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Spencer Davis recognized with Massey Award

In motto and slogan, more than one university has billed itself as a place where students are people, not numbers.

May Paul “Spencer” Davis be forgiven if — in carrying out his duties as the sole maintenance mechanic at Hinton James Residence Hall — he sees students as both people and numbers.

Room numbers, that is.

For most of the past 10 years, Davis has worked in Hinton James and done what has to be done each day to keep it running in a way that keeps students happy. To get an idea of how big a job that it, here are some numbers to think about:

504: the number of rooms for which Davis is responsible;

1008: the number of students living in those rooms;

9: the number of floors all those rooms are on;

9 out of 10: the ratio of mostly freshmen residents who move in and out every year;

7 out of 10: the number of years Davis has worked in the building since coming to UNC; and

38: the age of Spencer Davis and Hinton James residence hall.

To gauge how good a job Davis has been doing, here is one number that stands out: 27. That’s the number of Hinton James staff and students who nominated Davis for a 2005 C. Knox Massey Award.

Wired to a work ethic

Davis was born in Durham and has lived in Chapel Hill his entire life, but his family’s roots run deep in the foothills of western North Carolina.

His mother comes from Asheville and his father from Old Fort, a town some 20 miles east of Asheville that once marked the westernmost outpost of the colonial frontier.

Davis’ parents left the mountains for Chapel Hill to find work, Davis said.

His father found it at the University where he retired after 30 years in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning shop.

His mother went to work at BlueCross/ BlueShield of North Carolina where she stayed until retiring 37 years later.

While taking distributive education classes at Chapel Hill High School, Davis found a job at a grocery store where he got his first paychecks and first understanding of the importance of customer service. Even back at the grocery store, Davis knew his job was not just about selling customers, but accommodating them by making them feel welcome and helping them to solve any problems they might have.

His knack for numbers came later, after taking classes at Alamance Community College, when he went to work as a salesman for heating and air conditioning systems and parts.

“In sales you have to memorize numbers, and to do that you have to expand your memory,” he said.

Hard to sell somebody on a heating unit if you can’t tell them how many BTUs it can put out along with how much it costs.

“It’s just like some of these students here who I have just met,” Davis said. “I may not see them in two or three weeks. When I do, I may not remember their name, but I’ll know their room number.”

Davis got his job at UNC in September 1995 when University employees who had been customers helped open the door for him.

The knowledge to do the job, Davis got from his father, who may have been classified as an HVAC man at work, but was a jack-of-all-trades at home.

“He did everything and anything, from welding to plumbing to electrical,” Davis said. My dad gave me the work ethic, while my mom gave me the sense to hold on to your dollar.

“The University gave me the opportunity to prove myself and that’s what I try to do every day when I’m here because I don’t want to let people down.”

Behind the numbers

Over the years, Davis had done more than prove he can do his job.

George Arey, the Hinton James community director for the past several years, used words such as “dedicated” and “pride” and “resource” to flesh out what Davis meant to not only the students who live at Hinton James but to on-edge parents going through the emotional experience of dropping them off and leaving them there.

Davis demonstrates these qualities, Arey said, by the fast and efficient manner he goes about fixing lights, repairing leaky pipes and addressing the never-ending heating and cooling issues that a building built in 1967 inevitably has.

The dedication is expressed every fall as Davis goes out of his way to be available when students return to campus. Arey recalled a conversation with a parent who said how much he appreciated Davis’ willingness to not only fix a problem in their child’s room but also to spend time talking with them about the building and the community.

Arey said Davis is a resource to students because he can help a lost student find the short cut to a classroom building or tell them where to go to get their car serviced, or, if they are short of money, help teach them how to fix it themselves.

“Spencer has time and time again proven that he goes above and beyond by taking the extra 15 minutes to reach out to one of our many first-year students,” Arey said. “He can be guaranteed to provide a word of advice or a friendly hello and good morning that a student might not expect from a staff member in such a large university community. Spencer puts a human face on the facilities side of a residential building housing 1,000 predominantly first-year students. He lets our residents know that they are not alone here and that if they need something, all they need to do is ask and our staff will be there.”

For Katy Schoenbeck, Hinton James office manager, Davis is the one and only fixture in the building that can always be counted on to work.

“He’s our go-to guy, has more areas of expertise than I can count, and knew my name the day I started working here,” Schoenbeck said.

Schoenbeck said some people might suggest Davis should not be considered a leader or win an award as prestigious as the Massey just for doing his job. She respectfully disagrees.

“Spencer has taken ownership of this property, and every crack, leak and frustrated student that comes with it,” Schoenbeck said. “He responds immediately to concerns and isn’t interested in a ‘quick fix’ but a long-term solution to make everyone’s life easier. He demonstrates to residents that they matter and there are people here to support them as they pursue their academic endeavors. He adds a personal touch to every problem he solves.”

Family man

Davis’ dedication and pride come through not only at Hinton James, but at home for the three people who matter to him most of all — his wife Susan of 12 years and their two children, 8-year-old John Spencer and 6-year-old Holly Brook.

The family lives in the home in Chapel Hill they bought a couple of years before the children arrived.

“Oh, yeah,” Davis said. “They are a priority to me. When I go to work, I got to work. When I go home, I go to my kids.”

Keeping up with his kids, these days, is a job in itself. “Right now, my daughter is in gymnastics and ballet and my son plays soccer and baseball.”

Davis can’t help Holly with ballet, but he has helped coach John’s baseball teams for the past five years.

He is also a deacon at the Baptist church that he and his family have attended for more than 30 years. He is also an active member in the Chapel Hill Masonic Lodge.

Susan Davis, who will mark 10 years of service at UNC in November, said of her husband, “I’d love to tell you there is a dark, ugly side to him, but pretty much what you see is what you get. He really is a terrific husband and father and he’s been my best friend for 14 years.”

Since winning the Massey, she said, “My family no longer refers to him as Spencer, but ‘the GO-TO guy.’

Even though everybody teases him about it, she said, the title fits.

It’s not her official title, but Susan Davis now works as the “secretary” for the Surgical/Trauma Intensive Care Unit and this fall began taking courses to become a nurse. As is his custom, her husband has pitched in wherever needed to make that possible, she said.

And yes, she said, it is true what Davis has said about her: She does issue work orders to him just like the students at Hinton James.

As for the Massey itself, Davis said, “I think it is a great, great thing and I appreciate the Weatherspoon and Massey families who give their time and money to a great campus.”

As for winning it, Davis is circumspect.

“I am here to do a job,” Davis said. “If I got the Massey, fine. If I didn’t, that’s fine. It’s sort of like getting a sundae versus a regular old ice cream cone. I just enjoy doing what I do.”

Which is not to say that Davis intends to do it any longer than he has to, which leads to yet one last number to which Davis has his future fixed: 30.

That’s the number of years of credible service he knows he must amass before retiring to the hills of McDowell County where he and his parents own land and a small cabin. Davis is already more than a third of the way there, having completed 10 years of service on Sept. 1.

In the meantime, you’ll likely find Davis hanging out at Hinton James, taking care of business — and every customer who walks through the door.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 21, 2005

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