In recognition of their long-term and extraordinary support of the university community, William & Mary will honor Executive House Manager of the President’s House Shelia Harris and Department of Physics Graduate Program Coordinator Paula Perry with the 2023 Charles and Virginia Duke Award.
The award recognizes “outstanding employees for exemplary individual accomplishments in their professional lives and service to the William & Mary community.” Harris and Perry will officially be recognized during the university’s Commencement ceremony on May 19.
Those who work with Harris say she is a sea of calm amid competing demands that vary daily, change at a moment’s notice and never occur quite the same way twice.
Running the President’s House, she is responsible for everything it takes to operate the household. It all starts and stops with her, and people close to the operation can’t say enough good things about her affable personality and exacting standards.
“I just enjoy doing the work that I do,” Harris said. “I really enjoy it because if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t have been here 36 years. I wouldn’t be working at the university 37 years. Everything I do, I really enjoy.”
Her reaction to receiving the award was absolute shock, she said. Managing the house and its adjoining guest cottage for five presidents, their families and pets over the years, she has adapted seamlessly to accommodating the specific needs of each of them, as well as the many guests who attend events and sometimes stay overnight.
President Emeritus Taylor Reveley, who lived in the President’s House for 10 years, described in his nomination letter Harris’ deft management of people, objects and activities as “leading and managing with grace and effectiveness.”
“William & Mary thrives on the service of people who care deeply for the good of the university and its people, who do their work for the university with tireless excellence, and who deal with their colleagues with warm collegiality,” Reveley wrote. “Shelia Harris does all this in the grand tradition of what is best about William & Mary.”
With clockwork precision, Harris coordinates everything from day-to-day housework to major events such as formal lunches, dinners and receptions, as well as ongoing service, maintenance and repairs. From answering the door and phone to making arrangements with numerous departments around campus and around town, she is in constant motion.
Because the President’s House is part living quarters and part public space for events, it serves numerous important functions for the university. Its age and historic nature, and the numerous period pieces housed in it, require an enormous amount of upkeep.
Taking care of everything around them allows the university’s president and their spouse to focus on the very important work of the university, according to Harris. Pity the repairperson who shows up unannounced and is told the president is here working; now is not a good time.
“My responsibility and my job is really everything; everything around here,” Harris said.
Kimberly Renner, former associate director of Historic Campus, described in a letter supporting her nomination that Harris does everything from working with florists to caterers to welcoming community leaders to the President’s House. She also works with students in various capacities and serves as a mentor to many.
“I saw Shelia in action firsthand and was continually impressed by her dedication, drive, knowledge, unwavering enthusiasm and phenomenal work ethic,” Renner wrote. “Shelia works long hours, and she is very hard-working. Ms. Harris is inspiring to all around her.”
Her personal traits that are helpful in the job are flexibility and patience, according to Harris. There’s also her penchant for cleanliness and neatness with emphasis on sparkle and shine, which she implements in her own home.
“Everything has to be in order and has to be in place neatly,” Harris said. “I am a very, very neat person.”
As executive director of university events, Steve Tewksbury knows very well what is required to seamlessly manage all of the details Harris handles daily. He described Harris as “the firmly planted anchor of excellence.”
“She provides the steady and predictable calm that is necessary so there is never a worry about the state of the home or whether a guest will be taken care of during a reception, meal or overnight stay,” Tewksbury wrote.
“Shelia is truly an institution at William & Mary, partially due to her longevity, but also for her can-do attitude, her reliability, her ability to learn new processes as her job has changed, her refusal to compromise excellence, her capability to work alongside so many different personalities of faculty, staff and students and most notably, her commitment to taking her job seriously without taking herself too seriously.”
Graduate students in the physics department go through their program under the caring but firm guidance of Perry, whom those in the department say is thoroughly dedicated to her role of coordinating numerous areas of detail.
“As support staff, if we’re making sure that students are registered when they’re supposed to be, that their stipends are paid when they’re supposed to be — then that frees them up to do the science of it all,” Perry said.
“If they have to be concerned about all of that, they’re going to be less able to focus on what they should be doing. So as support staff, what we do may seem small. But it’s the small things so they can do the heavy lifting.”
Spending the past 42 of her 43 years at W&M in physics, Perry is described as a tireless advocate who is quick to help as well as to admonish when necessary. She said she never would have expected to be recognized with the award.
“I feel very appreciated here in physics, but not to the tune of Duke Award level,” Perry said.
She supports the physics graduate program by managing fiscal administration, records, course scheduling and registration, and support for graduate recruitment and admissions — including serving as liaison for applicants.
This often involves serving as go-between for students and faculty members who need to complete numerous steps of paperwork and requirements for various processes. Some students never have to be asked twice to do something, while others will require numerous reminders, according to Perry.
A faculty member noted her sensitivity to the diverse challenges that students face.
“I feel like the students’ direction is my responsibility because they’re going to grad school for the first time, and I’ve been watching grad school for a while,” Perry said. “One of my most important responsibilities is gauging between students to see what they need.
“They’re very individual, and it’s treating them that they’re very individual. And so you have to actually learn a little bit about them to do that.”
Patience and a sunny disposition serve her well, she said. Physics faculty listed many more crucial attributes integral to shepherding the large program of approximately 55 Ph.D. students each year, which has totaled 474 graduates during Perry’s career, according to Jeffrey Nelson, professor and chair of physics.
“Paula takes personal responsibility for and pride in our graduate program, and much of its success is due to her,” Nelson wrote in support of her nomination. “The department, faculty, staff and students alike, rely on her experience and grace in times of real and perceived crisis. She not only enables the business of the department, she makes the department a place where we all want to work, and to thrive.”
As a member of the physics faculty for 29 years, Chancellor Professor of Physics David Armstrong has seen the impact Perry has on day-to-day workings.
“I have always relied on Paula, and trusted her judgement and expertise implicitly,” Armstrong wrote in support of her nomination. “As a faculty member, I knew that I could send my graduate students to Paula whenever they had an issue or concern, and she would have the correct answer. I knew that she would remind them (and me!) of important deadlines, double-check that we had followed the correct procedures, and watch out to ensure that they would never miss a paycheck.”
Michael Kordosky, professor of physics and director of graduate studies, noted Perry’s “amazing patience when dealing with me and my colleagues” in his supporting letter for her nomination. She also serves as the department’s “friendly enforcer” keeping 30 faculty members, 53 graduate students and 105 undergraduate majors “on their toes with humor and grace,” according to Kordosky.
Perry most enjoys seeing the students, current ones as well as alumni, returning to visit and often bringing their own children.
“You see them changing,” Perry said. “Most of them, you see them come in and they’re growing. And someday they’re going to discover something that I don’t understand because I’m not a physicist.
“They’re going to discover something, and they’re going to be somebody brilliant. And I’m going to say, ‘Yeah, I knew them when they couldn’t get their registration done on time.’”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist