A 'valuable presence in our lives'
Massey Award-winner Virginia Baillif nurtures
her students while cleaning Spencer Hall
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.
are as many as 80 students inside Spencer Residence Hall who
think they may have found such a woman in the person of housekeeper
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.