Making a difficult job look easy

Whether you're coming to campus for a Thursday night football game, student move-in week or a hospital visit, Deborah Hawkins makes sure you have a place to park — a difficult job that Hawkins handles with care and ease.

Hawkins poses with storage and traffic cones
Deborah Hawkins with the stored cones and barricades used for Commencement and special events. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

For the past 29 years, Deborah Hawkins has faced a daily challenge: how to make sure the thousands of people who drive to campus — to work, study, visit hospitals and clinics, attend games and concerts — have a place to park.

That deep and abiding devotion to duty is why nearly 75 of her colleagues joined together to nominate Hawkins, the manager of parking control and event operations, for a 2019 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“From a recognition standpoint, it just doesn’t get any better than this,” Hawkins said of the award. “It’s so humbling, and it represents everything that my family upbringing stands for.”

Her nominators praised Hawkins for her leadership, operational excellence, responsiveness and logistical savvy. She stays calm and focused when confronted with challenges as different as presidential visits, Thursday night football games and move-in week in August when thousands of students check in for a new academic year.

Across campus, Hawkins has built a reputation as a consummate professional who makes an extremely difficult job look easy, said Kay Ray, a retired employee from the Office of Human Resources who worked with Hawkins for special events.

But another quality she possesses sets Hawkins apart.

“The most important thing that Deborah does is CARE,” Ray wrote in her nomination letter. When Ray’s husband had a car accident on his way to work at Carolina in June 2013, Hawkins “was there for us, offering her support and friendship,” she said.

If the shoe fits…

Hawkins says her department of 17 employees has a one-word mantra to remind themselves of the commitment they share.

“It’s called ‘shoes,’ and it is as simple as it sounds,” Hawkins said. “Everybody matters. Always remember to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and to treat them the way you would want to be treated.”

Understanding how to do the job is important, Hawkins said, but more important is remembering the people you are doing it for. When she thinks about parking decks on Manning Drive, she thinks of the patients and family members who park in those spaces before they enter the hospital.

“The parking to me — and this is how we talk about it in parking control — is an extension of patient care,” Hawkins said.

That same principle of preserving each parking spot for the intended user applies to every lot on campus and to every ticket written. “It all goes back to managing limited campus resources and trying to share them as best we can for everybody,” Hawkins said. “And that is a constant challenge.”

Tar Heel born and bred

Hawkins became a Tar Heel as a girl watching Carolina basketball on TV with her family back home in Roanoke Rapids, long before she arrived in Chapel Hill as a student in 1984. One look at the Carolina sports paraphernalia that fills her office in the Public Safety Building on Manning Drive reveals how intensely that childhood passion still burns.

When she graduated from high school in the top 10 of her class, she applied to Carolina and only Carolina because Chapel Hill was the only place she wanted to be, she said.

At the time, money was tight in her family. When her father had died from a rare blood disorder a few years before, her mother went to college to become a registered nurse and support the family. To help make ends meet, Hawkins took a part-time job writing parking tickets for the University her sophomore year. Back then, the department had only one permanent enforcement officer while employing more than 20 part-time students.

But Hawkins stood out. During her junior and senior years, she was called upon to dispatch calls, supervise fellow students and work as a parking attendant for special events. She had just started working as the temporary visitor services coordinator in fall of 1989 when department director John DeVitto told her about his plan to professionalize the department with permanent staff.

He was going to need a strong leader to be the supervisor, too, he said, adding, “You should apply.”

Unwittingly, she said, she had been auditioning for a job she didn’t know she wanted, and one she had no intention of keeping for long after she completed her bachelor’s degree in communications.

“I told them when I took the position I would be here five years and here we are 29 years later,” Hawkins said.

Read the rest on the University Gazette.