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A ‘valuable presence in our lives’

If there is such a thing as a home away from home, maybe it’s possible for there to be a mom away from mom, too.

There are as many as 80 students inside Spencer Residence Hall who think they may have found such a woman in the person of housekeeper Virginia Baillif.

Like a mom, she brews a fresh pot of coffee every morning and stacks next to it a pile of the latest “Daily Tar Heel.”

And like a mom, she gives them a smile to start their day.

To show her how much they think of her, they approached Kala Gray, the community director in the Department of Housing and Residential Education, to see if there was something they could do for her to show how much she was appreciated.

The end result?

A 2003 C. Knox Massey Award. In the award’s citation, students described her as “cheerful” and “wonderful to be around” and “a powerful and valuable presence in our lives.”

Gray knows there is more to creating a good living environment for students than keeping the tiles sparkling in the bathrooms.

What amazes her about Baillif is that she understands that, too. And puts that understanding to work.

“I think one of the things that stands out with Virginia is she is an active member of the community she serves,” Gray said. “That’s a huge thing to say. A lot of the housekeepers come and it’s a job, they work here. Virginia makes it like it’s her home. She takes it seriously. It’s personal for her.”

The University, Gray said, finds itself challenged in the nature of the relationship that exists between students and its low-wage workers. If it seems they have nothing in common, how do you ensure students will respect them?

On the two floors of Spencer Hall, one woman has laid those questions to rest. “Most students can’t imagine having that job, but Virginia comes to work every day without fail, and she is always smiling,” Gray said.

‘I didn’t learn nothing’
The smiles Baillif doles out so freely to students hide a life of heartache and hardship.

She was born 52 years ago in Del Rio, Tex., a small, mostly Hispanic town about 150 miles due west of San Antonio.

She became deaf by the time she turned 4.

Her mother reared her and her brother and sister on her own. “I don’t have a father,” she said, or at least any father that she has ever known.

Her mother had moved from Mexico to Texas before she was born, and to keep food on the table for her family, she worked for the rich families that lived in big houses. Her big sister cared for Virginia and her brother when their mother was away.

She never went to bed with an empty stomach, even if most nights she filled it with pinto beans alone. If they ate meat, it came from yard chicken killed and cooked the same day.

“I grew up very poor, but I didn’t know any different,” she said.

There was no money left over from her mother’s paychecks to buy a hearing aid. As a result, Virginia languished through most of her childhood in a public school where, as she put it, “I didn’t learn nothing.”

By the age of 12, Virginia still could not read or write.

She was 12 when somebody in one of the big houses where her mother worked told her about a school for the deaf in Austin where she could enroll her daughter. During this same process, a state vocational rehabilitation office arranged for her to get her first hearing aid.

At first, she said, there was too much noise coming at her brain to process it. “Everything sounded like a whistle,” she said.

Gradually, her ears adjusted and Virginia did, too, but the wasted school years took their toll.

She left school when she was 21, still having reached only the tenth grade.

She moved back home to Del Rio and went to work for a blue jean factory but left after a year.

There had been a boyfriend back in Austin who worked as a cashier at a store she used to go to. The boy came to Del Rio to look her up. They married, moved back to Austin, had a daughter and divorced.

Baillif and her daughter returned to live with Baillif’s mother once more in Del Rio, and Baillif got a welding job at a local Motorola plant that made semiconductor wafers. And it was there, in the plant, that she would meet a man who worked for IBM in Austin who would become her second husband.

That marriage produced two sons and took her to North Carolina after IBM transferred her husband to the IBM complex in Research Triangle Park.

But that marriage didn’t last either.

One more time, Baillif found herself moving on, once again alone.

‘God giving me blessing’
The day Gray summoned Baillif to her office to take the phone call from Chancellor James Moeser, Baillif figured she must have been in trouble.

“He asked me, `Are you Virginia?’ I said, `Yes, I am.'”

But it got confusing from there.

“He said, `Congratulations.’ I said, `What?'”

The significance of the Massey is something she understands full well now, as the $5,000 stipend that came with it required no explanation.

“I guess God giving me blessing,” she said.

And she considers herself blessed in other ways as well.

Her daughter is now 29 and is the mother of a 2-year-old girl.

The two sons are now 20 and 17. The oldest attends N.C. State University, the youngest lives with his father and hopes to attend Carolina when he graduates.

“One of the other housekeepers asked me, `Virginia, how did you get this award?’ I told her, `Work hard, be nice to students, don’t complain about cleaning the bathrooms. Don’t say bad things about the good students, say good things.'”

Now that all the attention has passed, Baillif continues doing her job that same way.

A while back, Baillif talked to Gray about the possibility of quitting to get a job closer to where she lives in Raleigh. In the end, Baillif couldn’t bring herself to go.

“Virginia told me, `I don’t want to leave, I love this job.’ I rarely hear people say they love their job, and it amazes me even more to hear a housekeeper say she loves her job. I know some of the things she deals with — like walking into a bathroom and having to clean up vomit.

“That’s why the students love her. She never really has a bad day. She appreciates the job and the students she gets to work with.”

She has worked at Carolina for five years now and has no plans to leave, especially not now, she said.

This is, after all, her home away from home, too, the one place she can go and be a mom away from mom.

Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 5, 2003

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