Three Retiring Administrators Share 83 Years of Memories
June 30, 2016
On Mary Swartz's first day working in the registrar's office at Old Dominion University, a pelting rainstorm rendered many streets impassable.
In a frazzled panic after a long drive down from her home in Williamsburg, Swartz walked in the front door of her new office - and was greeted with a warm hug by her new boss, former registrar Carolyn Eakin.
"I'd never worked in an office before where they welcomed you with a hug. That really hooked me," Swartz said, of the first day of her 20 years at Old Dominion, which formed the bulk of a 33-year career in higher education. "It's a tradition we've tried to keep up in our office."
Thursday was Swartz's last day as University Registrar; she is retiring. Two other senior female administrators with long tenures at the University - Debbie White, senior associate athletic director for external relations; and Sue Mitchell, director of Webb University Center - also retired June 30.
Starting July 1, the University will be missing a combined 83 years of experience and expertise. But in a free flowing conversation one afternoon during their last full week on the job, the three ladies stressed that Old Dominion University has given them much more than they have given in return.
"It's been fun to be a part of," said White, who started at Old Dominion in 1979. "I tell people when I came here we were like the little train that could. Sometimes we pulled off crazy things with our limited resources. Now we're like a big engine; we don't look anything like the first day I worked here."
Mitchell remembers walking down Hampton Boulevard on her first day at the University in 1989, seeing garbage and newspapers piled up against the chain-link fence that marked the edge of campus.
She recalled thinking, "What have I done?'"
Mitchell said she soon saw an explosion of growth and development on campus, making it completely unrecognizable from the Old Dominion she arrived at nearly 30 years ago. One constant has been present from day one, however.
"The people are wonderful. I have had support from day one to keep the programming I'm supposed to run, running. I've had every resource I've needed, and I know that hasn't always been easy for the people providing them," she said.
The conversation with the soon to be retirees took place in a boardroom in Mitchell's Webb Center office, and was long on memories. Mostly joyous ones.
White remembered the celebration on campus when the ODU Monarchs football team ran onto the field for the first time, reborn after 69 years. And the hotly contested basketball game at Norfolk Scope Arena between the ODU Lady Monarchs and the Soviet women's national team, which hadn't lost a game in more than a decade.
She also recalled another event at Scope, memorable for a different reason.
"We had a colorful mascot wearing the Big Blue costume one year," White said. "We were playing St. Joseph's and their mascot the Hawk needs to keep his arms flapping the whole game. Well our guy came up to theirs and tackled him to the ground right in front of the St. Joe's players. The mascots were both kicked out of the game. It wasn't our finest hour, but it was memorable."
Swartz said the University Registrar's office has been housed in four different divisions since she started at Old Dominion. "It's always different, that's for sure," she said.
But Swartz added the breadth of experience working in different parts of the University has been invaluable. "It's about relationships, they're what makes this University work."
White echoed the change mantra. "I've worked for six different presidents. Change is inevitable; you have to be a team player," she said. The change has brought many positives, however.
"The building of the Ted (Constant Convocation Center) changed the face of the east side of Hampton Boulevard. You wouldn't recognize it from when we all started," White said.
Mitchell said an even bigger evolution has been Old Dominion's transformation to a residential campus. "The impact of having those beds on campus - that's when we really began to change as a University. Now, there are students out experiencing campus day or night."
All three retirees are looking forward to a slightly more relaxed pace of work ("I'm dying to drink coffee in the morning and do the crossword puzzle," Mitchell said). They are all planning to do consulting work in higher education after taking some time off, to give back some of what they have learned.
But Swartz had an important revelation earlier this month, after 20 years of driving to work from Williamsburg every weekday. "I don't have to drive through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel at rush hour."
Instead, Debbie White, Mary Swartz and Sue Mitchell will cruise into a fulfilling retirement, remembered fondly by the University they have all called their professional home.