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Smith’s efforts make UNC events flow seamlessly

IT IS HARD TO CAPTURE IN A FEW WORDS WHAT IT IS THAT JANE SMITH DOES, or for that matter, why it is so vital to the University that it be done well.

Jane Smith, 2009 Massey Award winner at  the Doctoral Hooding ceremony at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Saturday (May 9). KEYWORDS:  ceremonies phd thorp students
Jane Smith, 2009 Massey Award winner at the Doctoral Hooding ceremony at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Saturday (May 9).


It is not an occupation typically found listed in a college catalogue or a newspaper want ad.

It is a job that was invented by Catherine “Cat” Williams, who hired Smith as an assistant more than 18 years ago, a job that continues to evolve too quickly to master every detail.

And that is all right with Smith. What is not all right is the reaction she gets from people when she tells them what she does.

“When I tell people I plan special events for the University, they almost immediately say, ‘Oh, that must be so much fun. You get to plan parties,” she said.

Her job includes preparing for convocation, the Chancellor’s Box for home football games, Board of Trustees’ lunches and dinners, chancellor installations and countless other University events – most of which occur outside the regular work week.

Those events may be festive and lively, but they are not parties, Smith said. To call them that makes them seem both extravagant and frivolous, and they are neither.

If done well, they are more evocative of stagecraft in that they create an ambience through symbols, sights, sounds and smells that together manage to capture what Carolina means. The events join one generation after another to timeless tradition.

“Over the years, people have come to realize that special events can go a long way toward enhancing the relationship this University has with the range of people who feel a tie to Carolina,” Smith said. “We feel that a big part of what we do, and how well we do it, helps to determine whether that sense of connection becomes a lifelong bond.”

How well Smith has done this job also earned her a 2009 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award recognizing “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. The award is supported by the Massey-Weatherspoon Fund.

Chancellor Holden Thorp selected the honorees from nominations submitted by the campus community; each received an award citation and $6,000 stipend.


Details are crucial to everything Smith does – from making sure name-tags are spelled correctly to assembling a dinner seating chart based on her inventory of knowledge about the people to be served.

“You have to know who people are, where they are from, who their friends are, what their politics are,” she said. “You also have to know where the hidden skeletons are – the issues that you can’t talk about but must always be mindful of.”

One campus colleague likened Smith to a conductor of an orchestra, and yes, she concedes, there are elements of similarity. But there are crucial differences as well.

“I am basically a shy person,” Smith said. “I don’t like to be the center of attention. I’m not comfortable in that role. You will most always see me in the corner or by the door or out in the hall. My job is to set the stage, and then step off of it.”

It might be surprising to those who know Smith well that the person who choreographs events down to the most minute detail has led a life whose turning points have come about more by accident than design.

Smith met her husband, Dale, who was working as an accountant for a chemical company, through his devoted secretary. She spotted Smith’s picture in the twice-weekly newspaper in southwest Virginia’s sparsely populated Giles County shortly after Smith took a job as a home economist in the county extension office.

That newspaper story gave a thumbnail sketch of her life story to that point – hometown, Winston-Salem; alma mater, UNC-Greensboro; degree, home economics. Most important to Dale’s secretary was what the story did not mention: a husband.

“Dale’s secretary saw the story and she called the secretary at the extension office and said, ‘Tell me about this new girl,’” Smith said.

Her first date with this mystery man was in July 1972. She learned he was 28, a Navy veteran who had served two tours in Vietnam and had two degrees from Carolina – a bachelors degree and an M.B.A. he earned after completing his military service.

By December, they were engaged, and five months after that they were married. This May, they celebrated their 36th anniversary.


Dale’s career eventually took them to Charlotte, then Columbia, S.C., Rocky Mount and finally to Chapel Hill in 1985. Through all the changes of address, Jane’s job was to care fulltime for their two young children, Claire and Andrew.

But in 1989, after Dale lost his consulting job, she knew she had to get a job – any job – and fast.

Smith soon landed a job as Williams’ assistant. Once described as “the ultimate hostess,” Williams also proved to be the ultimate mentor who generously and graciously taught Smith everything she knew.

What began as a necessity turned into a career Smith is not yet ready to give up, and the people she has worked with over the years have turned into extended family.

Smith has been involved in special events in some way for 18 years and five months – and she is still learning, she said.

The job requires style, grace under pressure, creativity and, perhaps above all, loyalty to Carolina – qualities that can take years to perfect. But Smith tells each new employee who joins the events team about three essentials.

You need a sense of humor, Smith said, so that you can roll with the punches when something inevitably goes awry.

You need a comfortable pair of shoes that will allow you to stay on your feet – and toes – for a long, long time.

“You also need a good raincoat,” Smith said, “because you will get rained on, standing out in a parking lot to direct people into a building, or standing outside the Smith Center to direct people onto a bus at 11:30 at night.”

Originally published by University Gazette: June 17, 2009

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