Behind the world-class scientific research that takes place at William & Mary lies a great administrative burden. Equipment must be purchased, grants must be allocated and researchers must be paid – all on an unforgiving schedule.
Lydia Whitaker has been essential to this herculean administrative effort for over 20 years now, having first served as office manager for the biology department before becoming the business manager for applied science, where she has ensured that research could continue without a fiscal hitch for 12 years and counting.
Yet her day job is but one facet of Whitaker’s wide-ranging contributions to William & Mary, which have included serving in countless community service and mentorship roles, being a tireless advocate for campus diversity, holding a Board of Visitors seat, and participating in a variety of staff organizations, frequently in leadership positions.
Although hers are frequently behind-the-scenes efforts, Whitaker’s work has not gone unnoticed. That’s why she will be receiving the 2016 Charles and Virginia Duke Award. Established in 1997, all non-student, non-instructional faculty employees of William & Mary are eligible for the Duke Award, which seeks to recognize “individual accomplishment and exemplary service” to William & Mary.
Award winners are recognized at the Commencement ceremony and receive $5,000. The award is not necessarily an annual one – if no one meets the criteria, then none is given.
No one doubted that Whitaker met – and exceeded – the criteria.
“Simply no person I know on this campus has had such a wide-ranging and positive impact on the collective life of the College,” Professor and Chair of Applied Science Christopher Del Negro wrote in a nomination letter. “Ms. Whitaker is far more than an excellent administrator for the College, but a mentor, friend, champion and leader who deserves recognition for her exceptional service and contribution to the William & Mary community and the community at large.”
‘Service is in my genes’
Born to a military family in Spokane, Washington, Whitaker lived in several military towns but mostly grew up in the Denbigh neighborhood of Newport News. Her family’s commitment to their community, wherever they were at the time, deeply influenced Whitaker.
“My parents were always involved in the community and helping,” Whitaker recounted. “My mom always collected food and clothing for those in need, and even my grandmother advocated to bring water and sewage utility service to the Richneck Road area, close to where Fort Eustis is now. So, it’s genetics – service is in my genes.”
When her husband, Early Whitaker, retired from Army service, Whitaker looked back to Virginia to start the next chapter of her life.
“I decided to come back home. With no job, nothing, just on a prayer, I came here in July 1995, and in August of 1995, Eric Bradley hired me as a temporary employee in the biology department.”
With that, Whitaker was off to the races. Bradley permanently hired Whitaker as biology’s full-time office manager a few months later, and Whitaker began her decades-long career of service at William & Mary.
She immediately became involved with the Black Faculty and Staff Forum – now an all-inclusive organization called “The Forum” – serving as its co-chair in 1997 and president in 2000. Whitaker organized and served as emcee for the annual Black History Trivia Contest, and has served as a mentor for the Center for Student Diversity.
Whitaker served as president of the Staff Assembly from 2012 to 2013, during which time she sat on the Board of Visitors and advocated for staff and hourly William & Mary employees. And, just this past year, she served on the President’s Task Force on Race and Race Relations.
Indefatigable, Whitaker also actively gives back to the greater Williamsburg community in a variety of roles. She has organized collection efforts for the March of Dimes for nearly 20 years and routinely volunteers to feed the homeless around Williamsburg and Hampton Roads.
A commitment to others
Of all her contributions to campus, perhaps the most significant is her commitment to fellow members of the William & Mary community as individuals.
“Lydia … has served as a guide and genuine mentor to many of the College staff. What is less well known is her personal interaction with our students that goes beyond the formal office setting,” Bradley said in a nomination letter. “Well before the College had established the current programs to support our underrepresented minority students, Lydia was there – hard at work. I recall many students (and staff from all departments) dropping in to ‘visit’ Lydia for what was actually advice and counsel.”
From almost her first day at William & Mary, Whitaker has had a special way with coworkers and students.
“I must have ‘confidential’ written across my forehead because I will have students and other people come in and say, ‘Can we talk for a minute? This won’t go anywhere else, will it?’” Whitaker said. “People seem to find me.”
And she stays in touch with those she has affected.
“Eric now is a pediatrician with his own practice, one of the twins is now a college professor in upstate New York, and there are quite a few business owners,” Whitaker recounted. “These are all past African-American biology students who would just stop by and talk. They have all done very well.”
These relationships, by no means part of her job description, exemplify Whitaker’s substantial footprint at William & Mary.
“You don’t have to genius or a billionaire to serve. One hour a month is all it takes,” Whitaker said. “I think we are on this Earth to help one another.”