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Editor's note: This is the second of four Massey Award winner profiles.
Carol Nichols has never believed in job descriptions, especially when it comes to being limited by one.
"I believe there is no such thing as a job description," Nichols said. "If something needs to be done, you do it."
That philosophy has been a blessing to the Department of Political Science, where Nichols has worked for the last 15 years, first as a receptionist, now as secretary to the department chair.
For those 15 years, Nichols has been asked to help whenever something needs doing. That "something" has meant coming to work at 3 a.m. to make sure syllabi are ready for the start of class. Or skipping lunch to make sure a professor's manuscript gets copied in time to meet a deadline. Or hunting down the department chair to get his signature on a form due in five minutes because someone forgot to ask earlier.
The University recognized her years of cheerful, devoted contributions to making her department more efficient and pleasant by presenting Nichols with the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
"It's still taking a while to sink in," Nichols said of the award. "That's just something that doesn't happen to someone at my
level in the University."
The late C. Knox Massey, a former Durham advertising executive who served 20 years as a University trustee, created the award in 1980. The program is supported by three generations of the Massey and Weatherspoon families.
Praise for her efforts
To her colleagues, the Massey Award is a richly deserved honor for years of selfless, invaluable work. Nearly two dozen co-workers and students wrote letters nominating Nichols for the award. Those letters praised her devotion to the department and the University, her unfailing ability to meet even the most ridiculous deadlines and her generosity both of time to answer people's questions and of effort to help anyone with a need.
One of those letters came from Donald D. Searing, the department chair and Burton Craige professor of political science.
"In my 30 years in the department, I have not seen a single employee who has even come close to matching her devotion to service above and beyond his or her job description," Searing wrote. "Ms. Nichols is one of those extremely rare employees who make an institution not just a success but a superb success and a pleasure for those who work in it."
Deil S. Wright, alumni distinguished professor, praised Nichols as a versatile problem-solver.
"Carol's fundamental premise is that problem situations are really opportunities waiting for solutions," Wright said. "Her forthrightness, eargerness and fundamental desire to do an outstanding job make her a highly valued member of the department."
George Rabinowitz, a political science professor, pointed out how Nichols always helps get the job done no matter how tight the deadline.
"What is remarkable about Carol is that you can count on that type of help, and she won't make you feel it is out of the ordinary," Rabinowitz wrote. "It is this doing the extraordinary and making it seem ordinary that is her benchmark."
Nichols loves her job, finding a fresh set of challenges every day. There are demands and frustrations, she said, but she gets satisfaction from doing her job well.
"It's the challenge of the unexpected happening," she said. "You're not doing the same thing day-in, day-out."
She also loves working in her department, from getting to know new faculty members to helping students. Her colleagues appreciate her efforts to make the department a pleasant, fun place to work as much as they appreciate her efficiency.
In one nominating letter, Michael Lienesch, Bowman and Gordon Gray professor of political science, noted that Nichols has organized and catered countless departmental receptions and is the conversational focal point of the office.
"She cajoles repairmen, commiserates with faculty and brings smiles to the faces of couriers, most of whom treat her like an old friend," Lienesch wrote.
Wanting to help
Nichols said she takes the effort to make people feel welcome or bakes cakes for special occasions because she knows the big difference such seemingly small gestures make.
"The smallest thing you can do could become a very big thing in their life," she said. "The look on the person's face when you do that gives you more than money can buy."
That generosity does not stop when she leaves work. She collects canned goods, clothes, household goods and toys for needy families in West Virginia. She also makes quilts for children living on reservations in the Dakotas.
That sort of work comes in addition to spending time with her husband, Garrett, at their Mebane home. Nichols also has a grown son and daughter, Fred Doria and Andrea Doria.
She always keeps in mind that students are paying tuition to be at the University and therefore deserve answers to their questions.
"I enjoy being able to help the lost, especially students, especially freshmen," she said. "This is a big place and they can really get lost."
While the impact of getting a Massey Award has yet to sink in, Nichols said getting a chance to read those nominating letters affected her immediately.
"That hit me with such an impact that it brought tears to my eyes, to know that all those years of work were appreciated by people," she said.
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