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Sturgess honored for dedicated work, problem solving

Call Carolyn Sturgess and odds are you’ll get a polite recording of her voice asking you to leave a message.

It’s not that Sturgess, the director of accounting services, refuses to answer her telephone. Rather, she spends so much of her time in meetings or at other University departments working on projects that she’s often not in earshot.

That means Sturgess gets a lot of voice mail. Amid all those messages, one she got in April stands out. Chancellor Michael Hooker told her she had won a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“It’s tough for even the chancellor to reach me,” Sturgess said. “He told me I sure was hard to reach and that I’d won a Massey Award.”

Hooker didn’t need to explain to Sturgess that this was a big honor. She had worked with the Massey Award committee in the past. She knew the award is the most prestigious prize given to a University employee.

“I felt it was a real honor to be picked and to be a part of that family [of winners],” she said.

The late C. Knox Massey, a former Durham advertising executive who served 20 years as a University trustee, created the award in 1980. The program is supported by three generations of the Massey and Weatherspoon families.
A long career of hard work

Sturgess has worked at the University for 35 years. A Chapel Hill native, her first job in the accounting office was collecting rent from married students.

What has kept her working at the University for so many years, she said, was that she had the opportunity to advance. Her rise through the accounting ranks included heading the first accounts-payable section and managing trust fund accounting.

“I’ve been offered opportunities to advance which has given me a lot of new things to do,” she said. “I’d be bored doing the same thing for 35 years.”

She now supervises a department with 16 employees and a budget of $677,000. Her department’s responsibilities include overseeing cash management, investment accounting, the University endowment, state and non-state funds, and operating the computerized accounting system.

Sturgess’ rise in responsibilities came for a simple reason: hard work. That’s according to no less an authority than University Controller Dennis Press, Sturgess’ supervisor.

In nominating Sturgess for the Massey Award, Press pointed out how much the University has benefited from Sturgess’ hard work and responsibility, describing her dependability as “invaluable.”

“As responsibilities and assignments mount, her response is to work even harder to ensure that important tasks are addressed,” Press said. “Her experience, intelligence, knowledge and common sense approach enable her to provide invaluable insights.”

Praise for Sturgess’ work comes not just from her boss but also from people who have worked for her.

Betsi Snipes, payroll director, once reported to Sturgess and nominated her former boss for the Massey Award.

“I nominated her because I thought she was one of the premier employees of this institution,” Snipes said. “She loves the University and tries to make it a better place.”

Snipes described Sturgess as not only a hard worker but also a supportive supervisor.

“You always knew she was going to back you up,” Snipes said. “She always let me make decisions and once she’d signed off on them, she went along with them.”

Looking forward

One of Sturgess’ other strengths has been developing new services and accounting systems. For example, she was a key person in developing a new financial records system that is accessible to more than just information technology employees. She also served on teams establishing health insurance for graduate students and post-doctoral trainees. She even helped streamline the campuswide process for hiring new employees.

The Massey Award has not slowed Sturgess’ efforts to keep improving the University’s accounting systems.

The largest responsibility that keeps her away from her office–and the voice mail tape full–is her work with both the Human Resources Information System (HRIS) Evaluation Team and the HRIS Implementation Team. The goal is to put the massive collection of data used by the Human Resources Department in a central source rather than have the information scattered among multiple systems.

The project is a huge undertaking and the team has been at work for two years. And it’s exactly the kind of problem-solving challenge Sturgess thrives on, Snipes said.

“You might think as a long-time employee that she might resist change, but she embraces new technology,” Snipes said. “She’s instrumental in seeing this University to the 21st century.”

Winning the Massey Award has not changed Sturgess’ outlook. The Chapel Hill native and her husband, Harris, continue to love living here. They have two grown sons, Daniel and James. The only big change since winning the Massey Award is the birth of their first grandchild.

On the job, Sturgess still wants to create improvements. She’s on her way to making the accounting systems as paperless as possible.

“We’re now doing about one-half of the checks with paperless accounting,” she said.

And giant tasks such as the Human Resources projects give her a great deal of satisfaction–once they are up and running well.

“To learn about a new system, be a part of implementing it and to see it used in the manner it was designed to work–and that it actually does improve things–is a good feeling,” she said.


Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 2, 1998

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