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4200 FIFTH AVENUE




W E KNEW WE WERE IN the presence of greatness when Nancy Norman arrived on the fourth floor of Craig Hall, having drawn University Relations as her new custodial beat. On the first day, she took care of the usual--emptied the trash, cleaned the bathrooms, ran the sweeper. But on the second day, we got off the elevator to find big squares of heavy brown kraft paper dotting the hallway like islands in the South Pacific. The papers were there to protect the spots where Nancy had scrubbed innocuous splotches of spilled coffee and the like from the variegated gray carpet--spots you had to be looking for to see. We sniffed the lemony ammonia scent that lingered in the air, slowly understanding: Nancy intended to put us up there right next to godliness.

It's not that Nancy loves to clean. Ask her on Monday or Friday how she is and her answer is pat, glum that she faces a whole week of work or happy that the weekend is nigh. If Nancy hit on the lottery tonight, she'd quit--but not until she worked out her notice. She has a job to do. When she's here, she works hard. When she's not here, we miss her busyness, her no-nonsense edge.

I've been thinking about people like Nancy ever since Ken McCandless died. Ken worked with the database from which we draw our mailing list for this magazine. Over the years, we've been in a couple of meetings together.

One day, about a year and a half ago, I was sitting in the scuplture court behind Carnegie Museum eating my lunch. It's a quiet place, far removed in tenor from the flurry of Oakland. Water spills calmly over the waterfall wall of a fountain. Sparrows and wrens hop around looking for crumbs. Ash trees cast a green, cool shadow. Ken wandered into the courtyard, carrying a sandwich from Subway. He came over when he saw me asked if he could join me. Our conversation that day was casual and pleasant. I don't remember much of its specifics, except for two things--that his wife, who wasn't feeling well that week, always packed his lunch, and that he had worked his whole career at Pitt. Still, I learned a lot about him that day. Our conversation confirmed what I already knew--that here was a good man, even-keeled and responsible, one of the rare individuals able to be right where he was, not looking forward or back. It was a quality I wish I had.

I remembered that lunch everytime I ran into Ken on the elevator. He always greeted me with an extra warmth. I didn't know he was sick until I heard he was on permanent leave. The message came that he was failing. And then he was gone.

It's left me to think about what it takes to run a university, that just as important as those responsible for its leadership are those who shoulder the work, who people the institution, whether they carry out the trash, answer the phones, or teach the courses. I'm glad I knew Ken. I'm glad I know Nancy. They are the ones who offer us all the challenge--to be good at what we do. They live the reminder of what it takes, and means, to do a good job. I saw Nancy this morning. She was on the elevator, riding from the basement to five and back down again and again as she polished the car's brass trim until it shone like a star. Honest.


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