This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles in the coming weeks or find others you might have missed.
Years ago, prior to the pandemic and during a rare North Carolina winter snowstorm, Kathy James got a call one Sunday night from a frightened nurse visiting from Malawi. Having never left her home country before, the nurse missed the driver who was scheduled to pick her up at the Raleigh-Durham Airport and, instead, got into a taxi that mistakenly dropped her off at a homeless shelter.
The only telephone number she had led her to James.
“The poor nurse panicked and was in tears. Kathy drove nearly an hour one way to pick up the nurse, console her and get her settled at the Carolina Inn. That is what Kathy James is all about,” Irving Hoffman, a research professor in the division who has worked with James since she started, wrote in a Massey Award nomination letter.
Kathy James likes helping people, whether it’s a visiting nurse from Malawi, world-class faculty in the UNC School of Medicine’s Infectious Diseases Division, where she has worked for 26 years, or children in her town of Liberty, North Carolina, through a holiday toy drive she runs.
“I like being able to help other people accomplish whatever is needed,” James said.
Known to friends and colleagues as KJ, James is an administrative support supervisor who manages three assistants, supports 10 faculty members with administrative duties and scheduling, ensures bills are appropriately routed to accounting for payment and manages telecommunications in her division. She supports some of the world’s leading researchers, including Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, a key player in helping understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and finding a treatment.
Prior to the pandemic, her days began when she was up at 4:30 a.m. and at her desk around 6:45 a.m., allowing for an hourlong commute “through the country” from her home in Randolph County.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, James took on additional responsibilities to ensure the division’s key activities were not disrupted and took charge of the transition to remote work, ensuring administrative support remained available and that conferences were transitioned to virtual meetings. She coordinated efforts to procure and distribute personal protective equipment to the division. And she helped the division’s infectious diseases clinic quickly relocate to an off-campus site.
“The infectious diseases division could not have maintained our current level of functioning in clinical care or research without KJ’s contributions,” wrote Michelle Floris-Moore, a clinical associate professor, in a nomination letter.
“She has kept our division together all during these difficult months — going above and beyond her duties and making herself available to help faculty and staff. Her dedication has enabled us to devote ourselves to the enormous patient care and research demands of the pandemic,” wrote Dr. Ada Adimora, Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Medicine.
James is known for her dedication to her department, which includes globe-trotting experts. “Many of the ID groups owe their international success to her tireless dedication to arranging travel, negotiating travel visas and ensuring that we all make it to the conferences and meetings that get our faces in the news. The truth is, KJ got us there,” wrote Dr. David Van Duin in a nomination.
“Kathy always is available in emergencies and always comes through, thinking first of our faculty and the visitors before herself,” Hoffman added.
James describes her co-workers as being like family. “Everyone gets along well with each other. We have a great department. We’re friends outside of work and we do things together.”
Having worked in the same department for more than a quarter century, she’s seen her coworkers’ children grow up, alongside her own. James’ daughter, Heather James, known as Little KJ, got her start at Carolina working in a lab when she was 16 years old. After college, she came back to the University and now works in the ophthalmology department in the School of Medicine, in the same building as her mother, who is now a grandmother of two.
From Pennsylvania to North Carolina
James moved to North Carolina from Pittsburgh in 1985, joining a brother who was already here. “I came for vacation and the weather was so much better. I had a job within a week and stayed here,” she said.
Working for a construction company, she realized the business was cyclical and that a job in the medical field would be more stable for her young family. She worked full time at her children’s daycare center while also attending classes at Alamance Community College. And she made a change at home, getting out of a marriage with an abusive husband.
After completing a degree in medical office terminology in June 1995, James set her sights on a job at the University. At several interviews, she was told she didn’t have enough experience because she had just graduated. One interviewer asked why he should give her a chance. Recalling her response, she said, “Somebody has to give me the chance. I’ll never get the experience if nobody gives me a chance.”
That same day in November 1995, she had a job offer for a temporary role in the Division of Infectious Diseases that became permanent on Feb. 1, 1996. “Naturally I said, ‘yes,’ and I’ve been here ever since.”
Going the extra mile
While James is known for always helping her colleagues and serving on the Employee Forum and the UNC System Staff Assembly, the longtime Randolph County resident gives back to her community.
For the past three years, she worked with the Randolph County school system and the Salvation Army to organize an Angel Tree to collect holiday gifts for 70 children in Liberty. She also helped arrange a free hot dog dinner and a visit from Santa before Christmas.
“When my kids were in elementary school, I wasn’t getting child support. A social worker shared my name with the Salvation Army,” she said. “The school told me they had gifts for my kids. I know what it’s like.”
When her daughter was growing up, James coached her softball team and volunteered to help coach her son’s baseball team.
These days, she and her husband, Mike, enjoy traveling with their camper, riding motorcycles and organizing Miles for Mutts benefit rides for the Alamance County Animal Shelter or the Biscuit Foundation.
James was thrilled to learn she won a Massey Award. “When I read the letter from the chancellor, it was very exciting. I was jumping up and down,” she said.
“I love working where I work. I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she said.