(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
“I don’t know what I do to run off these chancellors.”
Five of them so far. Leaders of the University come and go, but the quiet, efficient woman who serves as their right hand is a constant in South Building. James Moeser said her secret was “good horse sense.
“Nobody outworks Brenda.”
The official title is Secretary of the University. Brenda rehearsed for the role as an aide to the dean of the medical school and two Air Force ROTC commanders.
Born and raised in Chapel Hill, she went to business school in Durham and worked for the Chamber of Commerce in Chapel Hill. But after nine years she had no benefits, and once she’d married and started her family she looked toward the University. Here’s what you should know — the job turnover that frightens most people, Brenda thrives on.
After five years at ROTC she applied for an administrative position in the medical school dean’s office. Chris Fordham ’47 offered her a job, but just as Brenda was giving her notice she learned of a change of command. Rather than leave the new commander in the lurch, she settled back in.
The dean didn’t forget that kind of loyalty. The next time he had an opening he called again. This time Brenda went, and she moved again when Chris was chosen chancellor. She must have known it was the last stop, because a new chancellor would need her about every eight years.
She told Chancellor Fordham she didn’t like routine — she looked for different challenges. He told her that if she stayed, there would be an unlimited supply.
As Holden Thorp ’86 said, “A lot of really weird things happen around here. Brenda keeps everything in perspective.”
The public turns to the chancellor’s office for everything from a parking ticket to a basketball ticket to admission to the University, and Brenda gently, tactfully, gracefully redirects them to the person who can solve their problem. Her sense of humor helps get the office through its times of greatest stress.
She sees everything that comes in and goes out. Paul Hardin said she was known for her good judgment, but just as well for her discretion and for knowing when to step away from the spotlight. “You don’t have to get used to her,” he said. “She doesn’t have idiosyncrasies to overcome. I don’t think anyone ever underestimates her.”
Brenda also is secretary to the Board of Trustees. “Very little is new to her,” said former trustees chair Roger Perry ’71. “She never offers advice, but when you ask for it, it’s always well-thought-out, well-measured and always on point. She never subordinates the interest of the University to anything else.” Trustees rely on Brenda’s counsel to prioritize the board’s agenda. When the chair meets with the chancellor about how to implement the board’s decisions, Brenda typically is the only other person in the room.
“Brenda coordinated the busy schedules of the chancellor and his wife and took care of details so that the chancellor could do what chancellors were supposed to do,” Carmen Hooker Odom said. “She would slip in by an elbow and whisper something to the chancellor and to me to make sure we weren’t overlooking something;”
Though she did tell Holden he would be her last chancellor, Brenda is not ready for retirement. Given how much she enjoys her work and the number of hours she devotes to it, retirement will be a real challenge for her. Replacing her institutional knowledge, her instincts and her ability to anticipate and act will be difficult for us all.
“I don’t think I could be idle,” she says. Not once in 48 years has Brenda Kirby thought, “I don’t want to go to work today.”