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Thompson recognized with Massey Award for her support, compassion

Wanda Thompson, a 2007 recipient of the Massey Award, cares for her extended family in Winston Residence Hall.
Wanda Thompson, a 2007 recipient of the Massey Award, cares for her extended family in Winston Residence Hall.

Wanda Thompson began life in Chapel Hill as a newborn baby at N.C. Memorial Hospital.

Some 45 years later, she is still here with an extended family of babies to care for — and care for them she does.

Technically they are not babies; they are college students with some growing up left to do. But Thompson still thinks of them as her babies nonetheless, a little unsteady on their feet as they make the transition from home to college, from coddled kids to responsible young men and women.

Her official job as housekeeper is to clean up after the students. It is a job she takes seriously and makes sure she does well. She does not walk out of a bathroom unless it is sparkling clean. She does not walk away from a hallway until it is spotless.

But Thompson also does something else that is not part of her official job description — she looks after the students in Winston Residence Hall as if they were her own. Although they are too big to be carried, she is there to figuratively lift them up when they stumble or fall.

It is this blend of competence and compassion that the Winston students find special about Thompson, special enough for 32 of them to write nominating letters that led to Thompson winning a 2007 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

One student described Thompson as the “lifeblood of the University” because she helps students feel good about the place — and themselves. “Every day, rain or shine, she walks the halls, singing to herself, smiling from ear to ear, greeting the sleepless students she has come to know, working behind the scenes … ready with a word of encouragement, a compliment or simply a smile.”

‘Do your work’

Thompson grew up on a farm outside Hillsborough. It was a good and secure childhood, she remembers. She was the baby of the family, with two sisters and three brothers to help her parents do much of the work.

Her father supported the family by growing tobacco and raising beef cattle. He kept horses as pets for his children. When Thompson was 13, her father stopped farming to go to work in a textile plant in Mebane.

Thompson graduated from Orange County High School in 1981 with dreams of becoming a fashion model, so she set off for a modeling school in Greensboro and trips to New York City until the money from her parents ran out.

Now, Thompson is a single mom who is equally proud of her two kids and herself for the way she tried to raise them. Her son Marcus, who was born when she was 20, is now 25. Her daughter Payge, now 16 and a junior in high school, was born nine years later.

Asked why she waited so long to have the second child, she said she was waiting for the right man to come along. She is still waiting for the right man to come along, she said with laughter in her voice. What is more important, she believes, is staying right with the Lord as she has done for most of her adult life.

Although she lives in Siler City, Thompson drives 40 minutes every Sunday morning to attend Jeffries Cross Baptist Church in Burlington — the same church she has attended since Marcus was 2.

“I wasn’t very much into church until I had the kids and then it grew on me,” Thompson said.

Thompson has worked in three different factories, all of which closed before she came to the University to work a couple of years after Payge was born. That was 13 years ago, and Thompson said she could see herself working here until she retires.

Thompson does not wear her religion on her sleeve, but when students come to her because they are struggling and feeling as if they cannot make it, she reminds them of the power of faith. “I’ll tell them, ‘Pray. God will see you through anything.’”

Most of the students are privileged in a way Thompson could only imagine when she was growing up. But none are perfect, and some need to be reminded not to squander the opportunities they have, Thompson said.

“I tell them, ‘You have everything in life going for you all. When I was coming up, my parents could not afford to do the things that your parents do for you all, and you all should take advantage of that and use it to the best of your ability. Your parents sent you here for a reason and it wasn’t for you to just party. Do your work.’”

When she finds a student she knows sleeping in the lounge, she will take the liberty of waking him up.

“I’ll go over there and say, ‘Hey, John, is it time for class?’ and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, Miss Wanda, what time is it?’ and I’ll say, ‘Your mama didn’t send you to school to sleep all morning. Get up and go to class’ and he’ll say, ‘Thank you, Miss Wanda, thank you.’”

When they try to tell her how tired they are, she responds, “Going to class is what you need. You’ll be all right. Have a good day.”

Not just any job

Being a housekeeper started out as just another job to put food on the table and to pay the rent, but the students made it into something more — which was revealed in the pile of letters supporting her nomination for the Massey. “She is my favorite person in the world,” exclaimed one exuberant endorsement. “She’s the BEST!! I love her!” wrote another.

“She provides our dorm with a loving and caring atmosphere,” said one student. “The college experience wouldn’t be the same without her.”

A resident wrote, “Not coming from North Carolina means I don’t get to see my own mother but a few times a year … It is nice to have someone here who makes Carolina feel even more like home.”

One student praised how quickly Thompson could make the mess from the weekend disappear. “Every morning when I return from class, the floor, bathrooms, lounges and water fountains are immaculate thanks to her hard work and diligence,” the student wrote. “She does a thankless job with thoroughness and pride.”

But Thompson does not consider it thankless. She knew she was appreciated, she said, even before Chancellor James Moeser called this past spring to tell her she had won the Massey. She was home recuperating from minor surgery when he called, and as she remembers, barely coherent because of the pain medication she was taking at the time.

“‘I have some news for you,’” Thompson said she remembered Moeser telling her.

“Good or bad?” she asked.

“‘Good,’” Thompson said he responded.

“‘I’m kind of sick,’” she said, ready to hang up the phone.

“‘Well, you have just won the Massey,’” she said Moeser told her.

“Ohhh,” she said, “I feel better.”

What makes her feel best of all is the affection that she feels toward her students and the affection she gets from them in return. Winning the Massey is a once in a lifetime experience. But the students are an important part of her life every day.

Cleaning up messes is not always about bathroom fixtures or hallway floors.

Once, she found a boy sleeping on the table in the kitchen when she got to work before 7 a.m. She found him on the table the next morning, and the morning after that.

“I would go in and I was like, ‘Honey, are you OK?’ and he was like, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’m OK.’”

After a week had passed, she searched for a resident assistant to find out what the trouble might be. Turns out that the boy’s roommate had kicked him out of the room and he had not told anyone.

But the cause of the problem was not her concern. “I just wanted to get him back in his room or get him somewhere where he could sleep.”

Of course, all the students at Winston who come into her life will leave it one day, but the bond she feels toward them never fully fades away.

It might not be the kind of job that will ever make her rich, but for Thompson it carries a satisfaction that cannot be counted by the numbers on a paycheck.

“I don’t care where I am on this campus, if I see one of my students who has been in this dorm in past years, they will come up to me and hug me. It’s a lot of love. They didn’t forget who took care of them like mama.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 31, 2007

Editor’s note: This story is one in 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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