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.
Teresa Golson starts her work every day at the front gates of the North Carolina Botanical Garden by wiping down the pin pad that staff use to enter. The gates aren’t part of the buildings she’s responsible for cleaning as a housekeeper, and no one asked her to sanitize them, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year she searched for ways to keep the staff safe and, by extension, keep the garden open to the public.
Garden staff say that’s just one way that Golson goes above and beyond anyone’s expectations. She knows every staff member’s name, offers to walk with them to their cars at night and helps carry boxes and set up tables for events. After 22 years of housekeeping at Carolina, Golson hasn’t wavered in her dedication to her work, and no one was surprised when she was honored for “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions.”
A long time coming
In 1985 Golson moved from her hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Chapel Hill for a new start and to work at a restaurant on Franklin Street. When she arrived, she had no connection to Carolina and no plans to join the University, but in 1996 she applied for a position as a housekeeper. She began on the spot-cleaning crew, learning about campus by working in a different building or space every day. After housekeeping stints at the UNC School of Government, Graham Memorial Hall, Ram Village Apartments and the Friday Center for Continuing Education, in 2017 Golson became part of the two-person crew that cleans the North Carolina Botanical Garden daily from 4 p.m. to midnight. Despite the late hours, Golson says this position has been her favorite so far.
“I’m not a botanist, but I’m learning more every day about flowers,” says Golson. “Every night while I clean, I’m surrounded by wildflowers, birds, sculptures and salamanders. I see more beauty and nature in one day than some people see in a month.”
At home, Golson applies what she learns at the garden to landscaping her own backyard. The only thing she hasn’t discovered yet is how to keep deer from treating her new hobby as their own personal snack bar. She also volunteered for a year on the committee for the Carolina Community Garden, a program that grows and distributes free vegetables and fruit so all University employees can have access to fresh produce year-round. Spending her free time for the benefit of others is typical of Golson, whose co-workers sing her praises whenever she’s mentioned.
“Every encounter with Ms. Golson is a delight. She knows your name, asks questions and is very much part of the staff here at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. We all value her goodwill and excellent work,” wrote Donor Relations and Membership Coordinator Allison Essen in her Massey Award nomination letter. “She always goes above and beyond what is expected and is always happy to fulfill any out-of-the-ordinary request.”
“I hope I get to work with Teresa for another 10 years,” says Andrew Woo, the other half of the garden cleaning team.
Unexpected but deserved
Golson knew colleagues who won Massey Awards in the past, but says she never thought she would be considered for one.
“I’m so happy and grateful, but I was in shock when I heard that I won,” says Golson. “I’m just part of a team that does a necessary job.”
That necessary job involves deep-cleaning every surface of the garden, one of the few free, public spaces that stayed open throughout the pandemic. Wiping down every handrail, bench and gate ensured that during an isolating time visitors could briefly escape their homes to get a breath of fresh air and stroll among the flora and fauna. While the pandemic could be a frightening time for cleaning crews, Golson was comforted by much of her work taking place outdoors.
Golson says that she and Woo have always cleaned the garden to “pandemic standards,” but their work took on a new significance in the past year and a half. The sense of accomplishment she achieves after a night of work is compounded by knowing she serves the greater good by keeping others healthy and safe during an uncertain time.
“My great love is helping other people, whether it’s part of my job or something that just makes their day easier,” says Golson. “Helping others never hurt anybody.”
The next time you visit the garden, you might spot Golson in the buildings or among the plants cleaning and learning more about nature. She says she’s always happy to chat or help a first-time visitor find their way around the garden and recommends seeing the art exhibitions and courtyard. Mostly, she says she hopes others get to appreciate the scenery she sees on a daily basis.
“How many people get to say this is the view from their work?” asks Golson, gazing out across the garden exhibits.