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Peers consider Smith unparalleled

In her 29 years in the Department of Chemistry, Rebecca Smith saw a lot of changes on campus.

She retired last year after working her way up from secretary to department manager. Along the way, her peers say she became an indispensable resource for the department — one who combined institutional memory with a wide degree of know-how.

This spring, Smith was awarded the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award along with three other University employees, all selected by the late Chancellor Michael Hooker. Each received a $5,000 check and was honored at an awards banquet in April.

The late C. Knox Massey, a former Durham advertising executive who served 20 years as a University trustee, created the award in 1980. The program is supported by three generations of the Massey and Weatherspoon families.

Smith’s colleagues considered her indispensable.

“Until her retirement…one could find a virtually unanimous opinion in the Department of Chemistry that it could not function without [Smith],” the award citation said.

Smith said she never expected to receive that kind of award. She didn’t even know there was a monetary prize.

“I didn’t think there was anything but a certificate,” she said. “I was very surprised, very touched and very honored.”

Between the time she started as a secretary in 1969 and retired last year, the chemistry department moved part of its operations into the Kenan labs building, and the number of students and faculty grew tremendously. Buildings sprouted up all around Venable Hall, which once served as the main offices for one of the largest and most complex units in the College of Arts and Sciences.

During her first years at the University, the chemistry department was constantly plagued by bomb threats that always seemed to occur on exam days.

“I guess there were a lot of people who really just didn’t want to take tests,” Smith said.

Later in her career, Smith was working as the department’s personnel officer when the department manager left to take another job during a time of budget problems and staff shortages. For a stretch, Smith served as personnel officer and department manager, as well as handled the accounting work for the department’s multi-million-dollar budget.

She also had to grapple with an explosion in technology, with mimeograph machines and electric typewriters being replaced by Xerox machines and computers. The department’s first Xerox machine was a gargantuan, costly contraption so intimidating that no graduate students were allowed to touch it, she said.

She’s seen other changes, too. Many chemistry faculty members who worked in the 1960s and 1970s have retired or passed away.

“It’s not the University I miss so much, but really the people,” she said.

She’s been asked to come back and work as a consultant to help with the numerous changes still going on in the department. But the lifelong Orange County resident is too busy now handling the bookkeeping for a local church and volunteering in the community.

“I need the routine. Plus, after I left [the University], I did miss helping people,” she said.


Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 1, 1999

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