Behind the Scenes: Lois Lovern, Administrative Assistant, Office of the President

August 21, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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One day in 1968, Lois Lovern stood watching as Vietnam War protesters marched in a circle, barricading Cabell Hall. She had critical papers that had to get to a fourth-floor office, so the secretary gamely joined the marchers before stealing inside. "Could you imagine someone from the Cavalier Daily happening along and snapping a picture of me?" she laughs now.

A decade before, Lovern had become administrative assistant to Physics Department chair Jesse Beams. The University at that time was "all male, all white, coats and ties, and nearly everyone born in the U.S.A.," she recalls. Fifty years later, Lovern is an administrative assistant to U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and the look of the place has changed, but not the spirit: "Our students are still very smart," she says. "And they certainly turn out well."

Arriving at 8:30 a.m. in her Madison Hall office, Lovern concentrates on travel arrangements for Casteen, currently globe-trotting for the capital campaign. "I love constructing the schedule. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle," she says. "I’ll wonder about each city he’ll visit: ‘What would I like to do there?’ It’s fun for this armchair traveler to learn about these places."

Helping Casteen with his correspondence also requires strongly identifying with her boss, of whose prose voice, her office mates say, she has become an expert mimic. Having served three University presidents, she’s developed other indispensable qualities. "You have to be mindful of what’s confidential," Lovern says. "Also, sometimes you have to bite your tongue. You have to be aware of your constituency." Being persnickety is a plus. "At a staff retreat, we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and I scored off the scale for thriving on detail," she remembers. "I was upset because no one else was off the scale about anything, but the trait does come in handy." It is Lovern, for instance, who every year polishes the mace and makes sure it’s in the hands of the marshal at Final Exercises.

Having been a friendly face in the Office of the President for 34 years, Lovern continues to take pleasure in her duties. One such mandate—unofficial, of course—is that she serve as a kind of institutional memory. "People call me up and say, ‘Do you remember so and so?’ I may not at first, but I always try my best."

Photo by Peggy Harrison