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Admissions ambassador recognized with Massey Award

Klapper For many students and their families, Sue Klapper was the face of Carolina for 26 years.
Sue Klapper
For many students and their families, Sue Klapper was the face of Carolina for 26 years.

Sue Klapper grew up knowing the putrid smell a paper mill can make on a cold, rainy day.

She grew up knowing a lot of other things about the mill in Plymouth, too, thanks to the man running it, who happened to be her father. She said he taught her more about people, and the way they should be treated, than he did about papermaking.

“Daddy taught me by example how to treat people and how to respect people,” Klapper said. “He would say to me, ‘That man over there digging the ditch knows something you don’t know. He knows how to do his job and he knows how to do it carefully and he knows how to do it well, and you should always treat people with integrity and respect.’”

She also grew up knowing that she and her sister would go to college. “It was not a have to,” Klapper said. “It was a want to.”

Even so, when she graduated from high school in 1965, it was still somewhat a novelty for a woman to go off to college. Back then, she said, girls could not come straight from high school to Carolina unless they had certain health career majors. Like many others, Klapper entered Carolina through a back door, attending Saint Mary’s College in Raleigh for two years before transferring here to major in English.

She fell in love with a young fellow who asked her to marry him and she went to summer school so she could graduate a semester early, determined to finish college before starting a life. She did not know that by the time she earned her degree her romance would be finished, too.

This past spring, Klapper once again finished up at Carolina, learning during her final week at work that she had earned a 2007 C. Knox Massey Award.

During a stellar 26-year career in the undergraduate admissions office, Klapper took on many assignments. For a time, she served as the main liaison between the admissions office and Carolina’s coaches. In recent years, she was charged with creating a program to highlight the University’s strengths in science.

For hundreds of students throughout eastern North Carolina, she became the face of Carolina. For many years, in musty auditoriums, sweaty gymnasiums and stuffy cafeterias from Bakersville to Bath, Chocowinity to Conetoe, Hobgood to Holden Beach, Klapper found herself part of a caravan of university admissions officers who carried with them information and advice about their respective schools.

None of the representatives could pack up and leave until the last student had asked the last question, she said. Invariably, that student would be standing in front of the Carolina booth, talking with Klapper — because more students were interested in Carolina than any other college. That is the way it has always been in North Carolina, Klapper said, and the way it should always be.

Klapper saw her job not as a stern gatekeeper, but a friendly guide, showing students a way to a future many had yet to envision. As the Massey citation said, “Her smile gave them the first lesson in how friendly and welcoming our campus can be. Her encouragement fueled their ambitions and her knowledge gave them an avenue to their dreams.”

Coming full circle
Of course, you can plan your future as much as you want, Klapper knows, then life sets its own course.

After she gave back her engagement ring, Klapper got a teaching job — but not the one she had expected. After teaching P.E. to seventh graders for a semester, she landed a job teaching high school English in New Bern.

“What I discovered was, in order to teach these children well you had to have them write every day,” Klapper said.

But that meant she had to grade their papers every night and have them ready to hand back the next day. She had 150 students, which meant 150 papers to grade night after night.

After one year, she began to feel stuck in a paper mill of her own making and knew she had to get out. Klapper once again turned to her father for advice. “I told Daddy, ‘I don’t like teaching English, I want to do something else.’ He said, ‘Miss Boo (he called me Miss Boo), if you want to go to school, just figure it out.’”

That’s how she ended up going to the University of Florida in Gainesville to get a master of arts degree, with an eye toward teaching theater. This time around, though, she ended up with a husband along with her degree. David Klapper was there to earn his Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology, but he had also developed an interest in theater as an undergraduate.

They met, as luck would have it, backstage during a stagecraft class. He saw her while she was high on a ladder, on that they both agree. What remains in dispute is what exactly he saw her in. Bermuda shorts, she demurs, whenever the story is told. A mini-skirt, David retorts.

Either way, by June 1972, they were married, and shortly after moved to New York City, where David completed two years of postdoctoral work. Their daughter, Ashley, was born in 1974, just before they left for Dallas, where their son, Josh, was born in 1976.

Soon after, during a summer visit to North Carolina to see Sue’s father, David interviewed in Chapel Hill for an assistant professorship in microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine. It wasn’t until the following February that Klapper thought to ask David if he had heard anything about the job. He hadn’t, he said, but he would call and check.

“Later that day, the doorbell rang and there was a florist standing there with a beautiful flower arrangement,” she said. “I opened the card and it said, ‘Sell the house.’”

The house the Klappers bought in Chapel Hill happened to be down the street from a personable fellow named Dick Baddour, who was the assistant director in the Carolina admissions office. Klapper knew him because he had a little girl about Ashley’s age. Before long, the two families were friends.

When Ashley and Josh reached school age in 1980, Klapper asked Baddour if he knew of any part-time jobs. That is how, in January 1981, she started working at the admissions office as a temporary, part-time worker, reviewing and filing admission forms and greeting people at the front desk when the rest of her work was done.

As the job expanded, Klapper grew with it. In 1987, when one of the assistant director positions came open, she applied thinking, “I can do this.”

The folks in the admissions office agreed. She got the job and that fall, she hit the road.

Connecting with the students
Her territory was eastern North Carolina, and it was a good fit. Klapper might not have known the names of all the towns, but she knew the kind of people she would find in them. She connected with them because she never forgot what it was like growing up in Plymouth and not knowing much about the outside world except that she wanted to be a part of it.

The students came to her hoping they had what it took to get into Carolina. Many of them came to her mistakenly believing that the answer lay in their SAT scores.

“The common question they ask is, ‘What sort of SAT do I have to have to get into your school?’ And they say that at every table,” Klapper said. “It doesn’t matter what school they are standing in front of. It’s a question you try not to answer because that’s not what it’s about, but it’s what they think it’s about.”

Klapper would explain that the SAT score was only one piece of information considered. “Tell me what kind of classes you are taking. What are you interested in studying?” she would ask. “Ultimately, I would answer their question about the SAT because it does fit into the picture. But if you gave them that number it would sometimes frighten them and their eyes would glaze over and they wouldn’t hear the rest of what you were saying to them.”

People from eastern North Carolina have a strong sense of place, a tie to the land and to their kin that can be so powerful it is hard for them to leave, even for college.

Klapper said she couldn’t count the times she talked to young women who asked, “How far is it to Chapel Hill?” When she told them it was two hours away by car, they would say, “Oh, that’s too far. I can’t get that far away from home. I can’t get that far away from Mom.”

For such girls, Klapper would suggest attending community college for two years and transferring to Carolina as juniors.

When she sat in front of the line of students five deep, she also kept in mind the advice her father gave her years before.

“Now I knew sometimes that the student standing in front of me was not going to be coming to Carolina,” she said. “But that student still needed information. That student still needed help and guidance. And they needed to be treated like my daddy would have treated them — with integrity and respect. And you don’t want to tell them right away that this is not going to happen.”

After probing the students for their interests and abilities, she would direct them to the schools that would fit best.

The hardest part of her job was talking to parents about the rejection letter their son or daughter got in the mail. “For many of these children, it’s like experiencing a death in the family when you tell them no,” Klapper said. “Sometimes, it’s not just the child’s and parents’ expectations that are dashed. It’s the death of a dream.”

The love and respect that many North Carolinians feel for Carolina, Klapper believes, is a product of the high regard that the state has always had for higher education — and for the University.

When Klapper conducted campus information sessions for prospective students and their parents, there would sometimes be as many as 150 in the room and all but a handful would typically be from out of state.

“I would tell them that North Carolina may be a rural state but that Carolina was one of the best state-supported universities in the country and it was also the first,” she said.

“Whenever they heard that, the North Carolinians in the group would sit up a little straighter and I’d think, ‘We have something very special.’”

Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 15, 2007

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series featuring 2007 winners of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late Massey of Durham created the awards in 1980 to recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. The award is supported by the Massey-Weatherspoon Fund created by three generations of Massey and Weatherspoon families. Chancellor James Moeser selected the honorees from nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation and $6,000 stipend.

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