary expired in 1975, she helped start the county's Information and Referral Office.
Ryder has served as the information and referral coordinator for more than 30 years, and she is the first person people see when they enter the George Howard Building, which houses the county executive and budget offices and other agencies.
She answers questions such as where people should pay the bills, where a woman can seek help from an abusive spouse or how people can apply for permits.
She said a young man came in recently looking for a place to stay.
"He had been sleeping in his car," Ryder said, "And hadn't showered in days."
She helped him contact Grassroots, Howard County's homeless shelter.
"When people walk in, you just never know what burden they are carrying or what they need help with," she said. "I try to listen carefully and give some advice or hope of solving problems."
She often goes above and beyond her job description. When a woman called to ask about getting a permit to start a business, Ryder told her she should look into a minority grant that the government sometimes gives to women. "Ann is in touch with the pulse of the community and keeps abreast of all the important issues going on," Moss said.
Ryder is involved not only in the government, but also in the community. The Columbia resident is committed to 10 nonprofit organizations, including Historic Ellicott City Inc., the Howard County Historical Society and the Split Rail Garden Club.
"Life is too short not to be productive," she said. "I try to stay busy with things that will make life better for other people."
"She is very dedicated," said Jacquelyn Galke, who has known Ryder for seven years through Soroptimist International of the Americas, a professional women's organization that awards scholarships to young women and raises money for other nonprofit groups.
Galke also knows Ryder through the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute. The school, founded in the 1800s, was one of the first schools in the South to teach academic subjects to women.
"Ann is the type of person that when you finish talking to her, you just feel better than before," Moss said. "There is never a time that you call her or meet her that she doesn't have a smile on her face or something good to say."
Her hard work was recognized by the county last year when she received the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Award for Employee of the Year. Most of the nonprofit agencies in the county vote on the recipients.
"I love what I do," she said. "When people yell thanks as they walk out the door, it doesn't put more money in my pocket but it makes me feel I've done my job. ... I just want people to know that we're friendly and that I'm here to help them."