After working at N.C.State University for 41 years, Dr. Tom Stafford, 69, will retire July 1.
Before working at N.C. State, Stafford got his master’s degree there in counseling and guidance with a focus in college students in 1966. After getting his doctorate at Florida State, Stafford came to work in the office of student affairs and has been at State ever since. Stafford recently spoke with staff writer Kelli Straka about his decades at the university. Reponses have been edited for length.
Q: What made you keep your job as vice chancellor of student affairs for almost 30 years?
Well, it was just the perfect job for me. And I think it took advantage of all the skills and abilities I have and it’s a job that has tremendous variability to it.If I had to do the same thing everyday, I probably wouldn’t last but a week or two.
And it involved a lot of different university events, and I enjoyed going to these events. I think I have been to every home football game for the last 30 years and have been there to help the guests we invite to the game. And then there are all other types of social events, intellectual events, student events, athletic events, so I enjoyed all of these things.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because I enjoy everything that’s a part of my job. I guess if I had to pick one thing, I would say working with the students. Students are energetic. They represent a tremendous amount of ability and competency. And when you’re around young people, you have all those attributes and it helps to make you feel young yourself.
Q: What has been the hardest challenge of your job?
Having to work with the families of students who have just passed away. People don’t realize, but on a campus like N.C. State, we have about 34,000 students. We have anywhere between 10 and 15 every year who die. A part of my job is to contact the parents of a student who’s passed away just as soon as I can get in contact with them to express our condolences.When I first started doing this, I just didn’t know what to say and I was very nervous and was afraid to make the contact. What I’ve learned over the years is that it doesn’t matter as much about what you say, as it does about the fact that you’ve made contact.
One of the things I had done when I do go, and I really didn’t intend to do it, but I was at a funeral, or it may have been a visitation, and I like to wear the block “S” lapel pin. I had on my block “S” lapel pin when I got there, and for some reason, I decided to remove my pin from my lapel and place it on the mother’s lapel. When I did that, I told the mother that I wanted her to have my pin and wear it in honor of her son. Well I just did it spur of the moment. I had no idea what would happen. But when I saw her emotional response to that and I saw the tears that came from that, I knew that was something I should do every time that I went to a funeral.
Q: What is your favorite moment while working at N.C. State?
One that I’ll never forget is a sports memory. David Thompson is the greatest basketball player who’s ever played in the history of N.C. State. When David Thompson was a junior, and the N.C. State basketball team had progressed to the Final Four, the basketball team would come into Reynolds Coliseum every afternoon to practice the week before the first game in the Final Four. The first game was against UCLA, and UCLA at that time had won seven national championships in a row.
On Friday afternoon, before the big game, when I got to Reynolds Coliseum, there were at least 6,000 people there to watch the final practice. The team began a warmup drill called the weave. The team had been doing this for a little while when David Thompson and two other guys came to the front of the line. They started coming down the court, weaving in and out, passing the ball and when David Thompson approached, the pass came to him, he caught the ball, took it and put it around behind his back, and brought it around, and brought it up, and took two steps and went straight up in the air.
When he went straight up, was right in the middle of the mid-court circle. He was going up for a jump shot. You could have heard a pin drop in Reynold Coliseum. The whole group of 6,000 people were in stunned silence. When he gets to the top, he flicks his wrist. The ball went up and he came down. And the ball missed the backboard and it missed the rim. The only thing it hit was the bottom of the net. When that happened, I thought the roof of Reynolds Coliseum was going to come off the building. Coach Sloan threw up his hands and said, “Practice is over.” The next day, they beat UCLA. I love basketball. That’s probably my favorite N.C. State story.
Q: What’s it like to have been in school almost your entire life?
For me, it’s been an absolute delight because I like the school environment. I enjoy having a job at a place where thousands of young people come, and they stay, and they learn and they grow. One of the great satisfactions of this work is to meet freshmen when they first get here and then have an opportunity to work with them over four or five years, and then to see how they have grown, developed and changed when they graduate. That’s what education is all about.
Q: What do you plan to do after retirement?
I have a house right on the ocean at Topsail Beach. It’s a wonderful place. I’ve got a nice boat down there. So I’m going to spend a lot more time on the coast. And I’ve got a lot of work to do around my house. I hope to have more time to spend with my four grandchildren. After six months, which is required by the law, I hope to do some part-time things to come back to N.C. State. Maybe do bell tower tours.