Lovern, Birckhead and Bailes: 'U.Va. Gets in Your Blood'

April 14, 2008 — With a combined 130 years of service to the University of Virginia, Lois Lovern, Jeanne Bailes and Lynda Birckhead have seen more than their share of history.

Lovern, administrative assistant to President John T. Casteen III, will celebrate her 50th year at U.Va. on June 8. Bailes, first and only clerk of the Board of Visitors, has been at the University since Jan. 29, 1968. Like Bailes, Birckhead, director of finance and administration, has also been at U.Va. since 1968 and has served in the Office of the President since 1976.

Larry Sabato, University Professor and director of the Center for Politics, has known the trio since the 1970s, when he was a student here. "There's not a president or rector or board member who won't admit that these ladies have saved us from plenty of embarrassing situations," Sabato said. "They know where all the bodies are buried -- but all three are the soul of discretion.”

Their careers have put them at the center of University decision-making, and they have had ringside seats to five decades of dramatic change.

"These three extraordinary women exemplify the finest qualities that we value in our employees," said President John T. Casteen III. "Each has served the University for decades with great competency, compassion and common sense. The University is a better and stronger place because of their long service here and their abiding dedication."

Earlier this year, the three sat down to talk together about all they have done and seen. The following excerpts are from that conversation:

From carbon paper to Blackberries

LYNDA BIRCKHEAD: I took the typing test on a manual typewriter in 1968, so you can imagine what changes have occurred since those days. I was actually one of the first support staff persons at the University in the late '80s to use an computer in the office. It was called an Intertec Super Brain and had dual, 5-inch floppy disks drives. George Pipkin, who I think is still here, was my “personal trainer” for the computer.

JEANNE BAILES: Way back when I first came in January 1968, we used mimeograph machines. How many nice blouses I ruined at that machine! You didn't really use a Xerox machine that often.

LOIS LOVERN: I said something the other day to one of our younger staff members about carbon paper, and the person said, “What's that?”

BIRCKHEAD: At first I resisted the Blackberry, because I was concerned about having a capability for reaching me 24/7. But actually it's helpful in that you can stay ahead of the urgent things and prioritize your work better.

Most memorable moments 

LOVERN:  When I was 19 or 20, I met my first major donor, John Lee Pratt, over in physics. I didn't realize then that his legacy would still be paying dividends to the University to this day. The chairman of the department, Jesse Beams*, said, “I want you to show him his new portrait in our library.” For a kid, that was quite an honor.

BIRCKHEAD: When I came to the president's office, I was 26 years old and was sort of star-struck. I recall Gerald Ford stopping in front of Pavilion VIII, then the president's office, prior to its move to Madison Hall. He shook my and Norma Lane's** hands. He was very friendly.

On another occasion, I also had the honor of assisting Thurgood Marshall with his robe & hood when he came to speak at Graduation. I knocked his pipe out of his mouth, and the ashes burned his shirt. He was quite a tall fellow. And Lady Bird Johnson visited our building once.

BAILES: We've had so many guests here: Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner, Gorbachev, Reagan, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Nobel laureates, Queen Elizabeth, among others. One day, some of us ladies learned that Jerry Lewis was over in the Colonnade Club.

We went running over there. You know what he said? “Where were you all when I needed you last night?” That was not something that we thought we should've heard with our little ears.

The Vietnam War era was an interesting time here, too. It spilled over into '70, when Mr. Shannon made his speech on the Lawn and there was much protesting. [Students] were going to Carr's Hill and keeping the Shannons awake all night with their protests. They let the air out of some of the board members' tires. That's when I think I saw the biggest change at the University. I was so appalled one morning; I came up on the Lawn, and the Lawn then was a sacred place. You didn't walk or play on [it]. Here were all these tents and people lying all around. It was all a part of the protest. Some of them scantily clad, and it was all very shocking and very disturbing.

* Jesse Beams, a U.Va. physics professor and department chairman, was one of five scientists appointed by the National Research Council to study uranium fission before the United States entered World War II.
** Norma Lane was a longtime administrative assistant in the President's Office, who died in 1997.

What's your favorite place on Grounds?

LOVERN: I loved being in Pavilion VIII when it was the President's Office. You felt a part of the Academical Village. I always watched the coming of spring by walking through the gardens at lunchtime.

BIRCKHEAD: I love the Pavilion VIII garden. I used to sit and read and eat my lunch there when I worked on the Lawn. I hated leaving the Lawn and moving to Madison Hall.

BAILES: I, too, loved Pavilion VIII and the Rotunda. I can remember back when Dean Runk* had his office in the basement of Pavilion VIII. He used to bring us baked goods that his sister made and vegetables from his garden.

BIRCKHEAD:  Mr. Runk taught Nantucket basket-weaving for the vice presidents' wives, but he wouldn't let me join that group because he said that Apple Owen and I would talk more than we would weave.

BAILES:  She would have talked too much.

BIRCKHEAD: Jeanne, I could tell another story about Pavilion VIII and Miss Robin.

BAILES: Oh my word, Lynda. I need to tell this story. Robin is my daughter. On occasion, when she didn't have school, I would bring her with me to work. She was little then, and she would want to be helpful. The board office was upstairs, and the president's office was downstairs. I would send her downstairs with mail. This one time she went down to the president's office, and Lynda and Norma Lane were in the front office. I told Robin to be on her best behavior and come straight back upstairs. When she got down there, Lynda, who knew she did gymnastics, encouraged her to show what she'd been learning. So Robin started doing somersaults at the front of the office and flipped all the way across the room and ended up head down, feet up, against Mr. Hereford's door. [He] opened the door and Robin fell in. Mr. Hereford got a big kick out of this, but I was very upset.

BIRCKHEAD: After that incident, Jeanne wouldn't let Robin come to play with me anymore when she visited the office.

We had many memorable moments, among them Ronald Reagan's visit and the Education Summit when all the governors attended. We had Clinton when we didn't know who Clinton was, remember? The audience was standing and clapping for him and Al Gore when they were announced, chanting that they were "the ones to watch."

LOVERN: We've had lots of stars around. Actually I knew Edgar Allan Poe — just kidding, of course!

* B.F.D. Runk was appointed dean of the University of Virginia in the 1950s and served for many years.

Who were your mentors?

LOVERN: I have had several. The first one would be Mr. Beams, the faculty member for whom the physics building is named. He approved hiring a kid not quite out of high school. The things I learned from him about dealing with people have been invaluable. Another mentor was longtime secretary in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Elizabeth Purvis, who I believe first took dictation from U.Va.'s first president, Edwin Alderman.

BIRCKHEAD: One person I think of right off is Norma Lane. She was the epitome of a lady. I also give Leonard Sandridge* and Ray Hunt** the credit for molding me into the person I am in my job. Under their guidance and leadership I learned much about the University's financial system and good principles, policy, integrity and honesty. Working for Vincent Shea, the original VP for finance, when he served on the Alumni Board of Trustees Foundation was a great experience and honor, also. I just can't say enough about the opportunities that they have given me.

BAILES: My mentor was Weldon Cooper.*** He taught me the right way to do things and how to interface with people. His guiding point to me was, “Go to the top for whatever you want and don't ever assume anything.”

I also learned a lot from Raymond Bice**** and Sandy Gilliam, special assistant to the president and current secretary of the Board of Visitors.

* Leonard Sandridge is the executive vice president and chief operating officer.
** Ray C. Hunt Jr., who held many positions at the University including vice president for business and finance and COO, died in 2006.
*** Weldon Cooper joined the University faculty in 1947. Naming the Center for Public Service in his honor in 1994 served to recognize his important work.
**** Raymond C. Bice Jr. is professor emeritus of psychology, former U.Va. historian and secretary of the Board of Visitors  from 1969 to 1990.

Influencing policy
BIRCKHEAD:    I think we’re going to have more flexibility at U.Va. through HR restructuring. I know I’m going to be asked to serve on several of the committees, and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to make a contribution in areas of better compensation and benefits for the University.

Bygone traditions and changes
BIRCKHEAD:     Coats and ties have gone. But graduation on the Lawn hasn’t changed.

BAILES: When I first came here, you could park anywhere you wanted. You didn’t pay a cent, and it was just first-come, first served. It was the early ‘70s when the paid parking started.

What keeps them engaged

BIRCKHEAD: I do something interesting every day. I take a lot of pride in feeling like we've been here at the University when great things have been accomplished and history has been made, and we have had the privilege to be a part of it.

BAILES: U.Va. gets in your blood. The folks I work with, I consider a part of my extended family. I enjoy my work and the sense of accomplishment – it is a major part of my life.

LOVERN: People — I'm interested in working with all types of people in all types of places.

Adapting to changes in leadership

LOVERN:  Hang loose and don't compare, which is not always easy to do or not to do, but just sort of observe everything and see how [the University’s leaders] want it done.

BIRCKHEAD: You have to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and realize that there's a change coming, some good, maybe some bad, but be ready for the change. My feeling about it — and Lois will relate to this — is: you have to roll up your sleeves and become part of the team. Be smart and listen, and go with the flow. And, if you have something worthwhile to say, say it. 

BAILES: You have to be ready to adapt to change, and if you can't, then you're the wrong person for the job. You have to be ready for whatever style the new leadership wants to use, and I have had no problem over the years working with any of them.

Any plans to retire?

BAILES: When you talk about retirement, you have to really work on it psychologically. For me, this has been such a big part of my life for 40 years, I can hardly imagine how it's going to be not having work as a part of my life.

LOVERN: No specific date as yet, but the current administration will be my last.

BIRCKHEAD:  The day that I feel like I'm in the way here, and not contributing, then I would like to retire.

BAILES: Do you know what one of the board members told me? She said you could write a book about all of us, and we'd pay you not to publish it. 

BIRCKHEAD: I tease a lot about writing a book. Of course, I'm going to publish it after I'm 75. I think I may have some folks worried.

— By Staff Reporter