Nancy Burton removes the sourness from life’s lemons and turns them into something sweet.
In her 18 years at Carolina, the winner of the 2019 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award takes whatever complications come her way and makes not only “lemonade, but lemon pie and lemon ice cream,” said Darius Dixon, executive director of Facilities Operations.
Prior to coming to Carolina, Burton was a single mother who worked at a screen-door production factory before being laid off and out of work for three years. In 2001, she took a job as a third-shift housekeeper at the University and worked her way up to receptionist and administrative support specialist for Housekeeping Services.
“I’ve tried to be the first person you see in housekeeping, to be that polite person with a smile who will try to help you and you know is here to assist,” she said. “And I just love what I do. I get to meet different people and learn about people.”
Burton is the memory bank for Housekeeping Services, sorting and filing every bit of information for 450 employees, including payroll and changes in Time Information Management work logs.
“She is our accountant; I don’t think there is a Chartfield string she doesn’t know,’” said Herb Richmond, director of Housekeeping Services. “She reminds us of every birthday, illness or death in a family, so we can offer our support.”
The turning point
Burton began as a housekeeper in Davis Library, the graduate library, where she worked from midnight to 8 a.m., cleaning the fourth floor. Then she moved to the newly renovated House Library, the undergraduate library sometimes known as “the Zoo” cleaning the upper level floor.
Some days the work was so dirty that she wanted to quit. “It was nasty sometimes, and I said, ‘I just can’t do this,’” she recalled.
But, with encouragement from her supervisors Sean Caldwell and Ed Henderson and others, Burton kept going. She also gained strength by praying and talking with “my God because he’s my everything,” she said. “Look at me now. Years later, and I’m still here.”
The turning point, according to Burton, is when she enrolled in a Basic Clerical Skills course offered through Carolina’s Human Resources.
“I first noticed the clerical classes when I started working at Davis Library. I was always looking for something else and asking Mr. Henderson ‘Do you know how I can move up?’ He told me and another young lady to do basic clerical skills, and I
When an internship to work in the Housekeeping Services office opened up, Henderson encouraged her to apply.
“At first, I was scared because I didn’t know how to talk in an office,” Burton said. Her natural people skills and sharp mind soon erased that fear. She learned more each day and has since taken more than a dozen courses, including Chartfields 101, the PeopleSoft structure for budgeting.
“I try to take stuff that’s going to help me first in my education and second to further myself up the ladder to lead to a job that I love to do,” Burton said.
She’s also become a supreme lemon transformer.
“Nancy has great people skills, and last-minute requests are her specialty,” said Dixon. “I have seen her resolve conflicts and handle other difficult situations with remarkable patience and admirable tact. She does it all and still keeps a smile.”
They ‘need’ to speak with her
Burton’s happy way with people makes work better for co-workers, while permeating her approach to customers, who won’t settle for anyone else’s attention.
Dixon said that he’s answered the phones for Burton at times and that people sound disappointed to hear his voice instead of hers. “Some will just call back because they ‘need’ to speak with her. When they do call back, I would listen and be surprised at how much Nancy knew about each person,” he said.
Perhaps that interest in people comes from Burton’s upbringing in Semora, an unincorporated dot on the map near Hyco Lake in Person County. Her father worked in a textile mill and her mother cooked in schools and restaurants and cleaned houses. Burton had three brothers, two of whom died at an early age.
She graduated from Person County High School in 1989, and the next year gave birth to a son, Trae. She worked several jobs, including at Wendy’s restaurant and the Person County Courthouse. “The courthouse kind of prepared me for office work,” Burton said. “I’ve always wanted to work in an office, answering phones, greeting and helping people.”
Burton says that she inherited a wonderful family. “With my son and two stepkids, I have nine grandkids and one on the way.”
Family and co-workers have provided support along Burton’s journey, and she’s quick to credit people such as former Housekeeping Superintendent Hardy White, who interviewed her, and Henderson and Caldwell, who helped her learn how to clean efficiently. “I didn’t know how to wax floors with buffers,” Burton remembers. “Oh, it would shake me to death until they told me how to grip it right and I learned the secret.”
The small and big lessons added up as she learned about the housekeeping force as an organization, the University and what campus customers wanted.
“When I left high school and went into the real world, I started dealing with customers and how different people want certain things this way and others want it that way,” she said.
Burton said that the good days far outweigh the bad days and that she’s thankful for encouragement of former supervisors Clarence Harris and Bill Burston and co-workers such as retired housekeeper Mary Craven, who received a Massey Award in 2013.
When people ask Burton what she does for a living, her answer shows the pride she takes in her work. She responds, ‘I’m a housekeeper because housekeeping gave me my start here.”
The late C. Knox Massey of Durham created the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award in 1980 to recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. In 1984, he joined the families of his son, Knox Massey Jr., and daughter, Kay Massey Weatherspoon, to create the Massey-Weatherspoon fund. Income from the fund supports the Massey Awards and Carolina Seminars. Each year, the chancellor chooses six University employees to receive the prestigious award, which comes with a $10,000 stipend.
Story by Scott Jared, University Gazette.
Photo by Jon Gardiner, University Communications.