Once, years before she became an indispensable member of the chancellor’s office, Patti Wilkinson worked as an administrative assistant in Carolina’s development office. A donor stopped by to discuss the idea of giving money to honor his wife. The major gifts officer was out of town, so Wilkinson sat the man down and asked about his wife and her passions. “I thought I was just doing a lead-in, you know, to get some information, but he said, ‘You sold me. I’m going to do this,’” Wilkinson recalled. “It sounds really small now, but he made a $15,000 gift to the School of Nursing. I was floored. The director of development was just as blown away as I was. He said, ‘You have talents we didn’t know you had.’”
By now, Wilkinson’s talents are well known to many people in the Carolina community. In more than 35 years at the University, Wilkinson has left her mark on the department of family medicine, School of Government (formerly the Institute of Government) and on two successful campaigns with University development. But it was in the chancellor’s office, starting in 2012 during Chancellor Holden Thorp’s term, where Wilkinson came into her own.
Her current title — business officer and assistant to the chief of staff for the office of the chancellor — reveals little about the scope of her work or the power of her presence. “The Massey award seeks to recognize employees who are ‘unusual, meritorious or superior,’” wrote Wilkinson’s former boss Erin Culbreth, now the associate vice chancellor for strategic initiatives at Washington University in St. Louis. “I would argue that Patti is all of these things.”
“It is impossible to measure what the University would miss if Patti wasn’t on our team,” her current colleagues wrote in their joint nomination letter. “Patti is the beating heart of our office.”
For these reasons and more, Patti Wilkinson is one of six Carolina employees to win the 2020 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards.
Wilkinson grew up in nearby Carrboro, North Carolina. Her father, Charlie Davis, worked for UNC-Chapel Hill in facilities for 30 years and served as a volunteer firefighter and reserve Carrboro police officer. He was known and loved across campus. “He walked into the president’s house on Raleigh Road when Bill Friday was there, and Ida Friday knew him well enough to say, ‘Won’t you come in and have a cup of coffee before you start work?’” Wilkinson said. “He is an easy person to like, because he is concerned about what is going on with you and not just his job.”
Wilkinson’s mother, Cynthia, raised the family’s four children. “My mother is meticulous with a checkbook and very organized at home,” Wilkinson said. “My grandparents wanted her to go to college to become a librarian, but that never happened.”
Charlie and Cynthia, who still live in Wilkinson’s childhood home, also hoped their oldest daughter would attend college after graduating from Chapel Hill High School in 1976, but Patti married her high school sweetheart, Frank Wilkinson, and the couple started a family. Wilkinson joined the workforce in 1975 and in 1982 found her way to Carolina, transcribing reports from a dictation recorder using an IBM Selectric typewriter in a division that became the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.
Grace under pressure
Wilkinson eventually landed a job in the School of Government, where she was asked to organize a conference in Hickory, North Carolina. “I was totally outside my comfort zone,” Wilkinson recalled. “I was a girl who never left town, much less traveled by myself and stayed in a hotel room. But I knew it had to be done. This was my job.” She pulled it off, of course, making sure before she left the office that she had organized every detail — and there were a lot of details, she said.
“To this day, I write everything down,” Wilkinson said. “Otherwise, something might fall through the cracks, and maybe the thing that falls through impacts somebody’s life.”
Wilkinson’s nominators praised her grace under pressure. “When the complicated and detailed or seemingly impossible request comes into our office, it is Patti who will say, ‘never heard of anything like this before, but I will figure something out.’”
Wilkinson said her mantra is: “Give me a problem, and I panic for five minutes. Then I take the problem apart and come up with a list of the thousands of things that have to get done to reach the goal.”
That scenario has played out time and time again. Once she was asked to plan a Board of Trustees meeting — her first ever — at the Carolina Inn, a meeting swarming with media who came to hear former North Carolina governor Jim Martin present a controversial report on the University. How did she handle it? “You make your list. You check things off. You maintain calm,” she said. “It came off fine. Nobody saw me sweat.”
The team developing ConnectCarolina was so impressed by her communication skills that they asked her to learn the ConnectCarolina finance system and then train trainers across campus. “I don’t like public speaking,” she said, “so once again, I’m thrown outside my comfort zone.”
No surprise: She nailed it.
Impacting this place and its people
Wilkinson’s proudest moments? Working in development with the naming committee to build relationships with donors, including Fred Eshelman, whose name adorns the School of Pharmacy. Serving on an all-women staff under Carol Folt, the University’s first female chancellor. And having the vision and sense of agency to expand her already demanding job to take on new finance and HR responsibilities to make the chancellor’s office run more efficiently.
A less tangible but perhaps more lasting impact is Wilkinson’s influence on people. After more than three decades of postings across campus, Wilkinson still remembers the name of every person she worked with and the crux of why their work mattered.
It’s simple: Wilkinson cares deeply about people. Her officemates call her the “den mother.” She keeps an open-door policy. “I tell people in my department and outside, ‘If you’re stressed out, you can come in my office and scream if you want,’” she said. “‘Just come in and vent. I’m not going to judge. If you ask me for my advice, I will give it. But if you don’t want it, I will just listen.’”
Whether she’s interacting with the chancellor, a student or a member of the housekeeping staff, “her personal mission is to create better outcomes and help everyone be the best they can be,” her nominators wrote.
Wilkinson remembers hearing that people from facilities didn’t like coming to South Building. “They thought it was stuffy and that people there didn’t care about them,” she said. “But because of my relationship with my father and what he did for campus, I looked at these people differently. A lot of them are people who grew up around here, just like me.
“The care I give to people on campus is part of my love for Carolina. I want us to keep the best people — the hard workers who are dedicated, like I am, to making Carolina shine, because ultimately that’s our goal.”
Wilkinson says her father always told her he wanted her to be more than he was. “Dad said I was college material. It broke his heart that I never got my degree,” she said. “All I’ve ever wanted is their approval. So, when Dad and Mom found out I won this award, they actually cried.” Wilkinson cried along with them.
“I never went to Carolina,” she said. “But I’m just as dedicated to this place, if not more so, than someone who did.”
Read more about the 2020 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize Carolina employees for unusual, meritorious or superior contributions.