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Ultimate hostess’ Williams meticulous at pulling off big events

The skillful way she pulls off such large-scale events as Commencement and University Day makes each task appear easy.

Rest assured, Catherine “Cat” Williams said, her job is not one big party.

“This is not an 8 to 5 job,” said the director of special projects for Community Relations. “It’s weekends and nights. It’s the organization and the lists, the protocol and the public relations and much more.”

Williams, who has 18 years of University service–the last seven in her current job–is one of four recipients of this year’s C. Knox Massey Award for Distinguished Service.

“To win the admiration of all those who come as guests by the thoughtful anticipation of their needs and the warm reception accorded them when the University plays host takes unremitting hard work, near clairvoyance and highly intelligent, informed sympathy,” Williams’ award citation read.

Through the years, she has had ample opportunities to display those qualities as she shouldered the responsibility for planning events for the chancellor, the Board of Trustees and the Board of Visitors.

“Cat Williams is the ultimate hostess,” said Chancellor Michael Hooker. “She always makes sure that UNC puts its best foot forward at any public event or social occasion she is involved in.

“Her style, grace under pressure, creativity and loyalty to this university can be seen in everything she does.”

Williams describes her role as presenting the University in a positive light.

“My job is to make people feel good about the University–to present the University in its most hospitable image,” she said. “That is the challenge.”

Colleagues say Williams does, indeed, succeed in tackling that challenge.

“Her genius in staging events has earned her widespread acclaim and the University widespread respect,” wrote one nominator. “Carolina, thanks to Cat Williams, is the model against which countless institutions of higher education measure the success of their hospitality.”

In addition to winter and spring Commencement and University Day, Williams plans and coordinates convocations, established lectures and groundbreakings. Football and basketball pregame entertainment is on her “to do” list, as well as Board of Trustees and Board of Visitors meetings.

In a workshop several years ago, Williams outlined her goal of service: “I can make certain that each project on which I work is the best it can be, and that each person with whom I come into contact hears a positive report from me.”

The award citation described the outcome of Williams’ aspiration: “Except for her saving wit and her wry sense of humor, it might get her an ulcer to aim so high, but she confers a blessing on the rest of us by doing so.”

Provost Richard Richardson agreed.

“It would be difficult to imagine any University celebration without the steady, guiding hand of Cat Williams,” he said. “Not only does she have a unique sense of the overall purpose of our events, but she pays extraordinary attention to detail. I view her as one of the University’s premier citizens.”

Williams is particularly proud of her work in helping to coordinate the installation of Chancellor Michael Hooker in just three months instead of the six to 12 months it normally takes. Hooker arrived at the University on July 1, 1995, and was installed on University Day, Oct. 12.

“We had to pull together massive lists for the invitations, design the invitations, put together the program and design the event itself,” Williams said. “Following the ceremony, we had a picnic lunch for about 4,000 people.”

There was little time to catch her breath after that major undertaking.

“We don’t rest. We had a football game the next weekend,” said the veteran administrator.

Williams’ career with the University has spanned many different areas of campus.

She began work here 18 years ago as clerk-typist for the N.C. High School Athletic Association. Then followed posts with the academic counselor and the recruiter in the football office before she managed the office that raised funds to build the Smith Center. From there, she managed the office for the Arts and Sciences Foundation Campaign before leaving to create the job of events coordinator in the Development Office.

Since 1990, Williams has directed special projects for the University in a building on Pittsboro Street that once housed her sorority, Delta Delta Delta. In fact, her office is located in place of the former kitchen.

“It sort of makes me feel like I never left,” she said.

Williams’ touch is felt by many, even though they typically are unaware of it. A case in point is the stage used for spring Commencement.

“One of the things I’m most pleased about is the Greek temple stage and the University seals painted on the football field before Commencement,” she said.

About five years ago when the stage used for Commencement had to be replaced, she suggested redesigning it so people sitting on both sides of Kenan Stadium had a clear view. Always thinking of details, Williams proposed adding the University seals to the field as well.

Williams gives much of the credit for the apparent ease with which she carries out the University’s special events to her assistant, Jane Smith.

“I wouldn’t have received this award without Jane’s support,” Williams said. “She’s a superior colleague.”

The admiration is mutual. Smith credits Williams with bringing an artistic touch to the special events she plans.

“I think she has a lot of creativity and imagination,” Smith said. “She has the ability to envision how she wants everything to look.”

With another spring Commencement under her belt, this summer Williams took a well-deserved break for a 15-day tour of Great Britain to retrace her Irish and Scottish roots.

“The last of May and first of June is really the only time we are not over our heads with something,” she said.

A Chapel Hill native and 1957 University graduate, Williams has a son and daughter and a “perfect granddaughter” born in July.

When her attention is not turned to planning an event for the University, Williams enjoys quiet time with a history book or a Victorian novel. But when she really needs to unwind from the rigors of her job, she turns to her garden.

“Digging in the dirt is more therapeutic than a shrink,” she said, “and cheaper, too.”


Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 13,1997

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