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`A measure of success’

“Quietly unassuming,” was the way Patricia Challenger Crawford was described in the citation for her C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. That quality has become all the more apparent since she won the award and received so much attention.

She wishes she could keep quiet about it, to deflect some of that attention away. Which is not to say that Crawford isn’t proud of what she does, or honored at having received this award.

The Massey citation said of Crawford: “To a lawyer charged with protection of vital University standards and interests and counseling eager contenders for University favor, rigorous thinking and a gentle tongue are valuable assets. Match these to impeccable advance preparation, a desire to facilitate worthwhile projects, a flexible attitude toward valid choices, and a firm adherence to University requirements and the principles underlying them, and you perceive some of what characterizes two decades of great valued performance…”

To a woman as understated as Crawford, the words used to describe her in the Massey citation seem a bit effusive. Maybe she is a little bit of all these things, but don’t expect her to admit it.

She is part of a team of lawyers, she is quick to tell you. Each member has a set of special responsibilities, yet each member is more of a generalist than a specialist in any one area of law, Crawford said.

And it is this characteristic that makes the team that much stronger. Each of them, if need be, can be called on to do one of the other’s jobs.

“I caution against using the word `mastery’ because when you do so many different things what you actually are is a generalist. You know enough to know when to ask questions, get the answers and complete the projects.”

And that is why winning the Massey has been both so gratifying and unsettling at once: It singled her out for credit she would rather see shared.

Still, she can’t believe how many people have come up to congratulate her. She appreciates their kind words. She understands more than she ever did how big a deal winning a Massey is on this campus. What has not changed is that, even after winning one, Crawford refuses to think of herself as a big deal.

David Parker is one of the colleagues who Crawford mentioned, and is also one of the people who was happiest to see Crawford win the Massey. He should be, he said, because he nominated her.

“She’s just a workhorse,” Parker said. “She is unflagging. She really believes so strongly in getting her work done and doing quality work. She is sort of an inspiration and in some ways a challenge to her colleagues because we feel we need to live up to her work ethic.”

Their work often overlaps, but their egos never collide.

“We both check our egos at the door so we don’t get hung up on whose project it is or who’s in charge,” Parker said. “She just focuses on getting the job done.”

Childhood lessons

She was born on Nov. 12, 1951, the oldest of five children in a town in Delaware older than the country. New Castle originated in 1651 as a Dutch fort set up along the Delaware River. Sweden and Great Britain would fly their flags over it before the American Revolution began. William Penn landed here and left his mark.

While Patricia Challenger was growing up there in the 1950s and early 1960s, New Castle was still a small town of historic homes and families that had lived there for generations.

“Everybody knew everybody and everyone knew my parents and my grandparents so you were always conscious that what you did reflected on the family,” she said.

Her mother was a schoolteacher until her children came along, her father a traveling salesman. In addition to tending to the household chores, her mother always set the bar high for what she expected from her children both at home and at school. “A measure of success in my family was how well you did in school,” Crawford said.

Crawford said she worked hard in school but schoolwork came fairly easy to her – “as long as we stayed away from science.” She read almost anything she could get her hands on and spent every Saturday morning she could down at the public library.

For a time, the family lived with her grandmother, a piano teacher who didn’t take long to get Patricia on the stool.

Years later, music and courtship intersected for Crawford in a musical theory classroom at Wake Forest University. It was here where she met her husband, Sam Crawford, a native of Orange County, who also happened to play the piano and organ.

They married before either of them graduated, a decision that left their parents less than thrilled. “Both of us were of an age that we had parents who came through the Second World War,” Crawford said. “They were part of that generation who said, `I’m going to make the world better for my children. I don’t want to say they were driven, but if you wanted to do something, they made it possible within their means.”

They told their parents they would finish school, they just didn’t tell them when. And they both carried through on that promise.

After Sam earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Appalachian State University, the couple moved back to the Orange County land where Sam grew up. Both hunted for jobs. Sam ended up working at a series of make-do jobs until he got a job as a social worker in Caswell County and later Durham County.

Crawford ended up working as the office manager at the old W.T. Grant Co., in what is now Eastgate Shopping Center. During the three years she worked there, she learned how to run an office, a bit about how retailing worked and a little about business terminology, all things that would prove useful to her years later.

Because she worked in Chapel Hill, completing her education at Carolina seemed to be a no-brainer. She majored in comparative literature.

She graduated in May of 1978. That fall, she enrolled in law school at N.C. Central University.

Crawford no more expected to get pregnant at this stage of her life than she had expected to get married while she was an undergraduate student at Wake Forest. “It was a surprise,” Crawford said. “No rational person would plan that. Law school in and of itself is an experience. It’s hard work. It’s real hard work.”

When Flinn was born on April 20, 1979, keeping up with schoolwork turned even harder. Juggling books in one arm and a baby in the other proved to be no easy feat, but with help from her husband, then a neighbor and eventually a day care center, she graduated cum laude in spring of 1981.

She never had a middle name and so she used her maiden name of “Challenger” as one after she got married. She used it on both her diplomas and her law license, “to sort of honor my parents and their emphasis on succeeding.”

Coming back to Carolina

She spent six weeks studying for the bar, followed by a six-month search for a job.

She spent some of that time clerking in private practice, knowing all the while she did not want to go into private practice herself.

With a husband in graduate school and a son to rear, she knew she could not afford to take chances. She needed the safety and security of a steady job, the kind you might find working for a government agency.

That search for security ultimately led her to the Property Office at Carolina and a woman named Rusty Wagoner who ran it. Wagoner helped Crawford get her foot in the door when Wagoner hired her first on a temporary basis and then as the staff attorney for the office.

It was the early 1980s, a time when the University administration was still made up primarily of men. “Rusty was a trailblazer,” Crawford said of her, and a mentor for women like Crawford who followed.

“She was a great person for someone who had just entered the University to have as a supervisor because she knew how it worked,” Crawford said.

After Wagoner retired in the mid-1980s, Crawford found the same kind of guidance and support from Susan Ehringhaus, a woman who did some trailblazing of her own. While the University’s law office has gone through several configurations, Ehringhaus has also been senior counsel, Crawford said. And Ehringhaus continues to be the first person Crawford turns to for help and advice.

“She has taught me everything,” Crawford said. “She’s just been a wonderful friend and mentor and boss. She’s taught me how to think about institutions and institutional perspectives. She has taught me when you work for this University you are dealing with more than just people. You are representing ideals. You are representing principles.”

Ehringhaus said: “Pat is a principled professional who is mindful of this University’s great history and traditions but always open to new perspectives and new ways of doing business. She is the answer to every law office’s ideal colleague.”

Parker worked in the state Attorney General’s Office before he came to work for the University in 1994. As soon as he arrived, he found in Crawford a “great and very patient teacher,” he said. “Together with Susan [Ehringhaus], she really helped me in the early days to get acclimated to a different environment.”

Parker said Crawford seems to possess an innate sense to step back and reject a quick solution when she recognizes it would not serve the best interests of the University. “She has an ability to keep in mind who the client is and what the objectives are,” Park said. “A lot of times we are trying to please a particular faculty member or staff member, but our client is the University and Pat has a well-honed instinct about that.”

Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the Mental Health Research Center, studies the neuroscience of mental and behavior disorders. It is heady, groundbreaking work that gets done largely through grant money from the National Institute of Health.

In 1999, Lieberman was behind a $42.1 million grant that Carolina received from NIH to lead a five-year research project to study the effects of an anti-psychotic drug on about 1,500 patients suffering from schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The project involved four other universities, including Duke and Yale, along with a major pharmaceutical services company in the Triangle that would manage clinical sites for the project all over the country.

It was called the CATIE project, an acronym for “Clinical Antipsychotic Trials of Intervention Effective.”

His work may catch headlines, but Lieberman said much of his work would not be possible if not for the skillful, behind-the-scenes work of people like Crawford.

“It all starts with getting the contracts in place,” Lieberman said. “Frequently what happens in large institutions is not that people screw up, but in order to not screw up, people just sit on things for an interminable amount of time and sort of push papers and go back and forth on language instead of trying to problem solve and work through the issues.”

Crawford doesn’t do that. She gets things done, and she gets them done right, and on time. Time and time again, Lieberman said, “Pat has been an incredibly valuable, consistent and tireless resource.”

This spring, for instance when the grant for the CATIE project was expanded from $41.1 million to $59.6 million, it was Crawford who put together some 80 subcontracts in rapid succession. And the legal work she has done has seemed to Lieberman to be as complex and challenging as his science. Crawford dealt with some complex issues such as intellectual property rights, patent rights and academic independence, which safeguards the University’s rights to publish honest findings that may run counter to the interests of companies involved in the project.

“Pat is able to go toe to toe with the legal counsel from these various companies in a very firm and assertive way, but in a way that is highly professional and courteous,” Lieberman said. “It is easy to get into arguments that sort of freeze people into polarized positions, but Pat avoids that by dealing with people in a graceful way.”

Room with a view

She moved into her office on the third floor of South Building in the mid-1980s.

In a sense, the office is as low-key as she is. A table in the corner is filled with a lamp and stacks of legal documents that await her eye. Next to the table hangs a wooden window frame that came from an old outbuilding located on the family land where she and her family live.

Displayed behind the glass of the frame are Bicentennial postcards, or postal caches, that Sam put together for her. She received the postcards as a gift at the end of the Bicentennial Campaign.

Crawford’s desk sits directly in front of a real window facing the Old Well and McCorkle Place. It is that window, and that view, that makes this office so special to her.

Looking out the window, she catches herself thinking back to the time she was one of the students walking the brick-lined paths below, and thinking of the path that led her back to the University, to this office, to this work.

It is hard for anyone to gauge the different influences in their life, harder still to know how they merge to make you into the person you become.

Hers was an unconventional path to law school, she knew. Most of her classmates majored in political science or history.

Still, Crawford never viewed her undergraduate preparation as a disadvantage. Her love of literature had allowed her to sharpen her eye for detail and indulge her love for words. She came to law school with the habit of mind that came from studying each word carefully for every nuance or any hidden meaning it might carry. Law books and contracts, as much as poems or fiction, call for careful interpretation.

Even the piano lessons she took as a girl may have prepared Crawford for what she does now. Learning to pound music from those keys required discipline and patience and commitment.

In that sense, practicing law has been no different.

What makes her job so fascinating to her after years of doing it is that it remains so varied. The work changes constantly, which keeps the job from getting old.

“It’s multiple topics within a day,” Crawford said. “No one day gets devoted to one thing.”

One morning in August, for instance, she went from working on a purchasing protest to a development question to a contract question to a tax question — all by 10: 30 a.m.

Looking out the window helps affirm for her the feeling this place is the right fit for her.

“It is a nice fit for me in that clearly I’m more of a liberal arts background person and this institution has a very strong liberal arts program and is known for that,” Crawford said.

“The physical campus is very attractive to me because where I grew up was a very small town with an important historical element,” Crawford said. “It traces back to William Penn and Dutch settlers from the late 1600s. The historical nature of the campus appeals to me, as does the importance of preserving it. I mean, the institution reflects values that are important. All of that meshes with things that are important to me and the people I work with reflect that.”

It is a view that seems perfect for someone who has learned that to get the big picture you have to look past yourself.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 12, 2001

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