Who we are fades into the shadows of ancestral memories, save the piece of granite that marks our presence.
That is, unless a caring soul intervenes. Hilda Hoffmann was such a soul, recording the history and genealogy of thousands of Pearl River County residents, and beyond. Hilda’s fascination with cemeteries at age sixteen provoked queries into the lives and families of those who lay at rest and engendered a life long quest to add meaning to who they were; that their life did not replicate the fate of their bodies.
In the 92 years that graced her time on earth, Hilda spent much of it resurrecting timelines and histories of families and their public (and sometimes private) dealings. Her dying wish was that her archive collection be kept close to those she chronicled – Pearl River County – and that they be available to everyone. Her research, hundreds of boxes of material, was transferred to a safe, climate- controlled building in Hancock County for temporary storage where the files were scanned and digitized on compact discs that would make them available to interested parties and organizations.
But what about this woman who dedicated her life serving the families of others? Hilda Formby was born May 9, 1918. She attended East Side Elementary School and Picayune High School and after graduation, worked in local businesses until she joined the Army/Navy in 1940 There she met and married her husband, Emile James Hoffmann.
The Navy enrolled Hilda in special training to learn codes and signals before placing her undercover as a courier of secret documents. (According to Hilda’s nephew, Lt Col. Lourie N. Formby III, this story is fictitious.) Her official title was “File Clerk.” Her husband was also placed in undercover operations by the Navy. Hilda told of several interesting and sometimes embarrassing situations that occurred during her time in service. One when she had to board a ship up a steep ladder wearing a skirt and another where she had to play the role of a prostitute. On delivering secret documents to Canada, she met Winston Churchill and his son and when she was in New Orleans, a German submarine was discovered and destroyed. After the war, Hilda continued her research into the families of Pearl River County residents and amassed her huge archive.
Hilda Formby Hoffmann passed away on July 4th, 2010 and was buried in New Palestine cemetery beside her husband. The collection was placed in the hands of Sara Sheldon, Hilda’s close friend who resided in San Antonio, Texas. Sara was joined by another of Hilda’s friends, Helen Alexander Clunie from Hattiesburg. Together, they moved the collection from Hilda’s residence to a metal storage building for safekeeping.
On October 29th, an organizational meeting was called to pursue formation of a non-profit organization entitled the Hilda Hoffmann Memorial Archive Inc. By-Laws were adopted and officers elected: Sara Sheldon (Chairman), Helen Clunie (Treasurer), and Don Wicks (Secretary). Incorporation papers were filed with the state of Mississippi and non-profit status attained on December 23, 2010. By mid-2011, the organization had 45 members.
Hilda’s collection was moved from the metal storage building to a temporary climate-controlled facility in Hancock County until a secure place in Pearl River County could be located. In 2011, Helen Clunie donated a building at 301 Williams Avenue in Picayune to house the collection. At last, Hilda Hoffmann’s archive had a home and the organization had a headquarters to serve the public.
Today, the Helen Clunie Heritage Library offers a thriving heritage library and family research center open to the public 5 days a week, a diverse calendar of activities and programs, and is home to over 150 members.