Massey Award winner: Working the trenches
There’s a lot about Elizabeth C. “Betsi” Snipes you don’t know, which is exactly the way she has tried to keep it during the 31 years she has worked in the University’s Payroll Services.
Her job, plain and simple, is to make sure you get paid for doing yours. It’s not glamorous. It’s not exciting. But it is work that’s vital to the more than 16,000 people who expect to see a paycheck on a regular basis. It is that responsibility that Snipes has always taken more seriously than herself.
She’s like the mailman or the paperboy. You hardly notice them until the one day they fail to deliver. And maybe that’s why Snipes has managed to escape notice for so long: She always delivers.
But even Snipes could not manage to keep herself invisible this past January when a blizzard hit campus the likes of which few people had ever seen here.
The University officially closed, but Snipes knew she and members of her staff could not afford to stay home because employees cannot afford going without pay. The pile of work accumulating in her office that week was as high as the banks of snow outside of it. And unlike the snow, the work wouldn’t melt away all by itself.
The citation she received for the C. Knox Massey Award depicts her effort this way: “When five snows in two weeks of last January compelled the University to close for three business days, there were three deadlines to meet: the January 28th bi-weekly payroll, the January 31st monthly payroll and the January 31st due date for distribution of employee W-2 income tax withholding forms. Coordinating the section’s work by telephone from home on one of the three days, and coming in to work from Hillsborough on the other two, the director of Payroll Services saw that her section, staffed in part by volunteers and in part by the few employees able to get to work, met all three deadlines…”
The citation reads like a description of a soldier’s above-the-call-of-duty heroics on a battlefield. Which makes Snipes feel all the more undeserving.
Get something in there about my staff, Snipes said. “I didn’t do it all by myself.”
A courtside courtship
She and her family grew up on a thriving dairy farm in Orange County that her father named Anilorac. “A-N-I-L-O-R-A-C,” Snipes said. “Now spell that backwards.”
The farm consisted of 800 acres and close to 500 cattle — details Snipes suggested should not be in the story because talking of such things seems to her too much like bragging.
Both Anilorac and Carolina ran to rhythms all their own.
At Anilorac, life revolved around the cycle of spring planting and fall harvesting and twice-daily milking.
The seasons Snipes cared about at Carolina were football, basketball and baseball, particularly basketball.
She played on the girls’ basketball team at Orange High School from 1962 to 1966 while paying close attention to the progress of a young, unproven coach by the name of Dean Smith. “The only really corny thing I can tell you — it’s so stupid to even tell you this — but everybody else in high school had the Beatles scribbled in their notebooks. I had Dean Smith. He’s just somebody I’ve always admired. I think it’s because of my love for basketball.”
Her family had season tickets to basketball and football games when she was a girl. When she got older, she and her sister and two brothers and parents would pump drinks at halftime of games to raise money for their church.
Throughout high school, she and her sister volunteered as candy stripers at what was then North Carolina Memorial Hospital (now UNC Hospitals). Their mother, a city girl from Baltimore who had met their father while attending nursing school in Durham, worked at N.C. Memorial as a nurse for some 20 years.
“I always had everything I wanted but I had to work for it, too,” Snipes said of her childhood years. “It wasn’t just given to me. My parents taught me to work and that has carried over to my work here. You give somebody 100-plus percent. It was more or less instilled in me that if you are going to make anything of yourself you have to get in the trenches and work.”
She had dreamed once for those trenches to be the sidelines of a basketball court. As a girl, she saw a future for herself working as a high school physical education teacher and coaching basketball.
Her parents couldn’t see it.
They wanted the best for their daughter and failed to see how hanging around some dingy gym with a whistle hanging from her neck was a future worthy of her pursuit. Or their money. They would pay for her to go to college, but not if she insisted on doing that. And so she didn’t insist.
After all, she loved her parents more than basketball and listened to what they had to say believing what they had to say was probably right. God wouldn’t give children parents if they didn’t need them, Snipes said. And parents wouldn’t give advice if children didn’t need it, either.
All the same, all you need do is step into Snipes second-floor office at 440 W. Franklin Street to see how hotly her passion for the game still burns.
It starts with the wreath decked out in Tar Heel blue hanging on her door. The front wall has a framed page of The (Durham) Herald-Sun from March 16, 1993, with a headline that screams: “Dean 877, Rupp 876.” A picture of Smith standing on the sideline, his arms raised in triumph, dominates the page. There are six other photographs or depictions of Smith scattered around the room, including a caricature of the 1982 championship team, complete with the autographs of all the players — and Smith. A scan of the picture serves as the screen saver on Snipes’ computer.
In the corner opposite of an autographed picture of Michael Jordan is an autographed poster of Tim Duncan. And atop her credenza, next to an autographed photo of Dean Smith, is an autographed photo of Dave Odom. One half of the wall by her desk is covered with enough Wake Forest memorabilia to make any true-blue Heels fan begin to wonder. Everybody asks about it, Snipes said, and every time she explains.
She has seven nieces and nephews (all their pictures line the bottom shelf of the credenza), but one of them ended up going to Wake Forest and being a manager for the Wake Forest basketball team while Duncan was there playing a mean center. After graduating in 1995, the nephew returned three years later to become Odom’s administrative assistant. Given that connection, Snipes has ended up attending as many home games at Wake Forest as she has at Carolina over the past decade. She now counts Odom and his wife Lynn as friends.
She doesn’t want to say much more about it because she has six other nieces and nephews she dearly loves and doesn’t want to slight. But she said this: “He’s living my dream.”
She spent two years at Bluefield College, the two-year school that her mother graduated from, located on the Virginia-West Virginia line. She played basketball for the college team and studied liberal arts. She spent summers home working as a nurse’s aide in the children’s ward at N.C. Memorial.
“Everybody told me I ought to become a nurse,” Snipes said. And so she tried.
It was a noble profession, after all, a profession traditionally filled by strong, caring, capable women like her mother. After two years at Bluefield, Snipes ended up in nursing school in Roanoke and assigned to a ward for terminally ill cancer patients. It was here that Snipes discovered her weakness of caring too much.
“It seemed like every patient I had died and it got to me,” Snipes said. “I tried to get really close to all the patients and it would really bother me when they would die. I literally took every patient to heart.”
It reached the point she knew she couldn’t take it anymore, and in the spring of 1969 she quit. The harder part was driving home during spring break to break the news to her parents. She waited until the Sunday she was supposed to go back to Roanoke before telling them. She doesn’t remember what she said to them, but she’ll never forget her father’s words to her.
“My father said to me, `You’re getting up at 5:30 tomorrow morning to go out and look for a job and I would strongly recommend you don’t come back home until you find one.'”
They were upset more than angry, Snipes said, and disappointed that their daughter had failed to grab the chance at an education they had tried to give all their children.
“They had afforded me an opportunity I didn’t seize and so the alternative was to go out there and get a job,” she said.
The next morning, she was out of bed at 5:30 as she had been ordered, then in her car driving to Chapel Hill. She sat for what must have been an hour in the Morehead Planetarium parking lot, waiting for the employment office — then located either in Battle, Pettigrew or Vance, she is no longer sure which — to open at 8 a.m.
After filling out the application, she was told there were two openings: one in payroll in the Steele Building, the other in scientific supply. Later that morning, she sat in Steele in front of Ed Wiles, the director of payroll services.
“He asked, `When can you start?'”
“I said, `Immediately.’ I wanted to go home.”
And the very next morning, April 21, 1969, she got up and went to work.
Filling the desks
Wiles started her off with a pair of scissors, cutting up the pay transmittals in the days before paper shredders.
She recorded journal entries in the monthly section for the next three years until Wiles promoted her to be the monthly section payroll supervisor in 1972. Four years later, Wiles promoted her to assistant payroll director. When Wiles retired in 1983, she was promoted to replace him.
“I was scared,” Snipes said. “That’s a big jump and I was afraid I would fail. And there was a sense of not wanting to let those people down who had believed in me.”
There were three of them, she said. The first was Wiles. The second was David Johnson, director of accounting, and finally Wayne Jones, the University treasurer.
She felt a sense of obligation to them because they were the people who told her enough times that she could do the job that she stopped telling herself she couldn’t. “I didn’t ever have a plan to be the director,” Snipes said. “My aspiration was actually to never sit behind a desk … you just make the best of the situation you’re in.”
At the age of 53, she is the hefty, heavy-duty boss lady now. To use her words, she is “anal retentive,” wanting to control everything to make sure everything turns out right. She finds it easier telling about the hard shell she has developed over the years than to reveal the softer core that shell was erected to conceal.
If she had let it bother her every time somebody had hollered, her nerves would have been shot years ago. “People tend to get emotional when they are dealing with their money,” Snipes said. “Unfortunately, that is the most important thing to many people.”
Part of her wants to do more to help the people who are kind and appreciative when they walk into her office as opposed to those who stomp into her office yelling. Another part of her knows her job is to treat everybody the same. And so, with God’s help, she tries.
Snipes is an unabashed, unapologetic Baptist who would no more think to stay home from church on Sunday than miss a home game at the Dean Dome. “I have a strong belief that things happen for a reason and that in order to handle difficult situations God must be the center of all.”
Her parents did not just teach her to work. They taught her to see the value in it, not as a vehicle for advancement, but as a mark of virtue. Even now, because of the vacancies within her staff, she gets up from her desk to sit down at whatever desk in her department there is work to be done and nobody to do it.
“I don’t want this in there,” Snipes said, “but I can work every desk in here. I get in the trenches with them and I think people will work better for you if you do. If they are down there working, I need to be down there, too.”
Winning the Massey, she said, “is probably the most important thing that has happened to me in my life. When Chancellor McCoy called it took me a while to realize what he said.”
“No one could have known 31 years ago, when the University hired a young woman to work in its payroll office, what a gem she would turn out to be,” the award citation reads.
She is proud, to be sure, more proud than she has ever been in her life. But that pride is equaled by her discomfort at having to put that pride on display. Don’t brag, her parents used to say, let your work speak for itself. And maybe that is why the words come so hard when she is forced to talk about herself and her accomplishments and the award they have brought.
There is a lot about Elizabeth Snipes she insists people don’t need to know, but there’s one thing she needs for people to understand: This award is not hers alone.
She has been driven all these years — not by ambition — but by the notion instilled in her by her parents to do the best job she could handling whatever job she was handed. The promotions, she likes to think, came because she followed their advice.
Then, as she spoke again of her parents, her hard outer began to crack. Her mother has been gone for more than 10 years now, her father for nearly seven. After he died, she moved back to ANILORAC. The Massey would have meant a lot to them, Snipes said as she began wiping away tears.
“They know. I know they know. The most hurtful part is not having them here to share this with me.”
Editor’s note: This story is one of a series featuring 2000 winners of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late C. Knox Massey of Durham created the awards in 1980 to recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. The award is supported by the Massey-Weather-
spoon Fund created by three generations of Massey and Weatherspoon families. Former Interim Chancellor William O. McCoy selected the honorees from nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation and $5,000.
Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 13, 2000