Thompson recognized with Massey Award for her support,
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.
Wanda Thompson, a 2007 recipient of the Massey Award, cares
for her extended family in
Winston Residence Hall.
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
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
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
Although she lives in Siler City, Thompson
drives 40 minutes every Sunday morning to attend Jeffries Cross Baptist Church
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 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
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
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
“‘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
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
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
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
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.”
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