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Sue Hester earns 2005 Massey Award

Sue Hester can tell you in short order how she turned into a mother hen.

She grew up in Burlington in the 1960s with four brothers, and all but one was younger.

Her parents worked at the Western Electric plant and got home hours after all of them got home from school.

Somebody in the household had to establish order.

Somebody had to take care of business.

And that is how Hester found herself cleaning and cooking supper by age 10.

“Back then, that kind of housework was not what boys did,” Hester said with a hearty laugh.

Maybe it wasn’t fair, based on the more egalitarian standards by which families supposedly operate today. On the other hand, Hester prides herself in being a person who is not afraid of either hard work or big responsibilities.

Those two central qualities of character, her co-workers say, is what made Hester such an indispensable part of the University Honors Program for the past 25 years.

And they were among the reasons — along with all the birthday cakes she has baked for all of them through the years — 11 of her colleagues conspired together to nominate her for a 2005 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Ritchie Kendall, the assistant dean of the Honors Program, described Hester as “the quiet dynamo” behind the program’s success. Hester performs her tasks in a way that goes beyond the mechanics of the work to enrich the spirit of the people around her, Kendall said.

Charlotte Williams, a colleague for 20 of Hester’s 25 years with the program, said Hester “puts ‘super’ in the word supervisor.” Williams said that Hester became, for everyone involved in the Honors Program, their “Office Mother, counselor, nurse, accountant, mediator, facilitator, baker and overall go-to person.”

Williams said she felt privileged to be under Hester’s tutelage for so long. After nearly 20 years working together, Williams said, “I still marvel at her consistency and pursuit of excellence in everything she does.”

Not quite a hippie

After Hester graduated from Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington in 1968, she got a job at the same Western Electric plant where her parents worked. The idea of going off to college wasn’t something that was even talked about in her family.

“We were conditioned to think you go out in the world and get a job and take care of yourself,” Hester said. “I was just eager to get out and work and get a paycheck, get me a car, you know, the typical things that teenagers like to do.”

She was not quite in as much hurry to get married. She was a full two years out of high school when she married Robert Hester, one of her brother’s friends, who in short order took her away from Burlington to see some of the world as his Navy wife.

Hester can still recall her father’s reaction after Robert called her from boot camp with the news that he — they — would be assigned to San Francisco.

“I hung up the phone and told my mom and dad, ‘I’m going to California.’ My dad looked at me and said, ‘No you are not.’ He had forgot at that moment that I was married, you know.”

It was 1970 after all, and Hester just giggles when asked what it was like for a young woman from a small town known for its textiles to live in a city that in 1970 was attracting as many gawking tourists to psychedelic Haight-Ashbury as to the Golden Gate Bridge. She calls this period her “hippie years” but quickly qualified the comment by saying Robert had a top-secret security clearance at the Navy and so “I had to reel it in a little bit.”

Hippie or not, Hester enjoyed being away from home and in a place where she could experience new things and meet different kinds of people. ” I had never done that before,” Hester said. “In a way, it was like going off to college.”

After three years living on Skaggs Island near San Francisco, she and Robert ended up on a slightly bigger island on the other side of North America — in Gander, Newfoundland.

A quantum leap

Hester started working in the chemistry department at Carolina in 1974, but it would be another five years before she joined the Honors Program that would become her permanent home.

The program, at the time, was located on the third floor of South Building, then was moved in 1981 to the third floor of Steele where the program — and Hester — would remain for the next 18 years.

The big leap forward for the program came in the late 1990s with plans to renovate Graham Memorial to house the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence.

Randi Davenport, the executive director of the Johnson Center, recalls that when the Honors Program opened the Johnson Center some six years ago, its staff consisted of Hester, an associate dean, a part-time assistant and a half-time housekeeper.

“In those days, one and a half positions reported to Sue.”

Fast forward six years. Now the Johnson Center has an associate dean, an executive director, an assistant dean, a development officer, two program officers, three advisers, three program assistants, a facilities manager, a maintenance mechanic and six housekeepers, Davenport said.

The rapid expansion of staff reflects the rapid expansion of the Honors Program, and hence, the rapid expansion of Hester’s responsibilities, Davenport said,

Eleven people within the Honors Program now report to Hester, Davenport said, not counting the program assistant to President Emeritus William Friday who works down the hall.

Hester unfailingly met their needs with her characteristic dispatch and warmth.

“Under conditions that might have caused other people to ‘coast’ or leave, Sue has brought gentle good humor to the challenge brought by our great progress, managing budgets, staff and new demands on her time with equal amounts of grace and dedication,” Davenport said.

Historian James Leloudis, who began working with Hester in 1999 as the associate dean of the Honors Program, recalls the excitement generated when more than $7 million was raised to renovate Graham Memorial.

The secret not so widely shared, Leloudis said, was the relatively little planning that had been done to turn the center from idea to reality. Hester pitched in however and wherever she was needed, from balancing the books to moving chairs to sweeping floors, Leloudis said.

“Perhaps most important, Sue provided seasoned guidance as we grew our staff from four to 21,” Leloudis said. “She set a standard of professionalism and collegiality that fuels a genuine esprit de corps and makes the center an exciting, challenging and reward place to work.”

Today, with help from Hester’s steady hand, the dream has become reality, Leloudis said. Its lounge and terrace are meeting places for people and ideas, its classrooms enlivened by more than 50 honors classes now offered each term. All told, the center hosts more than 1,000 special events a year to help make the undergraduate experience at Carolina one of the most vibrant in the nation.

People like Hester do much of the work to make it all happen.

“Great ideas seldom go far without imaginative, hardworking advocates who are willing to do the quiet, behind-the-scenes job of making programs run,” Leloudis said. “Sue Hester is one of those indispensable individuals.”

Friday, in his nominating letter, wrote that he knew Knox Massey for most of his professional career — and knew what Massey had hoped his award would achieve.

“In Sue Hester’s work and service to the University, Knox’s dreams are richly fulfilled,” Friday said.

Just desserts

The award comes a year before Hester plans to retire from the University and devote more of her attention to family.

In place of her four brothers, she has a grown daughter and son who have given her grandchildren. Her daughter, Jennifer, happens to have married a man with the last name of Johnston.  She had two children, 3-year-old Luke and 1-year-old Jake. Her son, Rodney, is married and has a six-month-old baby Abby, along with an 11-year-old stepson, Austin.

Home for Hester and her husband is off of N.C. 86 on the outskirts of Graham.

When she is not doting on her grandchildren, Hester said, she will stay busy in the custom cabinetry shop out back. Her husband Robert is a master carpenter at Duke but operates the business part-time with help from their son Rodney.

Hester expects she will be out there, too, sanding and sweeping and keeping track of the books.

“My job is getting in the way of my life,” Hester said. “It really is. I don’t have enough time on weekends with my family and grandkids and to work in the cabinet shop.”

Hester said she knows she will miss work when the time comes next year to finally call it quits. More than the work, she will miss the people, and the person she knows she will miss most of all is Charlotte Williams.

“You know how people say, ‘She’s my right hand.’ Well, she’s left-handed and I’m right handed, so I always say Charlotte is my left hand, and I’m her right. She watched my children grow up. I watched her daughter grow up. She is not just a colleague of mine. She is a dear friend, and part of my family.”

The recognition from the Massey — if not all the attention — has felt good, Hester said. When she first won it, Hester said, she joked that she had a sense of what actors might feel like after they win an Academy Award. But in the months since, she has come to view it differently as she gazes up at the framed document in her office.

“I sort of feel like it’s my degree, my college degree that’s hanging on my wall,” she said.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 7, 2005

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