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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina's 'heart and soul' Brenda Kirby retires after 40 years

Competency . . . Continuity . . . Class.

Those are the virtues Brenda Kirby brought to the chancellor’s office in South Building and the reasons six chancellors, 25 chairs of the Board of Trustees and 32 student body presidents came to rely on her like no other.

What everyone quickly discovered was that Kirby ran the show, as former Trustee Chair Timothy Burnett described during a recent tribute event to honor her.

She wore enough hats in South Building to fill a hat rack – as assistant to the chancellor, as secretary of the University and as assistant secretary to the Board of Trustees. She executed each role with an unflappable combination of dignity and grace.

Soon after he joined the board, Burnett said, someone pulled him aside and explained something he never forgot.

“He said, ‘You know, the sergeants run the Army and the chiefs run the Navy.’ I said, ‘Why are you telling me this?’

“And he said, ‘Well, Brenda runs the University.’”

She has always been the person people turned to when they needed something done, Burnett said. And no matter what time of day or night, no matter what the task, she always delivered. Always.

Chancellor Emeritus Paul Hardin said, “At no time in my memory did she leave something undone that came to her desk and was important to the University. Not one time.”

Kirby has served the University for 40 years. During her 32 years in South Building, Chancellor Holden Thorp said, she was the first in the door in the morning and the last one out at night. Her presence enveloped the building with the warmth and comfort of a security blanket – shared with and felt by all.

Southern comfort

One of Kirby’s longtime friends is Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid. Over the years, the two women have gone out to lunch every few months, often after Ort has returned from a recent trip.

More than once, Ort said, Kirby has said she was a little envious. Long vacations have been few and far between because, as Ort said, Kirby became too indispensable to too many people to allow her to be gone very long.

She engenders confidence in the people who come to her for help, Ort said.

“If she says something is OK, you know it is,” Ort said. “Having Brenda in South Building gives me the same feeling I get on a cold, rainy weekend morning – knowing that a good comfort food is within easy reach. Her advice has a certain savory sensibility to it – and her common sense has a way of sticking to your ribs.”

Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, met Kirby when he was student body president. For all the student body presidents, Nelson said, “Brenda was our den mother.”

“Brenda made the institution human,” he said. “You knew you could call 962-1365 and find Brenda, and she would answer any question you had at any time.”

Former trustee Rusty Carter agrees.

On a scary night in 2006, he said, he called Kirby to tell her that his daughter, then a first-year student at Carolina, had been rushed to the emergency room. She was suffering from severe headaches and a stiff neck and could barely move.

They feared it could be meningitis, he told her, and he was on his way from Wilmington to Chapel Hill. When he stepped into the emergency room two-and-a-half hours later, it was after midnight, Carter said, and “Brenda Kirby was holding my daughter’s hand.”

Recounting the story during the tribute to Kirby, Carter spoke directly to her: “My daughter is well and fine. It wasn’t meningitis, after all, but we thought it was. We’ll never forget it. We’ll never forget you. You did a wonderful job. That’s the Brenda Kirby I know.”

Kirby also has served as a liaison between the chancellor and other administrators, faculty and staff. And the public turns to the chancellor’s office for help with everything from a parking ticket to admissions, and most often it falls to Kirby to redirect them to the appropriate person or office.

Kirby handles these communications with graciousness and tact, even when she has to be insistent – as Jackie Overton, chair of the Employee Forum, found out last year. Kirby had called with an invitation from the chancellor to speak at the University Day convocation.

Overton said she gave Kirby a firm no, and remembers the long pause that followed.

“Jackie,” Kirby said gently, “when the chancellor calls to ask you to give a speech, he is not really asking.”

And on Oct. 12, 2011, Overton gave the stem-winder of the day.

An unmatched record of service

Kirby worked for eight years at Carolina before she went to South Building. Born and raised in Chapel Hill, she went to business school and spent nine years working for the town’s Chamber of Commerce before joining the University. From 1972 to 1977, she worked for three Air Force ROTC colonels, and then moved to the dean’s office in the School of Medicine, where she worked for former deans Stuart Bondurant and Christopher Fordham.

Fordham asked her to come with him to South Building when he became chancellor in 1980. She told Fordham that she didn’t like routine – she looked for different challenges. Fordham assured her that there would be an unlimited supply. He didn’t steer her wrong.

In the last three decades, University leaders have come and gone, but this quiet, efficient woman has been the constant that connected – and comforted – them all with her imperturbable wisdom.

From Fordham to Hardin.

Hardin to Michael Hooker.

Hooker to Bill McCoy.

McCoy to James Moeser.

Moeser to Thorp.

They drew from her institutional knowledge; they trusted her instincts to navigate the latest crisis; they relied on her sense of humor to relieve a little of the pressure at times of stress.

“Never has there been someone with the clarity of thought and the purity of heart that Brenda Kirby has – and all her chancellors and all her trustees are in her debt,” said former Trustee Chair Roger Perry.

Over the years, her innumerable contributions have been recognized with a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, a General Alumni Association Distinguished Service Medal and membership in the Order of the Golden Fleece, the University’s oldest and highest honorary society.

During her tribute dinner, current Trustee Chair Wade Hargrove announced that a bench with a plaque in Kirby’s name had been installed on the South Building portico beside the benches of many of the chancellors she served.

“Thank you, Brenda, for all you have done all these many years and for all the gifts of time, talent, good judgment and knowledge that you have shared with this great institution,” Hargrove said.

After everyone else spoke, Thorp summoned Kirby to the microphone. It may have been one of the few times in her career where she did not appear eager to complete a task.

“This night has been more than I could have ever imagined or dreamed for, but I’ve got to tell you that I have loved every day working at this University,” she said. “People like you have made my life so fulfilling.”

At their May 24 board meeting, the trustees approved a resolution of appreciation for Kirby that included accolades for how she managed the chancellor’s office with “consummate skill, intellect and grace, establishing an atmosphere of professionalism and discretion combined with humor and charm.” After the resolution was read, the entire room erupted into an unusually long standing ovation.

Later this month, when four decades of endless work days are behind her, there will be long-delayed vacations to take, grandkids to see and a garden to tend with the same meticulous care she gave every piece of University business that crossed her desk.

But a piece of her heart and soul will always be in South Building, Thorp said, and with it, a legacy that belongs to the ages.

“Quite simply, she is the most important employee that the University of North Carolina has ever had,” Thorp said. “Nobody, in all the years there has been a University, has loved it more, or knew it better, or served it as well.

The families of all the chancellors Kirby served created the Brenda W. Kirby Award, which will be presented annually to a student who has most effectively worked to establish a community of cooperation and service between students and other members of the University.