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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mary Craven always put a shine in her work as she motivated those around her

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Mary Craven was born in Siler City in 1947, in the middle of a brood of five, a couple of years after her father returned from fighting in World War II to work at the cotton mill.

“My mother and father raised us to have respect for everybody and to treat people like you want to be treated,” Craven said. “I always tried to keep that going. And I tried to teach my four children the same thing.”

She, her two sisters and two brothers went to the same school. They had to since it was the only one in town and it went from first grade to 12th.

In February 1965, near the end of her senior year, she married her high school sweetheart who had graduated the year before and was working at the town’s police department.

A few months later, after she earned her diploma, Craven did what most of her classmates did. “I went to work,” she said. And in Siler City, there was only one setting to look for a job: the mills.

She started out working in a lingerie factory and stayed for nearly a decade before leaving for a hosiery mill, where she put in 20 more years sewing pantyhose.

One of her friends who had gone to work as a housekeeper at Carolina in the late 1980s had urged Craven to join her, but Craven had always thought the 32-mile drive from Siler City to Chapel Hill was too far. By 1992, though, she decided the long drive seemed better than spending another hour on the production line, where every hour was the same.

She was 45 years old the morning she walked through the door of Old West to start her shift. It was 3:50 a.m., Craven remembers, and she thought she had died and gone to heaven. Everything was so peaceful and quiet, and the work was not coming at her the way it did in the mill. She could work at her own pace, and take the time to do it well.

“Once I got my work done, I could stand back and look at it and be proud,” Craven said.  “There was a small area inside the front entrance and I always kept that floor shiny. I remember people would come in and they would talk about how the floor was just glowing.”

When she heard those remarks, she did more than see the shine. She felt it.

Craven would have been happy to stay in that job until she retired, but an unexpected opportunity came along six months after she started – the chance to go back to school while she was working.

She ended up being in the first course offered by the clerical skills program that Carolina started for housekeepers in 1992.

“I didn’t know anything about computers, and it was hard,” Craven said. “I remember one of my instructors used to catch me looking at the keys and he would come over and put his hands over my eyes and he would say, ‘Now go on and type.’”

When she finished the course a year later, she typed her resume and began applying for every clerical position that came open on campus.

She went to work as the secretary for the director of housekeeping in 1994, and when a new director came along, Craven was given a new title: administrative assistant. She remained in that position for 18 years, serving five different directors.

Over the years, people came to know her as “Miss Mary” and gave her the unofficial title of mother of the department, the person who would try to counsel, motivate or scold as she saw fit.

If a birthday was coming up, Craven made sure a birthday card found its way to the right mailbox. If there was a death in a family, a floral arrangement and card was sent to the right home.

What guided “Miss Mary” in everything she did was what her mother taught her. Just as she had learned to type without looking at the keys, she learned to treat people right without having to think about it.

“The main thing I started out doing was just answering the phone and taking work orders and directing the different problems that came up to the right people,” Craven said. “So I got to meet a lot of people through the telephone.”

It was from a phone call from Chancellor Holden Thorp this spring that Craven learned she had won a 2013 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. But it took some coaxing from her husband, she admits, to get her to the phone.

“I don’t talk on the phone much because I had to do it so much when I worked here,” she said. “So when he said, ‘Telephone,’ I said (whispering), ‘Who is it?’

“He said, ‘I think it is the chancellor.’

“I said, ‘Dog, what did I do?’ That’s the first thing I said. ‘What did I do?’”

When Thorp told her she had won the Massey, she replied: “‘Quit picking on me,’ and he said, ‘Nah, I’m not teasing. It’s for real.’ I couldn’t believe it, and I can hardly believe it now.”

Even though it’s been months since she got that call, she can still feel the shine.