Within the first few weeks of arriving at Miami University as an undergraduate 20 years ago, I went searching for a job. I needed a work-study position to help pay for room and board. There was a job fair for such positions at the student union, and after perusing some of the options, I was drawn to a kind older lady seated behind a simple table. Her name was Melva Brown. She was the secretary for the Student Activities Office and they needed someone to serve as receptionist and do various clerical tasks. I figured it was a good option, since I liked clubs and organizations. Plus, she was really sweet and I kind of felt like someone I should get to know. I was hired pretty quickly and learned later it was because she liked that I was a clean-cut guy.
Not long after, Melva became more than just my supervisor. She fashioned herself as my second mom – my Miami mom – someone who would look after me, and she fit the part. While I was in the office, she would ask about my life and keep tabs on both the academic and social side. If I was late to work because of some exploits the previous night, she would act disappointed just like a caregiver should. But, the ice would eventually thaw and I would go home that day still feeling loved and supported. She got it. She had high expectations, but she knew I was just figuring it out.
Melva would invite me to her house, and sometimes I would watch it while she and her husband Jim traveled. And Jim – Jim was tremendous too. A prince of a guy and so easy to get to know. I would even dress as Santa for Melva’s family Christmas gathering – which was a sacred honor because Melva was Santa’s biggest fan. Christmas was her thing. She and Jim even placed a Santa mailbox in their front lawn each December, and kids would drop their wishes inside (and even receive a reply).
Melva was as important to me as anyone during those four years, and then even in the years that followed.
And she passed away suddenly a few days ago.
As I reflected on my time with her, I realized that her decision to hire me on that day in 1994 could have been the single biggest moment in my career path, because it started my career path. I went to Miami to be a TV broadcaster, but emerged wanting to be a higher education professional. Working in that Student Activities Office introduced me to professional heroes like Steve Ransom, Gary Manka, and Bobbe Burke. The office was also shared with the Greek Life staff and there I met Brian Breittholz, Amy Vojta, Tim Maugherman, and eventually others like Sue Kraft-Fussell, Lupita Temiquel, and Heather Hammer-Shuchter. Can you imagine what a fun and dynamic office this was? And it was anchored by Melva and her counterpart on the Greek side, Carolyn. I wanted to be like all those people, and I don’t know if I would have ever been moved to chart a new career path if not for the opportunity to sit at that front desk in the office.
Melva was my rock. College is a wild and crazy time, and all of us need adults to bring us back to what matters. Melva was that for me.
On any given college or university, you have a wide range of employees. You have the “academics,” the professors, provosts, and deans. And then you have the student affairs staff, whose ranks are populated by those with advanced degrees and those striving for them. But all throughout the institution, there are support staff: secretaries, administrative assistants, groundskeepers, food service workers, bookstore employees, and more.
It’s common to think that you will go to college and forge your mentoring relationships with those who stand at the front of the classroom, or who have the corner office, or who have a Dr. at the start of their name. I wager to guess that we all can think of someone who didn’t fit these particular characteristics, but who meant as much or more to us. And that’s because they had an even more important quality than any other: they cared. This was Melva.
Do you have a Melva from your college days? Someone who reminded you in the midst of your 20-page reports and 5000-page textbooks that it’s still the simple things that count? Someone who would take you when you were at your best or at your worst and love you either way? Someone who was always there, no matter the turbulence you were experiencing? Someone who connected you to the community? Someone who was such a real person in an environment that can often seem so unreal?
My parents don’t know many of the professors or student affairs administrators who helped to mold me, but they knew Melva. And since my graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards with her and Jim. They became friends, and I know were relieved to know someone was watching over me during that time.
If you have a Melva from your college days, call that person right now. Tell them how much they mean to you. I wish I could have done that one more time.
My condolences to Jim and to the entire Brown family. And my condolences to Miami and Oxford, for they each lost one of their best. Melva, you will be missed, but your spirit lives on in so many – including this clean-cut guy you took a chance on long ago.