Admissions ambassador recognized with Massey Award
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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
After probing the students for their
interests and abilities, she would direct them to the schools that would fit
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
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
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